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Robert Reno Newsday More Like A High-Definition Con Game

When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it presupposed that Americans were simply dying to throw out all their old analog TV sets so they could shell out three or four thousand dollars for the new-generation, high-definition TV receivers.

HDTV, of course, will allow us to imagine Dan Rather or Geraldo Rivera is actually in our living rooms. We’ll be able to see the makeup dripping off their faces, to imagine that their CD-quality, Surround Sound voices are actually speaking to us.

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more off-putting than a bunch of toothy TV pests stomping into my house and plopping themselves down on my couch to deliver some hyped version of what’s going on in the world. And as for more vivid and realistic hemorrhoid commercials, or more clearly defined shots of the valiant Barbara Walters winning the good fight against old age, I find the present analog system, especially when it is of cable or satellite quality, to be perfectly adequate. Besides, confused old ladies might walk into a room, see what they thought was the snarling face of Bob Novak in the flesh, and faint.

Anyway, Congress was so enthused with the idea of HDTV - or was it more enchanted with all the fertile money the broadcasters spread around like cow manure? - that it gave away $70 billion worth of broadcast spectrum to the existing broadcasters. The broadcasters insisted they had to have extra channels so they could keep on serving analog households while HDTV was phased in.

But - surprise, surprise - now that they’ve got their paws on the extra channels, the broadcasters suddenly seem less besotted with the idea of HDTV. Some of the networks are talking about digitally cramming several channels of regular TV into their new spectrum and suggest there may never be channels devoted solely to HDTV.

And buried under all the other special-interest rubbish quietly slipped into the new balanced-budget act is a clause that allows broadcasters to keep their extra channels beyond 2006, when they had been scheduled to return them to the government after all the analog sets had presumably worn. Next thing, the broadcasters will tell us is HDTV was an April Fool’s joke, that it’ll be bad for our eyes or cause skin cancer. Or, as some broadcasters are already hinting, that the difference between HDTV and regular digital TV is so slight that it’s not worth the bother of conversion. Meanwhile, the broadcasters have $70 billion worth of public property acquired - without bidding - on terms more scandalous than those offered to mining, timber and grazing interests that exploit public lands in the West.

Oh, well, since the Radio Act of 1927, by which Congress took title to the entire broadcast spectrum and then gave most of it away for commercial exploitation, it’s not as if the broadcasters haven’t always enjoyed a lot of influence with government. There’s no reason to be shocked at this latest rip-off, except, of course, that they bit off such a visible chunk of loot all at once.


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