Do you want more people to see you work? Would you like your video program to reach your viewers as easily as a fax? There are wires going into every home in America that can carry your video. Do you want to send your video over these wires? In an AT&T ad they’d say, “you will,” but I say, “you might.”
Two men that are working hard to prevent this easy video on-ramp to the information superhighway are Newt Gingrich and John Malone. While you surely know Newt by now, you may not have heard of John Malone. Mr. Malone’s cable giant, TCI, controls about a quarter of the cable companies in the U.S.
In a recent cable TV program on National Empowerment Television (a show that Newt is fortunate enough to call “his program”), Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Malone discussed “market-oriented telecommunication reforms.” My interpretation of this is best summed up by the famous quote, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”
This statement was written long ago when designing and printing was expensive. Only those with access to vast resources had access to the press. In the latter half of this century, however, a few things changed to allow just about anyone to take advantage of their first amendment right to a free press. The advent of offset printing technology made printing much more affordable. Photocopy machines brought even short-run printing within reach.
More recently, desktop publishing technology has allowed millions of people to design, set and print their own published works. Advances in page layout software, word processing programs and laser printers have revolutionized the publishing industry on all levels.
All these breakthroughs apply to the creation phase of publishing. Cheap and efficient delivery of paper has never been an obstacle to our first-amendment rights; it’s been around since the birth of the United States. The Post Office is open to anyone who can afford a stamp. They are in the delivery business; they have no conflict of interest in the temptation to deliver their own “published materials.” So while our freedom of the press has been in place for over 200 years, and easy access to the postal service has been around just as long, only recently have breakthroughs in the creation stage of print media allowed millions to take advantage of their rights to free expression on a mass scale.
Similar breakthroughs have taken place in the creative phase of TV production. Sadly, the freedom of access we enjoy through the U.S. Post Office doesn’t apply to video signals. The Post Office only delivers paper and packages to the mailboxes on every house. The people who control the cables that go into your home are in a position to infringe upon our rights to a free electronic press.
Mr. Malone should be nothing more than a glorified Postmaster, but in reality he’s a master gatekeeper who controls much of what gets on TV. And it appears that he’s got Newt in his pocket.
These guys are really out of touch. On Newt’s TV show, he told Mr. Malone, “Had we had an FCC, FDA or an FTC in Silicon Valley, we’d be about 150,000 or 200,000 jobs short and we’d be back with mainframe computers.” Here’s my response to Newt:
You’re too far away from California to know what really happened in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t the absence of Federal Government that created the computer revolution. It was the ability for innovators and entrepreneurs to access an open and free market. The Post Office, Fed Ex and UPS allowed entrepreneurs to develop products in their garage shop and sell them to willing buyers. They were able to open up a store front and sell product. Steve Wozniak and Steven Jobs started Apple computer because they had access to customers, not because of the lack of some mythical government agency.
Today, the same spirit is alive and well in basement video studios, but people like Mr. Malone control the shipping of TV signals. He controls the digital equivalent of the streets that entrepreneurs need to open up a storefront. If the federal government doesn’t require people like Mr. Malone to provide market access to innovative videomakers, we will have no free electronic press and we won’t have a democracy. With 87% of Americans feeling that TV contributes to the decline of American values, isn’t it time that the rest of us got the chance to take part in the TV industry?
Mr. Malone is hanging his wires on utility poles along public rights of way granted to him by local governments. We all should have fair and equitable access to these rights of way, not just those rich and powerful enough to string the cable on the poles.
Telephone wires allow banks to provide information, stock brokers to conduct transactions, 900 numbers to sell services and Compuserve to sell subscriptions. If the phone companies were like the cable companies, they’d have their own banks, stock brokers and online services, and it would be pretty tough for others to compete with them.
Power companies enable us to use appliances made by G.E., Amana, IBM and Hoover. Imagine if your local power company sold appliances and told you which ones you could use in your house. The concept is ludicrous.
Then why is cable the only utility allowed to hang wires on poles and then dictate what the wires can carry and who can use them?
I believe in market-oriented laws just like you do, Newt. But I think we should help innovators gain access to the market if we want to see another revolution like Silicon Valley.
Information and ideas are not products that should sink or swim in a market skewed in Mr. Malone’s favor. Ideas are our future. They are sacred influences that lead us to our destiny, as both Thomas Jefferson and Adolf Hitler knew well.