Broadcast Buffoonery

George Will writes about the latest in congressional idiocy:

Feeling, evidently, flush with (other people’s) cash, the Senate has concocted a novel way to spend $3 billion: Create a new entitlement. The Senate has passed — and so has the House, with differences — an entitlement to digital television.

If this filigree on the welfare state becomes law, everyone who owns old analog television sets — everyone from your Aunt Emma in her wee apartment to the millionaire in the neighborhood McMansion who has such sets in the maid’s room and the guest house — will get subsidies to pay for making those sets capable of receiving digital signals.

So far so good. I agree with everything he’s written thus far. Then comes the doozie:

If you think America is suffering an entitlement glut, you may have just hurled the newspaper across the room. Pick it up and read on, because this story illustrates the timeless truth that no matter how deeply you distrust the government’s judgment, you are too trusting.

Ok, one moment while I print this out and go throw it against the wall…

Ok, I’m back.

Seriously though, doesn’t this say more about George Will than it does about the entitlements? Actually, it says a lot about how out of touch absolutely everyone in Washington is these days, even people you’d think would be in touch.

Will continues:

Here, as explained by James L. Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, is the crisis du jour: The nation is making a slow transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.

Why is this a crisis? Because, although programming currently is broadcast in both modes, by April 2009 broadcasters must end analog transmissions and the government will have auctioned the analog frequencies for various telecommunications purposes. For the vast majority of Americans, April 2009 will mean … absolutely nothing. Nationwide, 85 percent of all television households (and 63 percent of households below the poverty line) already have cable or satellite service.

Ok, back to reality again. Will comes close to getting it right here. He’s correct that a subsidy isn’t needed for a service that most people purchase themselves anyway. He also seems to recognize that the technology is moving away from broadcast over the air and towards subscription services, making this whole broadcast subsidy even more stupid. But it’s actually much worse than that.

Let’s think about television for a minute. What types of shows need to be streamed, and which do not, or could be downloaded instead? It’s not an idle question. The popularity of Tivo and the new iTunes video download service prove that people prefer to be able to watch what they want, when they want it. I know people who have literally cancelled their television service and used a Netflix subscription as a substitute. In fact, if you really think about the problem, the only shows that need to be streamed, viewed in real time, are news/sports/weather. That’s it. Everything else would be better downloaded, as that’s all that time-shifting devices like Tivo really do, after all.

So that leaves the obvious question, what purpose do networks really serve? Isn’t the whole model of scheduling shows over a streaming medium really antiquated? Shouldn’t congress’ role be to stand out of the way of the evolution?

Well, this brings me to Will’s conclusion:

Americans are currently in a Founding Fathers literary festival. They are making best-sellers out of many biographies of the statesmen who formulated America’s philosophy of individualism and self-reliance, and who embodied that philosophy — or thought they did — in a constitutional architecture of limited government. Yet Americans have such an entitlement mentality, they seem to think that every pleasure — e.g., digital television — should be a collective right, meaning a federally funded entitlement. Clearly, Americans’ civic religion of reverence for the Founders is, like most religions, more avowed than constraining.


How on earth does he conclude that it’s the American people who want this subsidy? If 85% of all households already subscribe to a service that brings (or could bring) digital service by means of the cable box, then who exactly is congress pandering to? The National Association of Broadcasters, that’s who. It’s the same group who lobbied for all the extra bandwidth for dual broadcasting. And they got it, for free, at a time when data and phone companies were struggling for bandwidth and paying extraordinarily high prices for it. Yet Will seems oblivious. He is probably unaware of the DMCA and the Sonny Bono act too, and the margins they passed by. Those acts did not pander to the American people either.

George Will, unwittingly, reveals the real problem in Washington. Namely, that too many of them spend all together too much time there, and simply don’t get out enough to observe what’s really going on either among the American people or in a particular domain (such as technology). In fact, it’s gotten so bad that even Washington insiders who usually get it right, often miss the boat, as is evidenced in George Will’s column.

Read George Will.


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