In more than 30 years (!) as a reporter, I’ve covered government and business and spent a fair bit of time thinking about which is more likely to move us closer to a sustainable, just and compassionate world. Of course, it will take both—the power of markets tempered by the hand of government. But over the years, and despite the catastrophic economic events of the past year, my faith in the ability of business to solve big problems has grown while my belief that government–yes, even a Barack Obama-led government–is going to get us where we want to go has waned. There are a lot of reasons for this, having to do with the role of incentives and accountability and bureaucracy, but we’ll leave those for another day.
I’m thinking about the effectiveness of government today for two reasons. First, I’m struck more and more by how forcefully and confidently the Obama administration is moving to reshape the automobile and energy industries, let alone the financial markets. (See an earlier post, Beware of Obama’s Battery Gold Rush, which is getting some nice traction around the net.) Second, I dug into my past as a media-industry reporter to write a column about cable TV regulation for Slate’s The Big Money that is running under the headline, An Inconvenient Mess: How Al Gore and Kevin Martin screwed up cable regulation.
Now, cable regulation is an arcane topic, and so the column is a little dense. Before you read it, let me pose a question: Why on earth is the government regulating cable TV? I will grant you that the cable companies need local government permission to tear up the streets to lay their wires, and that the original franchising process for cable may have done some good by requiring cable operators to set aside channels for municipal and educational purposes. (Although, honestly, when was the last time you watched a local school board meeting or community college lecture on cable?) But today, you can get hundreds of channels of TV from lots of places —your cable operator, satellite companies, telcos and to an ever-growing extent, over the Internet. Or, if you prefer, you can choose the ever-popular “none of the above.” Cable is, after all, not a necessity. It competes not only with all those other TV providers but with the movies, newspapers, magazines, books, live entertainment, your local tavern, running, sleeping and the like.
And yet the FCC not only retains the power, in some locales, to regulate cable rates, it also has a say over what channels your cable operator must carry, and whether they may discriminate against channels they don’t own, which is why lawyers for a number of programmers (including The National Football League, which is not exactly an underdog in need of government protection) have taken their omplaints about distribution to the FCC. The legal arguments quickly get into questions about the value and pricing of content—exactly the kinds of questions that markets are good at settling.
You can certainly argue that there was a time when cable operators behaved like obnoxious monopolists and deserved to be regulated. They may still be obnoxious (although some people I like actually work for cable companies) but they are clearly no longer monopolists. Yet the government won’t let go.
Here’s how the column begins:
In the early days of cable, long before anyone dreamed of a 24-hour food channel, Real World Season 22, or Glenn Beck, a startup network showing nothing but music videos struggled to get carried by cable systems—that is, the companies that own the wires leading into people’s homes. Frustrated, the owners of this new channel created a now-classic advertising campaign urging teenagers to call their cable operators and declare: I Want My MTV!
Ever since—this was the early 1980s—the media companies that own networks (Viacom (VIA), Disney (DIS), CBS (CBS)) have fought with the companies that own cable systems (Comcast (CMCSA), Time Warner (TWC), Cox Communications) over distribution. Even today, when the average cable system offers about 120 channels—and many carry 500 or more—programmers complain that they can’t get their fare onto the cable menu.
Now, though, instead of seeking to arouse the masses with “I Want My MTV”-style campaigns, disgruntled programmers hire lawyers to take their complaints to Washington—most recently, to a windowless conference room at the Federal Communications Commission, where dozens of high-priced attorneys have been arguing about which channels should be carried by what cable systems and at what prices.
You can read the rest here.