Will Huge TV Companies and the FCC Stand in the Way of Opportunities for Ethnic Media?

Due to prejudice in the U.S. media system, an audience of 57 million ethnic media consumers may not be able to access the media they deserve.

There are as many as 57 million regular ethnic media users, according to a New America Media poll. The demand for ethnic-specific programming can only grow as the US population continues to diversify, as census trends indicate it will. But not only are many of these users unaware of the existence of free services like low-power television (LPTV) that serve ethnic communities, they are underserved by media Goliaths, which have hogged most of the available spectrum and continue to greedily demand more.

LPTV stations like the San Francisco Bay Area’s KAXT serve a diverse range of ethnic audiences with community-specific programming. These broadcast underdogs have to jump through many regulatory and financial hoops just to get on the air. Yet they face an uncertain economic future, and are treated with indifference by government officials and preyed upon by larger media companies.

The Battle for Channel 42

In 2009, before KAXT could start programming its 24-hour Indian, Vietnamese and Filipino channels, it first had to overcome a challenge by KTVU, a once-independent station, currently a Fox affiliate owned by Cox Broadcasting.

KAXT vice-president Ravi Kapur says his station was all set to start programming when the  Federal Communications Commission delayed the digital television transition by four months, resulting in hundreds of thousands in increased costs and skeptical potential advertisers who doubted whether the station would ever get off the ground.

Ostensibly, the reason the FCC gave for the digital conversion delay was to allow consumers more time to purchase converter boxes. Yet delaying the transition also allowed full-power stations more opportunity to file claims for the same frequencies claimed by LPTV stations, as “fill-in translators” in areas where viewership was affected by the digital conversion. Many full-power stations did, in fact, file petitions with the FCC, which had based its projections of viewer displacement on a computer-generated model — not on actual “lost” viewership due to low signal strength.

One such station was KTVU. “They said they lost 200,000 people in the San Jose area, but it was very clear from the get-go this was a spec and grab,” Kapur says. “Just basically a free channel they were gonna be given.”

Dusting off his investigative reporter skills, Kapur packed a portable TV in his car and went door-to-door in the South Bay, asking residents whether they could receive KTVU’s signal. “I went to Los Gatos, I went down to Gilroy, I went to Morgan Hill and all those little areas where they thought they lost coverage.” His findings? “KTVU was blanketing that entire area.”

Kapur’s next recourse was to threaten KTVU with a boycott. He set up a Facebook page announcing the campaign and organized a demonstration. At the event, he says, “We had Vietnamese, Indians, Filipinos, African Americans, a great coalition of people show up.”

He also reached out to minority media advocates such as Free Press, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and UNITY: Journalists of Color, who expressed their support. Then he contacted the local news media, hoping to get some publicity from his TV reporter colleagues. Unfortunately, he says, “no one wanted to cover the event. In the words of a very, very famous broadcast journalist here in the Bay Area, he said, ‘listen Ravi, I’d love to help you. But the reality is, my station is liable to do this as well’… our whole effort was shuttered by the media.”

The protest did succeed in getting the attention of KTVU, which was were initially reticent to relinquish its claim to Channel 42 -- the same frequency KAXT coveted, Kapur says. However, he discovered that Channel 48, which serves the South Bay, was available. Yet had KAXT settled for that, it would have precluded them from reaching the widespread ethnic audiences they intended to serve, specifically large portions of the Filipino and Vietnamese communities in Oakland, San Francisco, and Daly City. After KAXT wrangled a temporary broadcasting permit from the FCC, KTVU finally agreed to take Channel 48 and drop its claim to Channel 42.

KTVU General Manager Tim McVay says his station filed the FCC petition after commissioning engineering studies which indicated they could possibly lose viewership as a result of the digital transition. Asked about Kapur’s claims to the contrary, McVay says, “That’s not the studies we saw.”

In McVay’s view, KTVU was “unbelievably helpful and cooperative when we didn’t need to be. We didn’t have to flip this thing. We did it out of absolute cooperative spirit, bending over backwards for the community, and there you have it.”

The DTV Spectrum Grab

KAXT’s attorney Peter Tannenwald concedes there was “no clear evidence” of hostility on KTVU’s part. Yet he notes that half of the 96 applications by full-power stations for fill-in translators during the digital television (DTV) transition period were granted by the FCC. This resulted, he says, in the “muzzling of diverse voices” across the country.

In KAXT president Warren Trumbly’s view, the intrinsic problem lies with the federal government, which gives full-power stations priority over low-power stations. Full-power stations, he says, saw the DTV transition as an opportunity for a “spectrum grab” -- even if they didn’t actually need the spectrum.

McVay confirms that KTVU, which rebroadcasts some programming on KICU (Channel 36), hasn’t yet aired any programming on Channel 48—the FCC petition has a three-year expiration date—but says “We’re in the process of working things out.”

While the DTV rollout was largely hailed as an opportunity to lessen the digital divide, in actuality the results were mixed. DTV technology created more opportunities for LPTV stations to broadcast across multiple frequencies, but the FCC’s spectrum reallocation lessened the number of stations who could do so – impacting the ethnic and minority communities those stations served by forcing their audiences to buy expensive subscriptions to premium cable just to get a few native-language shows.

The FCC’s Questionable Commitment to Localism and Diversity

The FCC’s stated mission is to ensure “communications for all.” Yet not only is its commitment to localism questionable, media advocates charge it hasn’t gone far enough to ensure diversity on the airwaves, particularly in the case of multi-billion dollar mergers that have stifled competition.

According to a Free Press report issued in May, Comcast’s Spanish-language stations lag far behind its NBC counterparts when it comes to reporting local news. The report found Comcast-owned Telemundo stations collectively average one-fourth the amount of local news as NBC stations and as little as a half-hour a day in the country’s top media market, New York. Furthermore, commercials have frequently been falsely listed as local programming on Comcast’s official FCC reports.

In contrast, LPTV stations are required to provide three hours of local programming and three hours of children’s programming weekly. “Because I have 12 video channels, I do three and three on all 12,” Kapur says. “So, I’m literally doing 72 hours of programming in the public interest, as mandated by the FCC. Which is almost more than the entire Bay Area broadcast community combined.”

Complicating the matter further are rumors of backdoor deals and the FCC’s infamous revolving door, which has resulted in many former officials taking cushy jobs with telecommunications companies, seemingly at odds with the public’s best interests.

When Kapur approached then-FCC commissioner Meredith Atwell-Baker at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in April to discuss increasing digital diversity for LPTV stations, the result, Kapur says, was “she just blew me off.”

Recently, Atwell-Baker—who advocated strongly against requirements for increased localism during recent FCC hearings over Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal—announced she’s leaving the FCC for a lobbyist position at the multimedia corporation, a move that has raised widespread allegations of conflict of interest.

Possible Impacts of Reallocation

The FCC’s Broadband Plan, announced in 2010, was supposed to close the technology gap affecting rural and minority communities. However, it could end up doing the opposite. Currently, the plan calls for 20 channels of existing spectrum to be auctioned off to wireless providers. This could likely result in more LPTV stations “just being forced off the air,” Tannenwald cautions.

Broadcast law attorney and LPTV expert Brendan Holland says many questions remain about the economic impact of reallocation. “There’s no consistent estimate,” he says, of how much money a government auction would bring in, and many variables at play, not the least of which is “what the big 3G and 4G providers would be willing to pay.” 

The immediate impact of reallocation for LPTV stations could be increased costs. However, Holland says, “if the replacement channel is less effective than the original channel, the station's audience could be reduced.” And, the station's audience would need to be educated as to how to find the station on its new channel. Furthermore, “spectrum reclamation could also leave fewer channels available in congested urban areas,” which is where LPTV stations serving minority and underserved communities tend to be located.

“Basically, the spectrum reallocation will adversely impact low-power stations in particular,” Kapur says. “The reality is, they are considered secondary in nature and therefore at any time, they could be repossessed by the FCC. It’s just that simple.”

A Manufactured Crisis?

Yet former FCC telecommunications bureau chief Uzoma Onyeije argues that the need to reallocate spectrum is essentially a manufactured one, the result of collusion between the FCC and the wireless industry. In a 2011 study commissioned by NAB, Onyije maintains that “claims of a ‘spectrum crisis’ lack a convincing factual basis” and says “policymakers have not adequately explored” alternate methods of reducing spectrum congestion.

In a recent interview, Onyije says the FCC neglected to examine potential solutions, like increasing network density, which wouldn’t require spectrum reallocation. What’s behind the claims of a crisis, he says, is “a lot of people [who are] interested in running this through Congress” without comprehensive analysis.

If the reallocation proceeds as planned, Onyije says, digital diversity issues “would be specifically impacted by the agenda that’s out there now.” Real questions remain, he adds, as to the FCC’s “obligation to ensure competition.”

According to Kapur, telecommunications companies, wireless providers, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are “anti-ethnic, anti-minority, anti-small business.” Media policy debates in Washington, he adds, fail to address these concerns. “No one’s discussing these huge issues in media which directly affect ethnic media, directly affect minorities and women,” he says.

The bottom line, Trumbly says, is that “there is a prejudice in the system.” Ethnic communities are essentially being forced to pay a high premium for native-tongue programming they could be getting for free, he says, if the availability of LPTV was more widely known. Furthermore, the ethnocentric programs which are available on cable often don’t target the specific needs of communities for localized news and information. “Local content—that’s the key,” he says.

What LPTV Offers Ethnic Populations

The real promise of LPTV is that it not only narrows the digital divide, it also addresses the language barrier which holds ethnic and immigrant communities back. It also offers both 24-hour programming and local news, a key difference separating stations like KAXT from the limited non-English shows on cable. In the event of a disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami, LPTV stations could relay breaking news to immigrant and ethnic communities in a more direct and localized manner. Relief efforts could therefore be more timely and effective. Confusing ballot measures could be easier explained to naturalized citizens at election time. And financial investment between immigrants and homeland investors could spur small-business growth, stimulating entrepreneurship.

What LPTV stations like KAXT offer underserved communities are opportunities they’ve never had before: Not only access to news and information, but also the ability to interact and network with other members of that community – all for free, without requiring a subscription to cable TV, a smart phone, or Internet broadband service. Yet, if the media Goliaths have their way and the FCC proceeds with its planned reallocation, many of those opportunities could be lost.

Eric K. Arnold wrote this story as part of a series produced by the G. W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism and New America Media for a media policy fellowship sponsored by The Media Consortium
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