In the power centers of television, blood is not thicker than dollars. Within a few years, NBC may lost its preeminence as one of the major television networks. And not because it will be outprogrammed by its two major rivals. If NBC falters, it may well be because its parent corporation, RCA, has decided to compete with it in the delivery of programming to local television stations. Is nothing sacred in broadcasting?
RCA, in its corporate wisdom, has announced that it will use a satellite to distribute up to four channels of programming to local stations equipped with receiving dishes. To sweeten the deal, RCA will pay for their installation. The arrangement may be so attractive that program and motion-picture producers could find it more lucrative to go around the networks and sign up with RCA than to contact with NBC.
The local station could choose to air NBC's programs - or any of the others on the satellite feed. Advertisers would underwrite the costs. And NBC would find itself competing with its own corporate brother for ratings and revenues. RCA's decision, in other words, threatens to alter the entire structure of commercial broadcasting - and the three networks that control it.
This development confirms the most significant trend in telecommunications today. In every area, the technologicial revolution in equipment and delivery of services is posing a challenge to the status quo and is outrunning the system that is supposed to effectively regulate it. Cable television, which can carry from 10 to 40 channels, transmitting signals across the country as well as covering city hall, is bringing services beyond the capacity of over-the-air broadcasters into 15 million homes. Smaller and more innovative communications companies have demonstrated to many buinesses that they can offer better and cheaper long-distance telephone and data-transmission services than AT&T.
But in every instance, attempts have been made to thrcttle these opportunities. For over 15 years, AT&T has fought its competitors, at one point attempting to get Congress to outlaw them altogether. Broadcasters have worked to do the same with cable, at one time succeeding in imposing, through the Federal Communications Commission, a freeze on cable's growth.
Their insistent arguement has been that if competition in telecommunications is permitted, revenues critical to maintaining the best system of television and telephone service in the world would be fractionated and diverted - with a corresponding decline in quality. But that argument has consistently begged the question of whether, in a freer market, more innovative services, meeting more diverse needs, could be more effeciently provided.
RCA has breached the corporate stone wall. By deciding to compete in broadcasting against its own network, RCA has completely undermined any justification for the hard-line rejectionism of those who exercise hegemony over telecommunications - the networks and AT&T - against new competitors in the field who wish to utilize the technology of abundance that has emerged.
The legal framework that governs these developments is provided by the Communications Act of 1934. Written in the age of radio and telegraph, its purpose was more to ensure universal availability of basic communications services than to guide the operation of a market where many competitiors are encouraged to provide more sophisticated and diversed services.
Congress is working to rewite the 1934 act to take these developments into account. Until now, the political question involved was whether the special interests that have benefited so heavily over the past decades could be forced to accept competition. But RCA has now taken on NBC. So why shouldn't cable be permitted to do so as well? For the Congress, the policy question involved is whether a law can be written in which regulation will not prevent all of us from enjoying the new technology that so many, including RCA, are so eager to provide.