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Opinion: High-Definition Video--Bad For Consumers, Bad For Hollywood

The high-definition screen has become a kind of Christmas tree, overladen with ornaments hung by regulators, greedy entertainment execs, would-be monopolists from the tech sector, broadcasters desperate to hold on to their spectrum, and even video game companies nostalgic for the yesteryear of impervious boxes. The tree is toppling--and it might just take out a few industries when it crashes.

High def kicked off in the '80s, when Detroit was losing the car wars to Japan and Motorola was figuring out that radio spectrum was pure gold if applied to mobile phones. Moto pointed out that the National Association of Broadcasters' members were squatting on lots of spectrum they'd been allocated, but hadn't lit up with TV signals. (Broadcasters get their spectrum for free, and in exchange we're supposed to get some programming over those airwaves.) Motorola proposed to buy the idle spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission and use it to run a phone business.

The NAB panicked--there's nothing a corporate welfare bum hates more than an end to its government handouts. So the broadcasters cast about for an excuse, any excuse, to continue to hold on to our valuable radio spectrum while doing nothing much with it. They found that excuse in Japan, where high-definition sets were being met with popular and critical acclaim. Japan--having destroyed the American auto industry--was about to destroy American broadcasting with its devious high-def sets, creating a high-def gap that America would struggle in vain to bridge!

The nervy broadcasters asked the commission to leave all that fallow spectrum intact and, furthermore, to allocate them even more spectrum so that they could broadcast HD signals alongside the analog ones. Once enough Americans had bought high-def receivers, the FCC could switch off the analog towers and return the spectrum to the American public, and then it could be sold to the likes of Moto for mobile applications.

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