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Use It, Don't Abuse It

There is a classic short story, "The Monkey's Paw," about a man who wishes for money. His wish is granted when he receives an unexpected windfall. Unfortunately, it is compensation for the death of his only son in a horrible accident. The moral, of course: Be careful what you wish for.

Some broadcasters may have put themselves in a similar position, having wished for the return of the 35% audience-reach cap, only to find that it comes at a much higher price—major reregulation—than they had bargained for. Broadcasters may have misplayed their hand, but there was a wild card in the deck: a general backlash against deregulation from a loud and Internet-mobilized opposition. Without that, the scenario might well have played out as a traditional inside-the-Beltway horse trade. As it is, there is much finger-pointing and backpedaling. The former is pointless; the latter may be too little too late.

The crowd has since moved on to straw presidential polls and the '04 race, but it will likely turn its attentions back to the media-ownership issue during the July hearings that accompany the pending rereg bills. And there are other interested observers. With its merger with SAG gone a cropper, AFTRA said last week that its immediate attention will return to working to stem the tide of deregulation. Whatever shape the opposition takes, the dynamic between the media and its public seems to have changed.

One thing that apparently hasn't changed is some broadcasters' willingness to go along to get along. When Cox's Andy Fisher was asked whether his company would trade some editorial independence—i.e., acquiesce to more public-interest obligations, in exchange for a 35% cap—what should have been an unequivocal no was a noncommittal "I can't predict Cox's position on speculative legislative provisions." It's an ambivalence about regulation that too many broadcasters share.

Well, we can predict the position of anti-dereg forces when broadcasters come asking for digital must-carry. Having shown themselves willing to trade away freedom for strategic advantage, broadcasters can expect all manner of content and structural regulations as the quid pro quo for digital carriage. Our fear is that they will be willing to make that bargain as well.

If anti-dereg forces have their way, their cobbled-together creation would, among other things, exhume the 35% cap and the ban on newspaper/broadcast crossownership, boost indecency fines and the threat of license revocations, break up some radio clusters, establish programming quotas, and create additional public-interest and reporting requirements.

In "The Monkey's Paw," the old man is persuaded by his wife to wish his dead son alive again, only to find that he is now a mangled, undead creature. Local broadcasters have helped create their own monster. Some by sacrificing too much in their power struggle with the networks, others by trading on the freedoms they have already gained as though high rollers with a new stack of chips rather than stewards of an industry with a problematic regulatory status. It is a monster their lobbyists may no longer be able to control.