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TAKE BACK OUR TV

by Mark Huisman

There are landmark changes underway within the broadcasting industry. . .these changes will be important to all Americans. Unfortunately, but probably not surprisingly, some of the language used to describe these changes is probably unfamiliar to you. It is far less complicated than the experts might want to believe. Some of the terms and phrases (such as the ones used in bold type) are defined in a glossary you'll also find on this site. If there are other terms you would like explained, please don't hesitate to contact us.

The TV Future is Here

Digital television (DTV) will soon arrive in your living room, if it has not already. Digital broadcasts began in November of 1998 in the ten largest U.S. cities and will spread across the nation in the next several years. You have probably read or heard that DTV images are much sharper and detailed than current TV images. This is true, but it is not the whole story: You and your family have already given up a significant amount of money to receive these pretty pictures. . .by some estimates seventy billion dollars.

What the Broadcasters Have Not Told You

Many Americans believe TV stations pay for their licenses, but this is not the case. Broadcasters have received the equivalent of rent-free office space—the public airwaves (also known as the broadcast spectrum)—since the late 1930s.

In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress gave the broadcasters a second channel on which to broadcast DTV, absolutely free of charge. Some experts believe the value of this spectrum give-away to be as much as $70 billion. Even Bob Dole, running against President Clinton, called it the biggest case of corporate welfare in history.

Broadcasters will soon control two spectrum frequencies—one for analog, one for digital—and will have free use of them until a large majority of Americans have access to DTV. Furthermore, certain technology advances significantly increase the value of this give-away.

As far as the Broadcasters are concerned, the biggest advantage of DTV is not the quality of the picture, but the ability to offer many different channels—to engage multicasting, also called multiplexing. TV stations can broadcast one digital signal—the equivalent of one channel—or split that signal apart into six or more different channels, thereby increasing revenues. TV stations that engage in multicasting may use some channels for video and others for everything from voice mail and paging to data transmission and Internet service.

DTV represents a significant shift in the power of marketers to reach you and your family. TV-PC convergence will allow marketers to track every move you make on the Internet and on TV. This information about your web surfing and TV viewing will be sold to everyone from product manufacturers and politicians to retailers and pollsters. This new information will be combined with information already gathered about your family's purchasing habits from Internet web sites, retail stores and catalog merchants.

DTV broadcasters and their advertisers will use this data to create extraordinarily sophisticated sales pitches that will be sent, over that very set, to every member of your household, young or old. These advertisements will be extremely specific and will be transmitted with such stealth you may not even be aware of them. DTV's pretty pictures will actually mask this attempt to pick your pocket—online spending during the recent holiday season more than doubled over last year—even though the spectrum give-away already robbed you once.

In addition to the marketers' attacks on personal privacy, another risk of DTV is the further erosion of the traditional pact between broadcasters and the communities they are required to serve.

The Work of the Gore Commission

American broadcasting is guided by two basic principles, encoded in legislation dating to 1927:

(1) The airwaves are public property owned by the American people;

(2) The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses broadcasters to use those airwaves—free of charge—as long as those stations operate in "the public interest, convenience and necessity."

While the Telecommunications Act of 1996 reaffirmed these principles, Congress failed to legislate specific public interest obligations detailing how broadcasters should repay the public. In mid-1997, President Clinton appointed a 22-member Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, which became known as The Gore Commission. The Commission's primary task was to decide what the public interest obligations of the nation's 1,544 television stations should be.

The double give-away of public property—frequency for both old analog and new digital broadcasts—to a for-profit industry (commercial broadcasters) requires they return the favor. Their public interest obligations must necessarily go well beyond current programming efforts such as news and the airing of public service announcements, and even beyond other goodwill activities like sponsorship of local charity events.

After meeting over a dozen times in nearly two years, the Gore Commission sent its final report to the White House in mid-December and released the text to the public shortly before Christmas. The report was blasted by newspapers across the country. The Los Angeles Times called the report "a national scandal." The New York Times called it a "vague jumble of voluntary suggestions." Even certain members of the Commission, including Lois Jean White of the National PTA and former FCC Chairman Newton Minow raised serious questions about the report. While the report falls far short of meeting the Gore Commission's charge to determine what obligations DTV broadcasters owe the public, it is a starting point in an important debate.

Almost none of the debate about the report or the process that created it occurred in public view, because television stations, perhaps fearing regulation, kept the issue off the local and national news. The discussion about how TV stations will (or will not) serve their community is taking place in the same back-room, deal-making, back-slapping environment that always preoccupies official Washington.

The spectrum give-away and the secrecy surrounding this important debate are travesties of American democracy.

Television is the most influential image and information machine of American society. Whether airing a sitcom, feature film, advertisement or political speech, TV wields huge social and economic power. PC-TV set convergence will exponentially magnify the importance and influence of the medium by marrying it with the power of the Internet.

Become Involved

It is vital that DTV broadcasters, members of Congress and the FCC hear immediately from viewers—including you—about the issues in this paper.

It is still possible that the Clinton Administration, Congress, the FCC will rise to their obligations to you and your family in the digital age. However, this outcome is far from certain: The broadcasting industry is a powerful lobby, afraid of losing even the smallest bit of its riches. Their lobbyists are working now to prevent you from having any influence or input about DTV. An editorial in the trade publication Broadcasting and Cable compared our efforts to bring you into this debate to a military threat: "Clear and Present Danger" blared the headline.

As you know, however, a free and open debate about the future of personal privacy, sex and violence on television, educational and children's programming and political discourse is not dangerous. It is the most necessary element of a free and open society.

We invite you and your family to participate in this debate. It is the last great discussion about American democracy of the twentieth century and the first great discussion of the twenty-first.

The future of digital television is here. The nature of that future is still up to us.

Please write to people1@his.com to join a broad coalition—People for Better TV. We will provide more information in the next few weeks on how to become involved in your community.


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