December 5, 2005

December 5, 2005 | Commentary on Regulation

Channeling Choice

"Trust the people." It's a simple concept, one that any self-respecting American politician will claim to honor. Unfortunately, our government often falls short of this simple credo. And that may explain the growing power of the FCC.

The Federal Communications Commission "is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable," as its Web site puts it.

There's no doubt some regulation is necessary. But as The Heritage Foundation has long urged, the Commission should strive to maintain a communications framework in which economic decisions -- and decisions on what to broadcast to the public -- are made by consumers and citizens, not the government.

So it's troubling to hear FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tell Congress he hopes to increase his agency's supervision of television content. Martin has identified a real problem: too much objectionable material on TV. But he's reached the wrong conclusion -- that government must regulate what's on TV.

It wouldn't work anyway, frankly, because the FCC does a poor job of regulating. For instance, last year many local ABC network stations decided to skip airing the film "Saving Private Ryan" because they were afraid the FCC might fine them. (The agency later ruled it wouldn't.)

A free society is best guided from the bottom up, not from the top down -- and certainly not by five unelected FCC commissioners. The fact is, some things -- such as what we watch and listen to -- are none of Washington's business.

Still, Martin's correct when he notes that "parents need better and more tools to help them navigate the entertainment waters, particularly on cable and satellite TV." But these tools won't come through government supervision. They'll come from free-market capitalism.

A good first step: Ease regulations that limit competition. For decades, cable companies enjoyed virtual monopolies over coverage areas. Direct broadcast satellite systems now provide one source of competition, but there could and should be much more.

Phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T, for instance, want to offer video programming to consumers, using Internet technologies. These "Internet-protocol TV," or IPTV systems, would give viewers even more user control over what comes into their homes.

Sadly, though, regulation is slowing this new competition. Local cable franchise rules, for instance, mean it could take years before these new competitors can operate nationwide. Here's where the federal government can help -- by getting regulators out of the way.

That's the approach behind the Broadband Consumer Choice Act of 2005, sponsored by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. It would stimulate competition by eliminating the requirement that local governments license cable providers. But the measure has been bottled up in committee for months.

More choice would certainly help consumers. Right now, parents are able to block channels they don't want. But if more providers delivered television through different systems, customers might eventually be able to purchase only the channels they want, instead of purchasing bundles of channels, as most must do now. So you wouldn't need to block a channel -- if you didn't want it, it wouldn't be there and you wouldn't be paying for it.

Some suggest the FCC should mandate that cable companies allow customers to buy only the individual channels they want. But this top-down approach likely would fail, as so many government regulatory schemes do, and might even lead to fewer choices at higher prices. It would be better to let the market deliver what the consumers want.

Build a better mousetrap, they say, and the public will buy it -- if the government stays out of the way. It's time for policymakers to step back, cut the red tape and give television viewers choices. The last thing they need from Washington is more static.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office