The saying always went that a television station's license to use the public airwaves was actually a license to print money.
But with telephone companies promising to join cable systems in delivering video channels by the hundred, broadcasting lobbyists are suggesting all that money is going to be a lot harder to come by in the future.
"With just one signal, free over-the-air broadcasting may go the way of the dodo bird," said Doug Wills of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The solution broadcasters propose to federal lawmakers is simple enough: Give us more channels.
Such as the one set aside for high-definition television, or HDTV.
Now set to arrive in about two years, HDTV's promise of movie-quality pictures and superb sound long has been a source of excitement for impatient viewers. Stations, however, are wary of it.
"It's going to be real, real expensive, and we are not sure that the audience is going to find it all that much better," said Jim Major, general manager of WFTS-Ch. 28.
Rather than roll the dice, broadcasters this month want key committees in both the House and Senate to let video enthusiasts get their HDTV signal on cable or satellite. That would free over-the-air stations to use the technology behind HDTV to bring viewers _ or, rather, customers _ a little of everything else instead.
The technology in question is digital, that precise electronic foundation of computers and compact discs. It is flexible, compact and so different from the current analog system of broadcasting that the HDTV signal will not be understood by today's TV sets.
To give viewers the time to go out and buy new ones, the Federal Communications Commission expects TV stations to broadcast two signals _ one in the current format, the other digital. The FCC even has set aside a great chunk of the spectrum for each station's digital signal.
But the stations would rather transmit other things on it. The same digital transmissions could carry stock quotes to brokerage houses, sales data to offices or a thousand other other paying propositions.
The point is, it's a use of digital that would bring in money. Broadcasting HDTV, on the other hand, stands to cost stations, especially up front. A new antenna alone runs at least $1-million.
"Do broadcasters want high-definition TV?" asked Wills. "Sure, it's exciting technology. But at the same time they need some sort of scheme that allows them to offer the other services that their competitors will offer.
"And they also, frankly, need a fallback. Look at Japan."
In Japan, the advent of HDTV produced sales of only 10,000 new sets. Its HDTV system, moreover, recently was officially declared obsolete by the announcement that the country would adopt the U.S. digital method over its own analog system.
Broadcasters say that without the flexibility they seek, technology could also end up passing them by.
"Grab spectrum!" Home Shopping Network co-founder Lowell "Bud" Paxson urged a radio industry conference last month, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine. "The FCC is the center of the future of the information superhighway, and broadcasters are the favorite sons and daughters of the FCC."
Key lawmakers also appear sympathetic. Amendments giving the broadcasters what they want are being prepared by the chairmen of the House telecommunications subcommittee and the Senate Commerce Committee. So far, the only hitch appears to be what broadcasters will pay to use the spectrum.
To reduce the deficit, the federal government has directed mobile phone companies and other business interests to pay for the public airwaves they use. Estimates of what broadcasters would kick in run to $10-billion.
But watchdog groups say it should not be a question simply of money.
Andy Schwartzman of the public interest Media Access Project said tradition and previous court decisions both require that stations should not simply inherit new channels. Rather they should apply for them and "demonstrate that their use is of a higher and better use" than whatever another applicant wants to do with the airwaves.
"It's just a spectrum grab," Schwartzman said. "They just want more."
No one denies that. The question is just how much more the new technology actually makes possible.
One network, Fox, thinks digital techniques will let it cram six channels into the amount of spectrum that now carries just one. The scheme proposes using the "compression" methods developed to transmit the additional data that go into making a higher quality HDTV picture.
Fox would sacrifice the advance in quality for an advance in quantity _ broadcasting, say, a sports channel, two movie channels and a pair of news channels at present picture quality, in the space still occupied by its regular Fox network schedule.
"Why should (Fox owner) Rupert Murdoch control seven channels in one community?" Schwartzman asks.
Other broadcasters have resisted Fox's invitation to join it, but all are intrigued by another digital gee gaw. It's a transmission method, known by its acronym COFDM, that might allow broadcasters to split their signal 200 ways, and arrange the slices in whatever manner is most profitable.
The hitch is that the FCC committee responsible for naming a standard for digital TV this month chose a different transmission system. The committee promised to keep an eye on COFDM, but testing on it will take at least another year _ further putting off the final approval of HDTV, which the FCC is now scheduled to make in mid-1995. That would have put sets in the stores in late 1996.
"Originally we were talking about 1992," said FCC engineer Alan Stillwell.
Broadcasters argue it's worth the wait, especially since they might never end up transmitting an HDTV signal anyway.
In the bills the full Senate and House are expected to consider after Easter, the premise is market forces. And broadcasters are not alone in doubting the demand for high-definition pictures that arrive over the air.
In the laboratory, HDTV looks like a stunning advance. But many observers think most viewers will be satisfied by small advances in picture quality, using methods that enhance today's picture considerably without gobbling up as much of a spectrum that doubles as a profit center.
"It would be a smart move," said Peter Fannon, who runs the center where HDTV is being tested, mostly at broadcaster expense. "Ultimately the larger goal is to keep enough competition among media. There's no reason why broadcasting can't be a center for telecommunications just like others are."