A 12-Step Program for Media Democracy

The signing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not mark the end of the debate about the future of our nation's media system. Rather, it heralds a new set of challenges and opportunities for progressives to create a richer media legacy. The bill's passage spawned more than eighty rule-makings at the F.C.C. and proceedings at the state public utility commissions. Key policy decisions are also looming in federal and state legislatures and regulatory agencies. Here are some actions citizens can take to help assure that the public interest is made a part of media and telecommunications policy. Some focus on media concentration and industry structure; others address the need to insure an equitable, open and diverse "cyberspace" media system for the twenty-first century.Concentration and ControlMedia Mergers: Public interest groups, including the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Media Access Project and the Center for Media Education, have been working to stop such media mega-mergers as Time Warner-Turner Broadcasting (and their alliance with TCI), as well as such new deals as US West-Continental Cablevision, S.B.C.-Pacific Telesis and Bell Atlantic-NYNEX. The Justice Department and the F.T.C. are reviewing these mergers.Action: These advocacy groups need political support to help make the case against these and future media mergers.Ownership Limits: Congress has mandated the F.C.C. to review, for possible elimination, some of its last restrictions on media ownership, such as the current prohibition on a company owning two television stations in the same market. Rupert Murdoch is lobbying to make the legal definition of ownership so weak that remaining limits will be meaningless.Action: Write letters to F.C.C. commissioners and your Representative supporting strong ownership safeguards.Broadcaster Accountability: Relaxed ownership restrictions in the new law will bring more media consolidation; major television and radio networks will acquire additional stations throughout the country.Action: Citizens and community groups have few legal means to stop this concentration of media power, but they could file petitions with the F.C.C. to deny transfer of licenses. They could challenge new owners to live up to their public interest obligations, from minority hiring to children's educational programming. Another opportunity is to participate in broadcast license renewals, which are all coming up in the next few years. Also, citizens should fight the proposal at the F.C.C. to extend license renewals from five to eight years.Cable Accountability: City and county officials oversee franchise renewals and transfer of ownership of local cable systems, which provides opportunities to push for program access and intervene on behalf of consumers, minorities, etc.Action: Urge local officials to demand public interest obligations and safeguards in return for the cable companies' use of public rights-of-way.Crucial Appointments: Longtime F.C.C. Commissioner James Quello's term will expire in June, but he will continue to serve until a replacement is found. He has been rabidly opposed to the public interest since his appointment by Nixon.Action: Write President Clinton to support appointment of officials truly independent of the telecommunications industry.Access and AffordabilityConsumer Pricing for Broadband Service: Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology, with other consumers and companies, has filed objections to inflated prices for I.S.D.N., a high-bandwidth phone service ideal for Internet use, with several state public utility commissions.Action: File petitions with your local public utility commission calling for a consumer-oriented, low-cost, flat-rate tariff for I.S.D.N. service.Universal Service: The F.C.C. and every state public utility commission will be revamping our nation's longstanding "universal service" policy, which mandates affordable access to the telephone network. These proceedings are an opportunity to address the needs of certain communities (low-income, disabled, bilingual, homeless, public institutions and others). New mechanisms should continually raise the minimum level of service to adapt to future developments, eventually to include Internet and broadband access. The biggest public interest victory in the Telecommunications Act was the establishment of low-cost access for schools and libraries to advanced telecommunications services.Action: File and organize in support of access for the poor, and for community institutions, at the F.C.C. (Docket MM 96-45) and state regulatory agencies, making sure that information highway access is meaningful and rates truly affordable.Competition and Consumer Protection: Federal and state regulatory agencies will set up new rules for competition in the local phone (and, in some cases, cable) industry. These will have a direct effect on consumers' choices and rates. The Consumer Federation of America predicts that local phone service will go up $10 a month.Action: Join coalitions of national public interest groups and state public advocates to file at these regulatory agencies, giving them the necessary political support to take on local monopolies by denying them unfair advantages in the marketplace.ContentChildren's Television: A six-year battle at the F.C.C. (coordinated by the Center for Media Education) to implement properly the 1990 Children's Television Act will be decided in the next few months.Action: Write to the F.C.C. (Docket MM 93-48) to urge that it require broadcasters to air a minimum amount of educational programming for children as part of their public service obligations. (A coalition of child advocates is supporting a proposal for one hour of programming every day.)Spectrum Auctions: Congress may grant broadcasters additional free public airwaves worth billions of dollars. The Media Access Project and education, civic and public interest groups oppose this giveaway.Action: Tell your representatives and the F.C.C. that the spectrum should be auctioned off, and the proceeds reinvested for public use -- to wire schools and libraries and fund noncommercial educational services.Open Access for Video Programming: Two proceedings at the F.C.C. will determine how much control monopoly telephone and cable companies will have over what television you can and cannot watch in your community.Action: Support nondiscriminatory access for independent video providers on the new Open Video Systems platforms created for phone companies in the Telecommunications Act. Support advocates who are also fighting at the F.C.C. for a low rate for programmers on cable companies' leased access channels. Special provisions and rates for educational programming on telephone and cable systems are also needed.Intellectual Property: Congress is currently holding hearings on an Administration-backed bill on intellectual property. At stake is whether the principles of fair use and public domain will be extended into digital communications of the next century. The biggest media companies in the country want to turn the superhighway into an unregulated electronic tollbooth.Action: Support the Digital Future Coalition, which comprises public interest, library, trade and consumer groups and is fighting for policies that insure accessible, affordable and noncommercial information for the public.For more information on Center for Media Education the call 202-628-2620; e-mail aewright@cme.org; or visit the web site at http://www.cme.org/cme.Jeffrey A. Chester and Anthony Wright are with the Center for Media Education, a public interest group focused on media and telecommunications policy.

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