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Digi-Debate

Imagine being given a no-interest business loan after showing no business plan and telling the banker, "It's my right to do whatever I want with this money -- and you can't tell me to do anything!" That, says Kevin Taglang, is what happened on April 3, when the Federal Communications Commission bestowed upon the nation's broadcasters up to $70 billion worth of the prime spectrum real estate -- free of charge.
 
 
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Imagine being given a no-interest business loan after showing no business plan and telling the banker, "It's my right to do whatever I want with this money -- and you can't tell me to do anything!" That, says Kevin Taglang, is what happened on April 3, when the Federal Communications Commission bestowed upon the nation's broadcasters up to $70 billion worth of the prime spectrum real estate -- free of charge. "The Government turned over a huge chunk of the public's resources -- the airwaves -- without putting any real demands on broadcasters," explains Taglang, communications policy analyst for the Washington-based Benton Foundation. "And the broadcasters have not been forthcoming at all about how they will use this gift to better serve the public interest -- they don't even want to hear about the public interest." The FCC divvied up and doled out one additional license to each of the nation's nearly 1,600 television stations to help the broadcast industry make the transition from analog to digital technology, despite last-minute scrambling by opponents who ran the gamut -- from Bob Dole and the conservative Heritage Foundation to Jesse Jackson and liberal media reform groups. For a time, even FCC Chairman Reed Hundt had made noises about legislating broadcasters to provide more bang for the public buck. In the end, however, the industry Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) has called "the nation's most powerful lobby" got just about everything it had been asking for: free licenses, plenty of time to make the transition, and no mandated public service obligations.So, what does it all mean? Top ten markets should start to see digital transmission within 18 months, according to Chairman Hundt's "dream of a digital Christmas in 1998," but the full roll-out calendar shows it will take at least three years, even for the big stations. Broadcasters will use their second channel to transmit signals via analog and digital systems for the next nine years -- a period which will "make the transition seamless for the American consumer," according to National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts.Those "consumers" will be forced to shell out at least $2000 for the first generation of low-end digital sets. It will also be possible to buy converter boxes, estimated to cost $200. But without the new sets, it will be impossible to see the "unbelievably seductive, crystal clear picture and CD-quality sound that is High Definition television, or HDTV," according to the NAB's Dennis Wharton.Broadcasters say they are "unable to predict" whether they will be using their new digital channel to exclusively provide HD-TV programming, or whether they will split the channel into as many as four subchannels carrying different programs simultaneously -- a process called multiplexing. Some predict they will do a little of both, but they are noncommital on the subject."We really have to just jump in and start doing it, and then see what the market can bear," NBC President and CEO Robert Wright said cautiously, at a media mogul-studded industry conference in New York two days before the licenses were granted.When the nine-year transition period is up, broadcasters are scheduled to return their current analog allotments of spectrum, or 40 percent of what they now have, so the FCC can auction them off later. But, critics of the "corporate welfare" move say, what is said now and what is done later could be two very different things."And, here we had the most important debate over public property in this century going on, and most people didn't know a thing about it because the networks that stood to gain from this deal didn't run news stories explaining what was happening," says a disgusted Gigi Sohn, Executive Director of the Media Access Project, in Washington.After choosing to air almost no coverage of the spectrum debate, which had been raging for nearly a year, the major networks eagerly ran reports about the brave new world of digital television (DTV) the evening of April 3...when licenses were safely in hand. (ABC out-did the others by airing a somewhat critical "Your Money, Your Choice" segment about the debate -- the night before the licenses were handed out.)"What really irked me was how (network news reports) portrayed the entire opposition to the giveaway as a small band of scruffy 'Ralph Naderites' screaming about auctions," Sohn offered. "Realistically, the auction issue has been dead for a while. We were fighting for a higher standard of public service; something that could hold broadcasters more accountable." Deficit hawks and 'screaming Naderites' aside, the most highly publicized idea to quantify public service was related to campaign finance reform. BBroadcasters vehemently opposed any proposals to legislate amounts of free airtime for political candidates, saying the move would not solve the problem and would be "blatantly unconstitutional." Proponents of the idea, like Paul Taylor of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, question why broadcasters are so unwilling to talk about something that might get the country's political system back on track, by cutting out the candidates' number one reason for raising money: campaign ads. "Last year, candidates spent $500 million on campaign ads," Taylor said in a recent interview. "That's only one percent of the broadcast industry's revenues last year. I'm not saying this is a panacea for all our political woes, but it would certainly be a step in right direction." It's good idea, and should be included in the public service mix, says Sohn, but there is a lot more to the equation. "Look, contrary to what broadcasters think, this is about a lot more than the 'American consumer's pocketbook.' It's about our democracy," Sohn said. "In corporate hands, our media is becoming more and more consolidated and homogenous. This was a chance to get broadcasters to provide more access to minority owners, more public interest programming...like educational and children's programming, as well as free time for candidates. "They are public trustees, but that point is lost on them. Profit, not democracy, rules," she added."That's simply not the case," says the NAB's Wharton. "Broadcasters have been living up to public service obligations since 1934. We provide local news and public affairs programming, school closings, public service announcements, political debates...and now, three hours of children's programming a week. We don't need new mandates in this area for a move to digital technology."But when a communications revolution on par with the introduction of AM Radio in 1920s and VHF television in the 1940s comes along, says University of Wisconsin professor Robert McChesney, perhaps it is time to discuss how new policies could improve our TV and political culture. "Many Americans understand that there are severe problems with our hyper-commercialized, corporate-dominated television system, although their opinions are rarely solicited on this matter," McChesney wrote in a recent article. "If the media giants and their allies in Washington have their way, the American people will have no clue that it could (be) very, very different."It appears, for the moment, that the media giants have had their way, but Sohn and others say the fight is not over. The FCC will soon set up an Adivisory Committee to determine public service obligations for broadcasters might look like in the digital era."Our efforts are going to be focused on getting people who know about these issues onto that Advisory Committee," Sohn says. "We can also work to get new FCC Commissioners who aren't in the broadcasters' back pockets." It is too soon to tell what the public really thinks about what has happened to their airwaves. But in the eleventh hour, either by choice or by force, broadcasters moved the debate from the back room and into the public discourse by finally admitting on air that there was a debate. Que sera, sera.