Government Responsible for Bad TV

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published June 25, 2012

Writing in The American Spectator, author and cultural critic Daniel Flynn explains that cable and satellite TV subscribership is decreasing because of the awfulness of the programming, particularly the individual channels’ repetitive programming choices and copycat tendencies:

A&E, Bravo, MTV, and so many other cable channels once possessed unique identities. Now they’re just facsimiles of one another. Copycatism, not creativity, rules pay television.

Flynn provides numerous examples of these baneful phenomena, and one cannot but agree. Much of cable/satellite TV is just awful, and the decreasing value of the programming must indeed contribute to a loss of subscribers.

Government to Blame

I would not, however, place the full responsibility on the cable and satellite providers. As with all bad things, government is ultimately to blame. If true competition had been allowed among cable and satellite providers from the beginning, a la carte services would have become the rule decades ago. Consumers would be able to get what they want, and only what they want, instead of being forced to pay for so much rubbish that they don’t want, or forgoing the service altogether.

The culprits in this crime against the public are the market-distorting policies for exclusive franchises, must-carry, network non-duplication, syndication exclusivity, and the like.

As a result of all this regulation, multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) have had only one reliable way to expand their subscribership: try to provide attractions for the widest variety of possible households. That resulted in exactly what we have today: more channels.

Deck Stacked Against MVPDs

But of course filling 300 channels with reliable product is impossible, especially with providers charging astonishing prices for the most popular programming, such as ESPN, TNT, and the broadcast TV networks. And with a few providers—specifically, local stations and broadcast networks, all of which enjoy free distribution spectrum courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer—hogging up more money than their product is worth thanks to government restrictions, the amount of money left over for alternative program producers is shrunk, and the quality of that programming must shrink accordingly. (I acknowledge that this assumes that a certain amount of money is required for programming quality, which I believe to be an entirely justifiable assumption about a commercial medium.)

If syndication exclusivity, network non-duplication, and other government restrictions were repealed, cable and satellite prices would drop to market-value levels instead of being forced up by government intrusion, the number of channels offered on any MVPD system would drop to the level most in accord with consumer desires, and programming quality would increase accordingly.

Obviously MVPDs are offering the programming mix that gets them the highest number of subscribers at the highest service-choice per subscriber. They are playing with the deck stacked against them, however, and as with all government regulation, it is the consumer that suffers.

S.T. Karnick ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s research director. This essay was excerpted and edited with permission from The American Culture: