Questioning Technology: Mud Wrestling for the Airwaves

Imagine, if you will, a television broadcasting system that uses the public-owned airwaves to actually serve the public interest. A television system used to educate, inspire and seek truth, rather than exploit, manipulate and promote a mindless consumer culture that destroys every natural thing in its path.Though television is now being re-invented for the digital age and the possibilities for its new uses are endless, such a public service goal is not even on the nation's radar screen. In fact, the greed and political manipulation surrounding the race for the control of digital television (DTV) is now so rampant that the old idea of an exchange of public spectrum for public service is being spun out of existence by the sleight of hand artists who now hold a firm grip on today's mass media outlets.The battle for the control of television is now being waged under a virtual electronic media blackout. The contest is essentially a mud wrestling fest between two camps, both so drunk with gold rush fever that the very idea of public service is dismissed as an inconvenient joke. In one corner of the mud pit are the nation's television broadcasters; in the other are the new barbarians at the gate, the nouveau riche makers of software and personal computers.By using a massive war chest of campaign contributions and the power of their local news programs to manhandle members of Congress, the nation's broadcasters have been given at no cost digital spectrum valued as high as $15 billion -- one of the biggest corporate welfare takes in U.S. history.Yet, rather then being grateful for this act of public largess, the broadcasters are now fighting to avoid new public service obligations for digital broadcasting. They want to maintain the status quo -- that is, continue to virtually print money off the public's resources while maintaining the sham that their trashy, exploitive "news" programs are an act of public service in themselves and therefore the full extent of their obligations.NBC president Robert Wright sounded like a tobacco company executive when -- with a straight face -- he told broadcasters: "The broadcast networks provide multiple voices and sources covering national and international events, giving Americans a broad array of broadcast news choices" and the local network affiliate stations "connect people to their communities in a way that no one else has yet to replicate or maybe ever can."The computer challengers, who don't yet own stations and maintain a "not my problem" silence on public service issues, see the broadcasters as a bunch of "rust belt" losers, who don't have a clue how to exploit the coming new medium of digital pictures and sound. The pot of gold at the end of the DTV rainbow, they think, is literally up for grabs.As sad as this picture has gotten over the past year, it is now worse. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the high-powered, in-your-face lobbying organization that represents the over-the-air television industry, is now fighting the two main "save face" measures imposed on them by a spineless government that gave away one of the public's most valuable resources.The NAB is aggressively trying to limit membership on a powerless White House advisory panel that will recommend new public service requirements for DTV broadcasters. The NAB also wants to avoid setting a specific date when television stations are required to return their current analog channels to the government.In a recent letter to Vice President Al Gore, NAB president and chief lobbyist Eddie Fritts protested plans to include any competitors to the broadcast industry on the White House public service panel. "We will protest vigorously the inclusion of computer industry representatives and other outright competitors on such a body -- who would face an unhealthy temptation to advance their own economic interests at the expense of the public interest," wrote Fritts.Gore, fearful of the wrath the broadcasters could bring to his future presidential campaign, is said to have masterminded the idea of the public service panel after opposing earlier Clinton Administration plans that would have made broadcasters pay for the use of DTV spectrum.On another front, Fritts asked Congress not to count on funds from a proposed auction of the broadcasters' existing analog channels planned for the year 2002. (The current budget deal assumes raising $24-33 billion from an auction of existing channels in 2002 with the actual giveback occurring four years later in 2006. These dates, however, are not mandated by law.)Fritts said 2006 is only a "target date" for return of the spectrum based on the presumption that broadcasters can complete the transition from analog to digital broadcasting on schedule. "It is unclear that penetration of new digital TV sets will be high enough to allow the government to take this action in 2006," Fritts wrote in a letter to leading members of Congress.Fritts, a crafty promoter who was the college roommate of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott at the University of Mississippi 35 years ago, knows one of the oldest tricks in government: the art of the stall. Wait long enough and difficult issues tend to fade away. This is especially true when the members of your organization controls the content of most of the nation's broadcast news programming.Since the recommendations of the White House panel are to be no more than that and will be made in the lame duck days of the Clinton Administration, the NAB has time on its side. And, of course, the real power to impose public service requirements belongs to the FCC, a regulatory body that the broadcasters have successfully manipulated for 30 years. On the issue of spectrum, if the giveback date is never specified by law and a new generation of government officials come into office. Well, you get the idea...The NAB's latest moves don't surprise the Media Access Project, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that represents the public's interest at the FCC. "Basically the broadcasters don't want anybody on that committee that's going to tell them to do anything new in public interest," said Gigi Sohn, the project's executive director.The NAB's portrayal of the DTV arrangement as simply the trade of an analog band of spectrum for a new slice of digital spectrum, said Sohn, ignores the fact that the digital spectrum will allow the broadcasters to dramatically expand their business opportunities.As for the NAB's attempt to keep an open date for the return of spectrum, Sohn said distrust of the broadcaster's true motives is widespread. "The broadcasters have done everything to try to undermine any effort to give back the spectrum ever," she said."The longer they delay, policy makers change, people forget and technology moves on," she said. "Then maybe one day in the future it's not so important to get back that analog spectrum anymore. I think they want to keep it as long as possible so that eventually then can digitize it and have 12 megahertz of spectrum (2 conventional TV channels), instead of six (1 channel). I think that underlies a lot of what's going on."For the record, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton vigorously denied that broadcasters have any agenda to keep the analog spectrum. "What we've said, though, is we don't think a codification of the 2006 date is appropriate and mostly because it would be harmful to consumers. If consumers have not embraced digital TV in 2006, every analog TV becomes obsolete overnight."As to the public service panel, Wharton said the NAB does not think it's appropriate for those competing interests that charge for their services to be included on the panel. However, he said, should the computer industry purchase digital television stations, become subject to public service obligations and air some of its content for free, "then perhaps they should have some standing."

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