Make the TV Networks Like Any Other Company


Kevin Drum argued yesterday that the broadcast TV networks should be freed from their anachronistic quasi-obligation to be at the president’s beck and call when he wants to hold a prime time press conference.

I agree, but there’s an important caveat here. The traditional basis for the formal and informal requirement that the networks serve the public interest by carrying this sort of programming has to do with the fact this is the price you pay for your broadcast license. In the modern day, the rights to portions of the electromagnetic spectrum currently being monopolized by television broadcasters are enormously valuable. If that spectrum was put up for bid, then TV stations would need to compete with cell phone companies, wireless internet providers, etc. And the prices they’d wind up paying might prove to be quite high.

In the era of cable and satellite TV and the internet, both sides of the public service broadcasting for free spectrum exchange are obsolete. It would make sense to cancel both of them. But of course the last thing in the world TV executives want to do is give up their free spectrum rights. So they really have no standing to be whining about being burdened with the occasional press conference. The best thing to do, however, would be to ditch the traditions conceived of during the pre-cable era and also end the spectrum giveaways.