February 8, 1999
A right to network TV?
Free market offers best option for viewers
Who has the "right" to view television programming? It may seem a trivial question, but it indeed strikes at a core issue for the free-market system.
For the last several weeks, congressional offices have been flooded with calls from rural satellite TV customers. These Americans are upset because their satellite service providers have informed them that, absent actions by Congress, they will lose access to certain network television stations and programming.
Some satellite service providers have written their customers to suggest that this is "unfair" and that they have "as much right as anyone" to see network television irrespective of where they live.
This, of course, begs the question as to whether or not one has a right to more than can be secured by voluntary exchange in the marketplace, or if the federal government should assume the role of deciding who gets what property in what amount and at whose expense.
Most recently, in an attempt to protect the property rights of network program creators and affiliate local stations, a federal court in Florida properly granted an injunction to prevent the satellite service industry from making certain programming available to its customers. This is programming for which the satellite service providers had not secured from the program creator-owners the right to rebroadcast.
The root cause of this problem, of course, is that we have a so-called marketplace fraught with interventionism at every level. Cable companies have historically been granted franchises of monopoly privilege at the local level. Government has previously intervened to invalidate "exclusive dealings" contracts between private parties, namely cable service providers and program creators, and have most recently assumed the role of price setter.
The Library of Congress, if you can imagine, has been delegated the power to determine prices at which program suppliers must make their programs available to cable and satellite programming service providers. Government's attempt to set the just price for satellite programming outside the market mechanism is inherently impossible. This has resulted in competition among service providers for government privilege rather than consumer-benefits inherent to the genuine free market. Currently, however, federal regulation does leave satellite programming service providers free to bypass the governmental royalty distribution scheme and negotiate directly with owners of programming for program rights.
It is within the constitutionally enumerated powers of Congress to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." However, operating a clearinghouse for the subsequent transfer of such property rights in the name of setting a just price or "instilling competition" via "central planning" seems not to be an economically prudent nor justifiable action under this enumerated power. This process is one best reserved to the competitive marketplace.
Helpfully, network programs will not be terminated prior to March 1, 1999, and waivers may be available from the local network affiliate for those who cannot receive a signal even when using an over-the-air antenna. Moreover, technology is now available by which viewers will be able to view network programs via satellite as presented by their nearest network affiliate. This market-generated technology will remove a major stumbling block to negotiations that should currently be taking place between network program owners and satellite service providers.
I will continue to consistently oppose all governmental barriers to the free functioning of markets -- markets, which if allowed to function, will maximize viewer choices at the most reasonable costs.