It's a Winning Year for US Broadcasters Washington Hands Old-Line TV Networks Gains over Cable and Telecom Rivals - at the Viewing Public's Expense

Article excerpt

This has been a lush spring for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), perhaps the finest in its 74-year history. The NAB, the chief lobbying arm of US television and radio networks and most of the nation's broadcast stations, has accumulated a string of triumphs that preserves "old technology's" standing as the towering power of telemedia amid the putative gales of digital change. It is as though the White House, the Congress, and the courts conspired in favor of the sailing vessel and the biplane to put off for decades the ages of steam and jet propulsion.

Because of NAB victories, broadcast firms are poised to win the new-technology competition for mass audiences in the tele-industrial epoch against the behemoths of the telephone, cable, computer, and satellite communications industries. Network owners - Westinghouse, Disney, General Electric, Fox - are able to use their cash cows as a wedge into leadership of the age of new media. They are diversifying by acquiring cable and Internet properties, and moving aggressively into global television. In recent weeks:

* The Federal Communications Commission predictably voted to give each of the nation's 1,500 TV stations, most of them commercial, new channels for advanced digital television and other uses. Though the broadcast spectrum is, by statute, public property, the government exacted no quid pro quos from the for-profit operators. Stations can claim the new channels at once, simply by saying they want one. Network stations in major markets must agree to start broadcasting digital signals within two years. * The Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, affirmed the law holding that cable systems must carry the signals of local television stations. Amid a scramble for scarce channel space, the cable industry lost its argument that it had a First Amendment right to decide how to dole out its territory. The justices thus maintained a competitive edge for broadcasters, preserving the large audiences that cable delivers to traditional broadcasters. * The broadcasting industry celebrated the first anniversary of the Telecommunications "Reform" Act, which the NAB succeeded in expanding from a set of ground rules for competing telephone enterprises into a giant Christmas tree for the easy acquisition of radio and television stations. The act has touched off a race toward monopoly in broadcasting that is likened to the Oklahoma land rush. All this has lofted the NAB, already a powerhouse, to the top of Washington special interests. …