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Speak out: Let Analog Sell-Off Benefit Public

 

The Rocky Mountain News editorial of Dec. 26, "Unnecessary gift to free TV watchers," correctly critiques the recent federal budget provision of a $1.5 billion set-top converter-box subsidy for analog TV set owners at the time of the final conversion to digital broadcasting in 2009. And the News ends with an important observation, "Surely Congress could have found a better use for the money." It certainly could have - Congress should place the funds in a public media trust fund.

The current plans for auctioning off the analog spectrum provide for no lasting public service legacy.

The airwaves are public property, yet they are being increasingly privatized and, in the process, the proceeds are being largely wasted.

Since the beginning of broadcasting 80 years ago Congress has permitted private, commercial interests to exploit the spectrum for extraordinary profit and little public return. The convertor box vouchers would continue that pattern by providing a subsidy for the consumer electronics industry, commercial broadcasting and cable television.

The rest of the proceeds will disappear into the great maw of the federal deficit.

How much better if they were set aside as an investment in trust for public service.

Most of the media and telecommunications interests have been contemplating only how to profit from the high-definition, "pretty pictures" aspects of digital telecasting.

Little commercial media and manufacturing industry thought has gone into the question of improved, socially useful content.

Only public broadcasting has been planning for the extensive noncommercial, educational and public service development of digital telecasting. Yet it remains seriously underfunded for that challenge.

It's long since time to substantially increase the federal contribution to public radio and television, more along the lines of the commitments in all other advanced democracies; and also through a means that is separate from the politically vulnerable annual appropriations process.

The auction of this public spectrum resource provides a once-in-a-century opportunity for establishing a significant and enduring public dividend. Let's not squander it.

Willard D. "Wick" Rowland Jr. is the president and CEO of Colorado Public Television, KBDI-Channel 12, and is the dean and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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