Airwaves? What Airwaves?

Just ahead of Oscar night, word comes that Disney is pulling the ABC channel from Cablevision – affecting about 3 million subscribers in the New York-New Jersey area. ABC is, of course, scheduled to broadcast the Academy Awards tonight.

I’m in no way affected by this, be it living in New York, a Cablevision subscriber, or a religious Oscar aficionado, but this is still pretty outrageous. If you subscribe to cable, you’re now denied access to a theoretically public access channel. ABC may no longer broadcast in analog, but it still does in digital – across frequencies in the public spectrum, which have been leased from the public (and which existing analog broadcasters were able to obtain licenses for without an auction).

Of course, the former obligations that stations using public airwaves were held – such as the “fairness doctrine” – have been allowed to lapse. No one is required to do much of anything anymore, save not broadcasting ‘filth’ and ‘obscenities’. But worse is that millions of people are denied access to a station in the public spectrum over a billion-dollar dispute. I know, I know, theoretically everyone could go out and buy an over-the-air broadcast converter, but how many of those do you think are in stock in the New York metro area?

Nobody at all wins here.

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