Time Is Now to Fight for Future of TV

The rising tide of protest against U.S. media coverage of the war should also signal the need for a new progressive strategy about the future of the media system. Recent marches across the country protesting the networks, and a new focus by Moveon.org on media issues are vitally important. But they don't address the need to take advantage of fundamental changes taking place and alter how our media system is structured. The time is ripe, given all the activism and commitment now in place, to direct our energy towards achieving long-term positive changes for our media system.

A major transformation that is underway is reshaping broadcasting, cable and the Internet. The TV system in the U.S. is being reorganized because of digital technology, which should provide new opportunities for progressives to directly offer channels and program services to the vast majority of television households. But unless progressives and their allies pursue a proactive strategy, they will continue to be as marginalized as we are today.

The emerging structure of the television industry will flow primarily from cable television, a monopoly service that already serves 70 percent of all U.S. viewers (direct broadcast satellite controls the next 15 percent, with over-the-air broadcast serving the remainder). In the future, both cable and satellite companies will be sending their programming via servers, storage devices that will deliver programs and channels to individual households. There will be more channels since cable broadband technology can distribute a greater range of programming options. Already, more than 20 million U.S. cable households receive digital service. Within the next five to seven years, digital set-top and other connections will serve the vast majority of the viewing public.

But mainstream commercial programmers intend to keep a tight control over this new media landscape, dimming the possibility for the inclusion of alternative voices. Their goal is to use the new technology to make TV an even more potent commercial medium through targeted advertising. For example, Comcast, the nation's largest cable television and broadband Internet Service Provider, is now testing on-demand delivery by offering Philadelphia viewers 1500 hours of programming, with half of it for free (but with ads). Working with its partner NBC, Comcast intends to provide its captive viewers with the programs and channels of its choice to store on their server.

The next-generation of set-top boxes will also allow viewers to download and store programming on the hard-drive of their personal video recorder or PVR (similar to what Tivo today provides to more than 500,000 "early users"). Control of the PVR will be partly under the influence of the cable or satellite company since they provide the download connections that make such a device "intelligent." TV will also be interactive and personalized. Leading the way are people like Rupert Murdoch, whose company NDS is building cutting-edge software for television's next technological leap.

Cable also intends to effectively mold the future of the Internet as more households select broadband online connections. Both cable and large phone companies have recently secured new policies at the FCC that allow them to deny access to other ISPs -- in effect, they will become broadband monopolies. Cable's new set-top boxes include high-speed internet access and wireless connections. They hope that a single "bundle" of services, attractive to many users, will foreclose competition from alternatives.

The commercial cable and broadcast conglomerates have no intention of sharing their "broadband wealth" with others. Even PBS recently complained to the FCC that the cable industry is refusing to carry their proposed new digital channels. The FCC will soon allow even fewer companies -- perhaps as few as two -- to own the majority of cable systems. And although the Writers Guild of America (West) recently complained to the Commission that just five companies already control the vast majority of all the major television channels, the FCC will also soon permit more consolidation as it weakens media ownership safeguards as early as June.

A broadband system possesses the capacity to offer progressives and other groups the opportunity to create new channels and programming services by using a variety of business models. Imagine, for example, that 500,000 progressives agreed to pay $5 a month to support a news service. With a $30 million a year programming budget, that channel could be made available for free and seriously challenge the timidity of both commercial and public TV. A whole range of news and cultural services could be created, including ensuring that independent producers have access to the servers, PVRs, and electronic programming guides that will be at the heart of the new interactive TV landscape. But first we have to secure access to the treasure trove of channel capacity held by cable and satellite companies.

What can be done? First, progressives will have to craft a legislative strategy that breaks the cable and satellite stranglehold over channel capacity. They will have to mount efforts at the local level as well, challenging the ways in which cable, for example, intends to serve the public with its new technology. Finally, they will have to develop plans that will lead to the creation of real programming alternatives. While we should continue to pressure the networks through demonstrations and other efforts, we must also strive for more long-term fundamental changes.

The history of U.S. communications in the twentieth century was marked by a striking common theme. During each major transition to a new medium -- radio, broadcasting, or cable -- the media industry assured the public that they would use their new capacity to serve the public interest. But once they were able to lobby away any policy safeguards, the networks served only their narrow commercial goals.

Unless progressives embrace a strategy to intervene in the emerging digital TV marketplace, they may find themselves locked into a future commercial media system that once again marginalizes critical analysis and dissent. Let's avoid that rerun.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. His book "America's Digital Destiny (and what you can do about it)" will be published by The New Press.

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