Regulating Technology The tomatoes of wrath
In Steinbeck’s poignant The Grapes of Wrath, we witness the Joad family’s tragic fall from noble, yeoman farmers to wretched itinerant workers after the sale of their family farm to pay back taxes and bank debt. Our hearts cry out for these unsophisticated victims of the Depression who do not fully comprehend how bankers, revenue agents and the forces of nature can combine so swiftly to bring misery and ruin. Through them, we appreciate the fragile nature of our own economic existence and the speed by which circumstances can rip away our security.
We also understand the tenuous economic status of those noble TV broadcasters, whose livelihoods are threatened by revenue agents seeking to sell their spectrum farms. The recent barrage of advertising, warning us of broadcasters’ collective plight, must move us to rally to their aid and pass the hat at our video barn raisin’ to save that cherished American Dream, free television.
Just a few years ago the broadcasters told us about a new crop that they were going to plant, High Definition Television (HDTV). If we would give them a couple of acres of radio spectrum, they’d do the plantin’ and the plowin’ and all the backbreaking work to make sure that our country was served the best television on the planet.
Congress and the FCC believed the broadcasters and gave them the acreage they needed: a 6MHz parcel spread across the radio spectrum with a high, wide fence to make sure nobody sneaked onto it to do a little sharecropping. That virgin land of opportunity was set aside in trust, and it was fertilized liberally with speeches from commissioners, Congressmen and the like. They patted themselves on their collective back for making the sacrifice necessary to bring the American public news, sports and entertainment (and of course, commercials) with improved clarity. It would never “snow” on this land.
Since that time, the American public has awaited the ten-foot-tall tomato (HDTV) that the land was to produce. Every few months, the television broadcasters tell us that they are just a little closer to the start of planting season–as soon as they can find someone who really wants a ten-foot-tall tomato (or more importantly, someone who would shell out over a thousand bucks for a new TV set to receive this dream vegetable).
Even when Congress caught auction fever, agreeing to sell every right-of-way, white space and spectrum block that could be found, the TV broadcasters were still given a free pass. The law that began auction authority in 1993 and the recent Telecommunications Act of 1996 both exempted broadcasters, giving them the same status as local governments.
Successive chairmen of the FCC, including Reed Hundt, applauded the extension of the broadcast exemption, claiming that auctions of television spectrum would threaten the basic tenets of free speech. The First Amendment was trotted out more times than a prize pig at the county fair, and Hundt held up the blue ribbon. Broadcasters were lauded as stout fellows, who unselfishly delivered their programming to the public for free, and accepted money only from those that deserved to pay–advertisers.
Lately, Congress has been eyeing that free acreage and noticing that the broadcasters haven’t brought in a crop yet. HDTV is still under the ground, waiting to sprout…someday. Legislators like Senator McCain of Arizona are getting a little antsy, saying, in effect, “We gave you a chunk of ground, and we expected you to produce.”
So, the TV broadcasters are crying foul. Just because every other telecommunications farmer has been forced to pay for radio spectrum, subjected to auctions, and had their taxes raised is certainly no reason to sell the ground that will someday bring the American public its first ten-foot-tall tomato. The broadcasters hurl invectives at any such suggestion, asking the American public to chastise those Congressional ingrates.
Hundt has waded in on the side of the broadcasters, saying that they ought to be able to raise regular ol’ peas or corn (or a little paging) on the land, until they can find a way to deliver their big love apple to market. Needless to say, the pea farmers and the corn producers (and established paging companies) aren’t too thrilled with the idea of broadcasters competing with them using free land that was set aside for totally different purposes.
The broadcasters made a few mistakes over the last few years that have caused them to get crosswise with their telecommunications neighbors. When PCS operators were told that they would have to pay for spectrum, the broadcasters didn’t fuss. When small operators of local two-way radio services were told to move over for large companies looking to consolidate radio spectrum for sale, the broadcasters were whooping it up at the National Association of Broadcasters convention-and-barn-dance. When paging companies were recently tapped as the newest victims of the FCC’s auction fever, the broadcasters sat on their porches, rocking and muttering, “We just take care of kin.”
Broadcasters’ clannish behavior sets them apart from their neighbors. Their attitude of superiority and cockiness has not prepared them for the shock of changing political times, where a senator might ask aloud the unthinkable question, “What’s so special about these guys?”
The revenue man is everywhere these days. He’s bustin’ up, bundlin’ up and sellin’ off every megahertz in sight. The appetite for new taxes, new revenues and new services is so voracious, one wonders if it will ever be satisfied. The Telecommunications Act has language that is meant to protect small companies, women- and minority-owned companies, and rural telephone companies from the auctioneer’s gavel, yet these entities have been the worst-impacted groups.
Moving like a twister across the landscape, the FCC has swept up small spreads in its path and redeposited the valuable spectrum topsoil on the land of the richest farmers and plantation owners. Small broadcasters could be next as they try to cling to the free soil that Congress gave them so few years ago. Small two-way operators and local paging companies already hit by the auction storm are unsympathetic to the petulant cries of broadcasters, “It’s okay to destroy those farms, but mine is somehow special.”
It is hard to imagine Rupert Murdoch sitting next to a campfire, with the flickering, ghostly light dancing across a weathered face marked by the creases of sun-baked labor, saying, “Wherever there’s an FCC auction guy tossin’ a little paging company off the air, I’ll be there. And whenever there’s a Congressman settin’ his sights on a chunk of a towing company’s spectrum, I’ll be there.”
The truth is, the broadcasters weren’t there. Now they are finding out what being neighborly is all about.