06/11/2009 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Broadcasters' Disgraceful Behavior Leading Up to This Week's Digital Conversion

Anybody who has any doubts about the outrageous, excessive power of the major broadcasters should examine the sordid history of what's led up to Friday's switch from the analog to the digital spectrum.

Even two Republican Presidential nominees have expressed outrage at the too-powerful broadcasters' self-serving, rapacious behavior during the 15-year-long digital conversion.

Sen. Bob Dole, hardly a flaming liberal, has stated that he was appalled at the powerful broadcasting industry's disgraceful rip-off of the digital spectrum, which TV owners got absolutely free in the mid-90's, costing the taxpayers billions of dollars in one of the largest government giveaways ever. Dole and others in Congress had called for an auction of the valuable digital spectrum. Wireless companies were willing to pay billions for it at an auction.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which is arguably even more powerful on Capitol Hill than the NRA, beat down this idea with a small army of lobbyists. The NAB does its dirty work far more quietly than Wayne Lapierre's pistoleros.

Broadcasters are used to getting things for free from the government - things like, say, radio and TV station licenses.

Once they got their hands on the digital spectrum -- for free -- the broadcasters reneged on their promise to hand the old ones (UHF, VHF) back to the government by 2006, causing an irate Sen. John McCain to call them "spectrum squatters." Police, firefighters and other first-responders had been screaming for more spectrum space for years, especially after 9-11.

Our public-spirited broadcasters could have cared less.

Even the conservative Heritage Foundation complained:

"The net effect of this was to grant existing broadcasters use of two huge blocks of spectrum, free of charge. This giveaway raised quite a few eyebrows because elsewhere the FCC was auctioning the use of valuable spectrum to the highest bidders. Aside from the billions in lost government revenue, the plan left broadcasters with little incentive to return their old spectrum."

And predictably, they didn't. They've drawn the process out for three years now, not wanting to give up their over-the-air bandwidth even as they also broadcast on the digital spectrum. In short, they want to have it all.

This week's latest conversion, you may recall, was supposed to have happened in February. But broadcasters complained that not enough people with antenna reception had digital converter boxes.

And the broadcasters were willing to chip in a few bucks to help pay for those boxes, right?
You must be kidding. Not these freeloaders.

(Canada, by the way, doesn't make the conversion to digital for another two years. So if you live up by the border as I do, you're in luck. )

The broadcasters/cable owners refuse to do TV news stories about the damage wrought by media consolidation. They're also used to treating their supposed regulators, the FCC, as their lapdog. And they'll surely fight and sue the pants off anyone who ever tries to make broadcasters give free airtime to political candidates as a condition of license, just as broadcasters must do in other countries.

Doing this, of course, would accomplish many of the worthy and much-needed goals of campaign finance reform.

But since when do broadcasters do anything for the public good?