Communities Excluded, the Public Deluded in FCC's Secret Giveaway of Thousands of TV Channels

Posted on June 19, 2008 - 7:12am.

Note: A little confusion in this worthy article. PEG is a public interest requirement that applies to cable TV and that resulted from the original Cable Act. Broadcast TV, which includes the new digital TV channels, originally created PBS in the 1960's as the 'public' and non-commercial component of that system. However, the giveaway of the new spectrum/channels for DTV should have had increased public interest obligations attached.

from: Black Agenda Report

Communities Excluded, the Public Deluded in FCC's Secret Giveaway of Thousands of TV Channels
Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A Black Agenda Radio Interview by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon

Early next year, 1700 holders of TV station licenses holders will reap an unearned bonus. Each and every one will receive multiple new digital TV channels without the bother of new licensing, without public scrutiny, and with next to no accountability for their use of this scarce public resource. In this exclusive interview which aired on WRFG-FM Atlanta earlier this month, Ms. Carrie Biggs-Adams, a broadcast engineer and staff person for the Communications Workers of America describes how the FCC and commercial broadcasters deluded and excluded the public from the table as they engineered this colossal theft, worth an estimated $73 billion, and outlines a public response that may result in hundreds of new digital channels going to noncommercial broadcasters, to unions, to community organizations and local and minority entrepreneurs.


BD: Most of us have heard that there's going to be a transition from analog to digital TV next year. What we've heard is that some people are going to need to purchase special receivers or converters or whatever to adapt their old TV sets to the new technology and we've also heard there is a government grant available for this purpose. This is pretty much all we hear about the transition from analog to digital TV if we rely on the mainstream media to tell us the story. But is that really all there is?

Well, here's the rest of it. The FCC has decided that on February 18, 2009 every holder of a broadcast TV station license is going to get a Valentine's Day present. They are going to get four brand new digital TV frequencies, the practical equivalent of four brand new digital TV station licenses for every one of the old analog TV station licenses they had before. These new TV frequencies are going to come with the same obligations to serve the public that their old analog licenses did, which is to say, no obligations at all, or next to no enforceable public service obligations that we can find. PEG, or Public, Educational and Government TV gets nothing. Your local libraries, high schools, colleges, public health services, community organizations, they get nothing. Entrepreneurs who'd like to get on TV, to bring local talent before local audiences, they don't get new channels either. Local churches, not your national megachurches but local ministries in our local communities, they also get nothing, and although the broadcast spectrum is legally public property, these new stations ONLY go to those who already have them.

Carrie Biggs-Adams is a career broadcast engineer who is now a staff rep for the Communications Workers of America. She's going to explain to us what the issues really are around the analog to digital TV conversion, and how the transition from analog to digital TV is being used by broadcasters to privatize the public airwaves, and to permanently lock the people out of any say over what are supposedly public airwaves.

Sorry about that long-winded introduction there. So, Ms. Adams --- so what if these TV guys get four licenses (or four stations) for every one they have now? What's that got to do with us?

CBA: Well, it changes a little bit how we watch TV, and of course if we want to affect the airwaves and touch the licensing process it's a big change. As I'm sure you know, now when a license is up for renewal, we can challenge it. We haven't been fairly successful at this lately, because under the Bush administration the renewal times are every eight years, but at least you can dust it up a little bit, say “how are you serving the public, how are you serving the community?” But instead of just that one broadcaster on that one license in that one town, and of course they're owned by corporations that are miles away, we're going to have that one broadcaster owning four channels, not just the one channel of the TV that comes into your home over the air.

BD: But these station owners, they've got deep pockets --- they're professionals, after all, and we're not. They've got plenty of useful, compelling, stimulating and enlightening content to put on all these new channels, don't they?

"instead of twenty analog TV channels to watch with nothing... we'll have eighty channels with nothing to watch..."

CBA: I so wish they did. They're running out of ideas of what to do with it. I bargain contracts with these owners, and in a number of markets they're saying “well we're thinking about putting the Home Shopping Network on, or the Retro TV Network ” you may have heard this one, old used television from the fifties and sixties. They're just out of ideas. Still, they're being given three additional channels. They have one, so they'll take their channel 4 or whatever it is in your town, and move it over to digital one. Then they're getting digital two three and four that they could be serving the community with, and even better those who think back to the days when we had to go to the end of the frequency, the UHF, you know, those high channels that were a big deal back in the purely analog days before cables and remote, the channels that had a fuzzy picture and weren't all that great, these are going to be digital channels. They are going to have absolutely gorgeous quality signals coming into your home.

BD: So if you're in a market like Chicago, where there are probably 20 analog channels, easily, those twenty analog channels are all going to be digital, they'll all be hi-def capable... I was talking to my brother in Springfield Illinois. He says that in his market several places already have these extra channels up and running.

In terms of the new content that these deep pocketed owners are able to do, he says that one, either the NBC or the ABC affiliate there is running all weather all the time. Every hour a face comes on and recites the local weather for about a minute. The rest of the hour there is a shifting computer generated weather map with scrolling text, tornadoes that are happening somewhere around the world... That kind of proves what you say. If even the broadcasters with the deepest pockets, the big network guys, cannot afford to put something on there, and have no idea what to put on there, then I guess we are going to have, instead of twenty analog TV channels to watch with nothing... we'll have eighty channels with nothing to watch.

CBA: It'll look a lot like, if you bought cable or if you hear the story from these broadcasters, they say “there are hundreds of channels now, we don't have to do this competition stuff, people have lots of choices” But if you actually spin the dial, the remote you can see the same infomerical on every channel...

BD: Tell us what PEG TV is, and why we should care if any of these new channels are PEG channels.from_us_2_u

CBA: The whole idea, and you have to go back into the 1930s, is that these are the public airwaves. We are giving people, these broadcasters, the right to have a business on a limited public resource, the airwaves. But they should have to serve the public with those airwaves, whether it's Clear Channel in radio, or any of these chains of TV stations, or any of these television networks.

BD: But they're entrepreneurs, aren 't they? Didn't they think up something brand new that let there to be TV stations (in the first place)?

CBA: They worked on it, but most of them were not around when we created television in the forties and fifties and sixties, as we went from back and white to color. They've all made a lot of money off it, though. The reason we're doing this digital transition is that when broadcasting was set up and the spectrum was divided, it took a lot of width to get an analog signal out there. It wasn't always that good, sometimes you couldn't tune it all that well and it took up a lot of space. But with digital you can fit it into a more narrow piece of that band, and you can actually fit more things in there.

BD: But the technological ability to do that did not come from these broadcasters.

CBA: No, it didn't.

BD: So they are just benefiting from an improvement in broadcast technology that they had nothing to do with producing.

CBA: Absolutely. And because the FCC wanted to take the end of the spectrum where analog television is located and use it for other purposes, because it's pretty good signal area for broadcast communications, more suited to emergency communications, they wanted that spectrum back so they said, if you give that back to us we'll give you four digital channels for every one analog one you've got now.

BD: There's a feeling among a lot of people in the country that these commercial broadcasters have really not served the public interest all that well, that we ought to be finding ways to put TV stations in the hands of community organizations, in the hands of unions, in the hands of local churches, not the megachurches, and in the hands of the people who would facilitate the rise of local artists and local voices...

CBA: A local way to communicate, not just with audio but visual as well. I think we call it television.

BD: Of course we've got broadcast radio, such as it is, and the internet, such as it is. Of course the internet is probablky t he freest means of communication in terms of the content not being censored or filtered. But the internet doesn't reach nearly as many people as TV, does it?

CBA: It really does not. And then there's the business of how fast your signal is when you do have an internet connection. If you're going to start watching programs or streaming video on your internet connection, you're not going to be able to do that over dial-up or a slow connection.

BD: And in many poorer communities throughout the nation, even in large cities, there are places like the South Bronx or the west side of Chicago where the only internet available is via satellite at $70 per month... because cable companies have redlined you. There's also places like that throughout rural and small town America. But all, or at least many of these places can get an analog TV signal. So anyway, what's the problem with billionaires owning all the bandwidth, what's your problem with that?

CBA: I don't have any problems as long as they're serving the communities. I'm sort of used to the idea that we have broadcasting in this country that's not overly publicly controlled. I have challenged broadcast licenses. It's a fool's errand. You put a lot of time and energy into the application to say you're not serving the community. It's like a roach motel, the complaint goes in to the FCC and nothing comes out, you never see it again.

BD: We will have a little more to say about the FCC and its utility in protecting the people's rights after this break...

BD: We were just talking about how the transition from analog to digital TV is an opportunity for TV broadcasters to grab three or four stations for every one they now have, and about how much we, the American people love our analog TV broadcasters so much that we are giving them this present with no obligations for any sort of public service, no more than they already have. So when does this take effect?

CBA: It will take effect on the 17th of February 2009 in most of the country. But Wilmington, North Carolina gets to be first. They get to go first on the 8th of September.

BD: The 8th of September, OK? So this whole thing gets rolled out there four months earlier?

CBA: Four months earlier. First the FCC and now the National Association of Broadcasters, that group of owners of all the television networks and stations, is doing a test project.

BD: I live in Atlanta, I spend time in Chicago and some other places, and I've got friends everywhere. Almost none of us knew about this four stations for one deal, this present that we're giving the analog broadcasters because we love them so much. Do the people in Wilmington NC know about it?

CBA: Well, there's a lot of money going into advertising campaigns, from the broadcasters. But if you're watching TV they're not telling you how many digital channels there will be. What they are telling you is that you've gotta do something for the digital rollout date in your city.

BD: Yes, but it's all pretty vague and hard to get hold of. Do the people in Wilmington know any better than we do about this?

CBA: Well, they're going to use this as a test project. They've started advertising there and I've just read a letter from the National Association of Broadcasters offering Chairman Martin and the FCC that the broadcasters will do all the testing and proving that this really works. They'll do all the research.

BD: So then it's a done deal. They don't need any input from us, the public over this, either in Wilmington, or nationwide.

CBA: We're pretty much the consumers. We're supposed to go out and buy, at the minimum, a box to sit on top of our TV sets, or if you're really on the losing end of this they're going to convince you to throw out your old TV even though it'll work just fine, and buy a new one, preferably for Christmas.

BD: Aside from the solution that people are going to have to make resolving their own individual TV reception problems, what about our collective problem over where these stations are gonna go, who's going to get a say over what happens to these public airwaves. What's going to happen for instance, if a lot of people in Wilmington got informed about this, upset about this and said you know what, maybe we don't like this deal so much?

CBA: I think that's where it's going to have to start. This is a demonstration project to see how people adapt to this new technology. It's going to have to be where the consumers, the public, the people who care about the quality of the information that comes into their homes are going to have to say hey, wait a minute, I want a channel that gives me education. I want a channel that tells me what's going on in the community. You folks have so many of them now that you can spare a couple. Let's start covering what goes on in our town.

BD: If they can protest and raise their voices loudly enough in Wilmington, and it's heard across the country, what might happen to this February deal?

CBA: Well, I think the owners of these TV stations are going to have to start listening when they hear from the public, that the public made a complaint and do you see that in the demonstration report from Wilmington NC?

BD: So whose idea was it to give the broadcasters these free stations without really informing and consulting with the public, without even offering PEG TV and local schools, libraries and the rest some of these new stations that are coming online? Whose idea was this?

CBA: It was the intersection of the FCC and the broadcasters.

BD: And the people?

CBA: They weren't at the table.

BD: So we weren't at the table when this deal was written, and all this is going to become law February 18?

CBA: February 17.

BD: February 17, unless there's a lot of fuss and bother --- I'm not saying mobs with torches and pitchforks in the street like the ones that used to chase Frankenstein, but unless there is a lot of bother and a lot of demands from people in Wilmington NC and around the country between now and early of September this is gonna go down.

CBA: This is gonna go down. Some people have already got their set top boxes and started watching this digital TV. The broadcasters, because this change involves a lot of equipment, some of them have already started broadcasting they've booted up some of their digital signals... so you go out and you get your shiny new box, you get your coupon from the FCC, the whole thing, and you go “Well, there's not much here.” Some of the new transmitters are being run at 50% power... the content looks not much better, or much different from what you've got now.

BD: But what's wrong with these analog TV broadcasters, who are about to be digital TV broadcasters just sitting on those frequencies like absentee landlords until the price goes up, until they think up something new, or just come up with a new version of the jewelry channel, the Home Shopping Network or the sandal network --- what's the problem with that?

CBA: Well, there isn't any obligation for them to put on more local news or more public affairs programming or more information... there's no more requirement for that than there is with the channels they've got right now.

BD: That's really important because news is the raw material for public conversation, for the public space, a concept we keep coming back to here on this Just Peace program. The public space is where people can take their individual problems, their family problems and compare them to what we expect from society as a whole. That's what public space is, and without news what happens to public space?

CBA: It falls into disuse. We can't share, we don't know we have common problems that need to work together to solve together.

BD: Think I have a question from Heather Gray, do I?

HG: I just wanted people to know that there are five FCC commissioners, and that they area appointed by the administration, something for you to keep in mind this election year.

CBA: Absolutely, because the way it works is the party which holds the White House gets to have three commissioners, the party out of power gets two.

BD: It was one of the Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps was the one who inserted this text market idea (into the transition procedure) so that there would be a chance, perhaps to stop this, am I right ?

CBA: Exactly, he said we ought to try it, and not experiment with the whole country at one shot.

HG: I think it's also important for folks to realize that when the FCC was about to deregulate in 2003, that there was a public outcry about this, and that even though the FCC passed it, there was such outrage in Congress that they never succeeded in doing it.

CBA: That's right, they passed it in 2003, to be able to have one owner own the newspaper, three TV stations, eight radio stations and your cable company. So they could own everything (media-wise) in your town. That was stopped, first by the Congress, standing up almost immediately, saying nope, that's a no-go, and then it was stopped by litigation. They were ordered to go back and hold hearings. They sort of held hearings, sometimes with as little as five days notice as to what city, what time and what place. Now in November 2007 they voted again to allow consolidation of ownership in many, many cities, in many markets, with enough swiss cheese loopholes so that the owners, if they get this are going to own just about every source of news and information in your community.

BD: So in the best of all possible worlds, what we might want to see, what progressive forces in this country might want to see is a vast upsurge of public indignation over this giveaway of public resources to a few well-connected folks.

CBA: They've already got the right to buy your newspaper or your TV station can buy the newspaper, or the newspaper which is already broke can go further into debt and buy the local TV station. I guarantee that is not going to mean there will be more people gathering the news in your community, it's going to mean less.

BD: What we are seeing then, is a large scale theft, a scam, a privatization of public resources, which, I we allow it to go down, will make it awfully hard to get these stations back. There is no reason why some of these communities cannot demand that every third station couldn't be a public access channel. There's no reason why a number of these (new channels) shouldn't go to minority broadcasters and local entrepreneurs who want to see local talent get a start. There's no reason why labor unions shouldn't have some of these channels, is there?

CBA: There's no reason. The way they've been doled out is these (multiple) digital channels are tied to one broadcast license. The person in your town who owns channel 4 gets channels 4.1, 4.2, 4.3 and channel 4.4. It's all under one broadcast license... and they have no plans what to program them with.

( categories: )