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'Free’ TV, But at What Price?

My cable bill hits $140 a month. That includes a $47 package of family cable channels, a digital services package, a digital set-top box, a digital recording service, Internet access, one phone line and $7.52 of taxes and fees. No payments for premium networks, such as Showtime or HBO.

And no payments to local television stations.

It gives me pause. I commiserate with Rocco Commisso at Mediacom Communications, Pat Esser at Cox Communications and other cable operators struggling to keep the price of their services down.

The average cable bill — TV, et al. — is around $80, according to the latest Federal Communications Commission report.

And it’s likely to ratchet up, now that broadcasters ranging from Les Moonves at CBS to the folks at Sinclair Broadcast Group are pushing hard for cash payments from multiple-system operators on a monthly, per-subscriber basis. Just as they pay for cable networks.

But I am the “new normal” in cable: the triple-play customer. And I have to ask myself: how would I feel about the bill if it went up another $5 or $6, to continue to get local television stations? I would probably blanch.

Then pay it. ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox are still the sources of the highest quality programming on the tuner, day in, day out, hour in, hour out. There are scores of networks you could drop without noticing. But not that group.

Today, 85% of Americans pay for their television programming. Getting 50 cents to a $1 for each of those channels passed on to me does not make my head snap back. It ends up at the price of a couple Starbucks coffees a month.

Of course, other consumers’ heads — and pocketbooks — might snap back. The unfortunate part is that cable companies will take the blame for raising rates, when it’s the broadcasters who forced the hike.

Which is why it’s time to blow up the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. You can’t say, 'you have to negotiate payments with the broadcasters,’ and not let a cable operator put their programming to the ultimate test: Will consumers pay, one by one, for your programming? Or for a local-TV-only tier?

Give customers the choice. Don’t force viewers to buy the broadcast channels, as part of basic service.

To provide that choice, cable operators have to have the right — like satellite competitors do — to place the stations in a local broadcast tier. Then, give the local stations payments based only on those viewers who directly choose to subscribe to them.

While we’re at it, let’s blow up the broadcast-affiliate network system. It’s archaic and inefficient. Why are we allowing the same amount of a scarce resource (spectrum) be used to serve 15% of the American population as we did 50 years ago for 100%? Or, more, if you count the spectrum being used in the transition to digital broadcasting?

Time to kill all broadcast towers. There’s ample capacity for the once broadly cast programmers to reach all U.S. households through satellite, cable and phone line. Put the spectrum — which J.H. Snider, research director at the New America Foundation, estimates to be worth $100 billion — to better use for the kinds of things over-the-air frequencies really should be be used for: Defense, emergencies and, in entertainment, filling iPods, cellphones and portable media players.

The broadcast affiliates will groan. But cable channels can be just as valid local programming producers and distributors. Make them your affiliates.

If broadcasters (or the FCC) won’t let consumers vote directly with their dollars, then don’t allow any payments to broadcasters at all.

If you want to deliver your programming free of charge to some portion of the population, then deliver it free of charge to all the population. Unless you make payments a clear choice for consumers.

It’s almost funny. Retransmission consent was part of a legislative effort to protect and encourage local programming on TV, when cable was the only real provider of multichannel video services in the United States.

For the benefit of retransmitting the signals of the Big Four networks, cable operators ended up taking on such channels as FX from Fox, ESPN2 from Disney-ABC or CNBC from NBC.

Fourteen years in, what did we get from the attempt by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to preserve local programming across the country?

More cable networks.

Which is probably a big reason why $5 now seems like only a drop in the bucket in a monthly cable bill.