Questioning Technology: Real Public Television

American television broadcasters, most of whom have made fortunes exploiting the public's airwaves for the past 50 years, are now trying to scare people into thinking "free TV" might soon disappear."Imagine your favorite shows...gone," exhorted a recent newspaper ad bought by KRON-TV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco. "Local news, weather and sports...gone. The Olympics for free...gone. That's what some in Congress have in mind."Such scare tactics would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that many people actually believe them. When the owners of the most powerful information technology on the planet gear up for a disinformation campaign, attention should be paid.Of course, to begin with, there is no such thing as "free TV." Never was and never will be. It's all a smoke and mirrors deal where the monetary price for watching the tube is included in the price of goods and services in the marketplace. Most of the cost of that box of Tide is not for the detergent inside. It's for advertising and marketing.Then there's the social cost of TV. One can argue -- as did author Jerry Mander in his now classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television(Quill, NY) -- that TV has had a detrimental effect on personal health, the natural environment and to democratic processes.The damage done to generations of children weaned on a daily dose of commercial television is just beginning to be felt. As the most powerful narcotic in the society, television clearly dims the mind, reduces the diversity of genuine experience and creates a value system that celebrates the consumer culture and discourages independent inquiry.And it has only gotten worse. As the technology of television broadcasting has improved in recent years, the quality of television programming has declined. The "magazine" shows that replaced the dramas of yesteryear are often little more than mildly disguised pitches by celebrities for books, movies and other products. Today's news programming offers a dumbed-down, narrowly-focused world view, while public affairs programs tend to push a pro-corporate, right-wing agenda and children's shows are designed simply to sell toys and snack food. Despite claims to the contrary, American television broadcasters have done little to repay the public for use of the airwaves they are loaned for over-the-air broadcasting. Now, as the technology of television moves from analog to digital, the broadcasters want the public to give them -- no strings attached -- new frequency spectrum worth as much as $70 billion.Digital television, which would require new television channels, offers the possibility of high definition images, multiple channels of programming from a single station and a wide range of new interactive data services. In a nutshell, the television broadcasters want the government to give them new digital channels at no cost. They also propose that they be allowed to temporarily keep broadcasting on their current analog channels. Then, sometime in the future (the broadcasters resist setting a date), when most viewers have switched to digital TV sets, they would give back their existing analog channels to the government.In light of the high bids at recent auctions of frequency spectrum for other digital communications services, some members of Congress think giving the broadcasters free digital spectrum is unfair to the public and amounts to no more than corporate welfare. Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, argues that broadcasters have no special right to free licenses from the public. He wants to auction the airwaves to the highest bidders and let them do as they please with the spectrum.Another option, supported by consumer advocates and FCC chairman Reed Hundt, is to give broadcasters their digital licenses while at the same time imposing strenuous public service conditions. Those conditions might include a mandated agenda of public interest broadcasting and wireless communications services for non-profits. The broadcasters want no part of this, contending they already carry public service programming.The Clinton Administration goes along with granting the broadcasters new digital spectrum but wants to set a specific date for surrender of the old analog channels. That would be in about 10 years.What's not on the agenda is the simple concept of returning the public's airwaves back to the people. In light of their horrendous track record in public service over the years, why should today's broadcasting corporations be given any preference at all to new digital spectrum? A strong argument can be made that these broadcasters are parasites who have actually damaged the communities they profess to serve.And why must digital spectrum be auctioned off at all? Who says every natural resource of this nation must be sold to the highest bidder? Why not, for once, use a valuable resource for the betterment of people and not for commerce?Is it too much to dream of a broadcasting system that sells education, art, music and other forms of human expression rather than consumer products? Is it too radical an idea that the most powerful communications medium ever devised be used to expand human consciousness and experience rather than narrow it. Is it too dangerous to the powers that be that true diversity of thought and free expression of ideas be made available to the public at large?Of course, a political system under corporate control will never give up its hold on over-the-air broadcasting. Its utility for dispersing propaganda and preserving the consumer culture is simply too great. But it should be noted that we have the first chance in nearly 50 years to "fix" what we don't like about television broadcasting. The question is whether we have the will to do it.

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