April 26, 1999
‘Must-Carry’ must be dropped
Consumer choices limited by regulations, monopolies
It cannot be stated too often that we do not enjoy a free marketplace in the United States. In fact, the market is fraught with government intervention at every level. Nothing, it seems, can long escape a politician or bureaucrat eager to shape the world in their image of "fairness."
Few other aspects of the market are as visible as television, and it is among the most regulated of industries. Of the many almost-insane rules and regulations which exist for the industry, one is perhaps the most ridiculous of all.
Called "must-carry," the rule requires cable companies to carry on their wires all the channels broadcast in the area that they operate. What this means is cable subscribers are forced to pay for these channels, even if they do not want them.
Almost worst, though, is the way the regulation limits consumer choice. To understand how must-carry limits choice, one must first understand how cable television works. The company receives the broadcaster’s transmission, which it feeds into the cable. A television at the end of the line "tunes in" as it would an antenna. While technology is improving, there is a limited amount of space – or bandwidth – on the cable. For every channel transmitted down the wire, that is space another channel cannot use.
So while a consumer may not care in the least about the local "all-reruns" broadcast channel, and would prefer the "fish-tank" network, the cable provider might not have the space to pipe it in. Either way, the consumer finds himself paying for a channel he simply does not want, and the cable company must waste bandwidth to provide something customers cannot stand.
Of course, one must not rush to paint local cable companies as the victim. Cable companies have historically been granted franchises of monopoly privilege. When one gets in bed with government, one must expect the diseases it spreads.
Most recently the disease of government intervention has come in the role of price setter. The Library of Congress, strangely, has been delegated the power to determine prices at which program suppliers must make their product available to cable and satellite service providers.
So now not only will the government tell the service provider which programs to carry, but at what price to pay for the opportunity.
The biggest loser, of course, remains the consumer. All of these questions (which channels to carry, how much the channels and carried programs are worth) are best answered by free market, not some bureaucrat working in Washington.
Up until now must-carry rules have applied only to cable. Now, in a misguided effort to "level the playing field," rather than repeal the excessive regulation on cable service providers Congress will consider legislation to force "must-carry" regulation upon satellite providers. Of course, leave it to government to want more regulations, higher costs and less freedom for consumers
This is why I have introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act, which will repeals various rules and regulations which interfere with consumers ability to avail themselves of desired television programming.
To best serve consumers, and to more fully embrace the philosophy of the free market, Congress should act to remove the restrictive regulations placed on the services cable companies can provide, as well as the barriers that exist giving those companies monopolistic power. As technology expands, we must ensure outmoded notions like government intervention in the market goes the way of the black-and-white set and rabbit-ear antennas.