On Monday, December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission announced a field hearing on broadband and small business to take place at the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago. The FCC has convened a series of several of these field hearings across the United States to solicit feedback from citizens across the country. The FCC seems to be sincere and far better in its solicitation of public comment to help craft public policy, particularly for something as important as a national broadband policy plan which the FCC has to craft by February 17, 2010.
That said, there are the usual litany of criticisms regarding this hearing like other FCC hearings: lack of sufficient advance notice (getting a week's advance notice is cruel but not at all unusual). At the FCC media ownership organized in Chicago in 2007, public forces were lucky enough to get weeks of advance notice that made a big difference in preparation for the Rebel Alliance to organize against the Evil Empire(s). The FCC has (at this writing) yet to announce even an itinerary or lineup. Oh, and there's the teeny tiny small matter of the fact that this hearing is taking place during a weekday (strike two) four days before Christmas (strike three). Those more conspiratorial minded might be inclined to think that there MUST be a connection (especially with the suspicious timing and Chicago's recent record of independent media and media activism), but even if there's less nefariousness now than in previous go-arounds, this does raise eyebrows of suspicion.
Plus, there's the whole point of the event: "focusing on how broadband technology can help small businesses spur growth and reach new markets." I can understand why many people understandably consider this a laudable goal, especially with a crappy economy and the U.S. poised to play its own version of the Lost Decade in Japan. But a great many activists, and growing sectors of civil society (witness what's been happening in Copenhagen) have reiterated that relying on markets to get out of a market-made mess on climate change is a non-starter. The idea needs to make its way into activism on media policy, though progress on that front is (pardon the pun) glacial. But we have to nevertheless draw the connections between markets and unaccountable corporate tyrannies and the solutions that have been proposed, whether it be in climate change, broadband policy, or scores of other topics.
We've discussed before on this website the hinted-at possibility that the broadcast media, hobbled by collapsed profits, may close up shop entirely, and those in America who watch TV would have to pay for it. We may have seen two bellwethers in the past month that suggest that hands have begun to abandon ship.
Omen Number One: Oprah. We won't comment on the abundant and fawning coverage of the end of Oprah Winfrey's daily television broadcast show or what she has and hasn't broadcast, but it could reasonably be interpreted, as some analysts already have, that Oprah is simply following the money in television, which as of late has been trending toward cable since there's more money there from regular cable fees. (That's not to say that gouging wars could arise as is seen in a recent spat betweenTime-Warner and NewsCorp.) Whether or not Oprah's lucrative success in broadcasting can translate to cable is another story, however.
Omen Number Two: The proposed Comcast buyout of NBC Universal from Vivendi and General Electric. Judging by their stock prices, neither Comcast nor NBCU's current parents are getting erections from the proposal, and some have openly asked why do it, particularly where in recent years there has been a trend of sorts of media deconcentration. Given the context of the expected end of broadcast television, it could be seen as a preferred maneuver by both parties. Comcast gets a ton of content to complement what they already have, and NBCU gets the biggest cable company in America as a mother hen. With NBC in fourth place in the ratings, Jay Leno taking a third of the network's weekly primetime lineup, and Comcast's historic antagonism to broadcast industry, Comcast could well make NBC just another cable channel, thereby starting a trend that would lead to a major historic shake-up.
But that's getting a bit ahead of the game. The proposed merger has a lot of opposition already, including on Capitol Hill, and might well collapse due to its massive proposed scope. Even if it does succeed, and there's no guarantee of that, more people could well see their media experiences be less-than-Comcastic.
Problems with the corporate newspaper industry have gotten all the headlines (pun intended), but problems with commercial broadcast television in the United States might be in even worse shape. It appears that the corporate commercial TV industry, if we're to believe the corporate media business press, is in full-blown panic. Consider these recent developments:
1. Organizational and financial predicament. We've previously commented on the CMA website of the collapse of advertising in commercial television in the past year, thus leading industry financiers to think heretofore unthinkable thoughts, like abandoning broadcasting altogether. The financial situation, at least in the short term, seems to be getting worse: the notorious Sinclair Broadcasting Group appears to be on the verge of bankruptcy, one media advisory group is predicting a 15% drop in TV station revenues, and the
depression recession is drying up international TV markets. What's more, the National Association of Bastards Broadcasters and the Television Bureau of Advertising don't have any leaders.
2. Other industries are writing commercial TV's obituary. Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, has declared the death knell not just for commercial television but for all of "traditional media". The Hollywood insider blog The Wrap has deemed television as we know it "finished" and is quoting one authority who expects the demise of one or two networks in the next five years.
3. Industry statements of full blown panic. The corporate media has a rich history of talking through both sides of their collective mouth. And you can find statements regarding, like NBC's Jeff Zucker declaring that TV advertising has "bottomed out", plus income tends to be lower in odd numbered years (without an influx of electoral ads or Olympics coverage). That said, nevertheless, in recent months, the commercial TV industry's own business press pronouncements make you think that the sky is falling.
And what should be done? Why, the same elixir that's been demanded for years -- more pro-corporate regulations to allow for greater media concentration. Groan.
Now, it could be pointed out that this is chicken-little alarmism from the corporate media. After all, if they think that broadcasters really are in dire straits, why don't they just dump all their broadcast licenses? Plus, it's not like you can't make money from broadcast advertising, it's just that the amount of money has gone down. From an investor's point of view, even a slight turndown could smell like the beginning of the end, and might deter investor confidence. But there is a sense of panic and a loss of confidence in the commercial broadcasting that wasn't there even just a year ago. This could lead to opportunities for community activists to exploit, so we should keep our toes on developments in this, and devise our own popular policies to be ready to push.
Note: The article below has, so far, been picked up by the following eleven (11) print outlets: Portland and Seattle's African American owned weekly The Skanner, the upstate Connecticut daily Register Citizen, The Anniston (Alabama) Star (interesting background on this non-profit daily here), The Camp Verde Bugle, an information source for Cottonwood and Verde Valley area communities in Northern Arizona published three times weekly, The Town Talk, a daily newspaper serving Alexandria, Pineville, and central Louisiana, The Coalfield Progress, serving Wise county in western Virginia twice weekly, The Sebeka & Menahga (Minnesota) Review Messenger, The Ledger (a NYT owned daily serving Lakeland and Polk County, Florida), The Crookston (Minnesota) Daily Times, the daily Montgomery News (serving Montgomery County, PA and its neighbors), and the weekly West Texas County Courier serving Anthony, Vinton, Canutillo, East Montana, Horizon, Socorro, Clint, Fabens, San Elizario and Tornillo. The op-ed article below was also picked up by the website of the bimonthly Counterpunch, which is described by its editors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair as "muckraking with a radical attitude". It can be found in the e-newsletter and on the web site of Media Alliance, one of the oldest media activist organizations in the U.S. Other online publishers of this op-ed include OpEdNews, Communications-Related Headlines, a free, daily communications news summary service of the Benton Foundation, Augusta Free Press (serving the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia), mathaba.net, Digital Television and Mind Control at Blogspot, mysanantonio.com, an online adjunct to the daily San Antonio Express-News, Progressive Democrats of America - Illinois, healthhaven.com, and
North Texas e-News. It also can be found online at Media Industry Today, which is a European Internet Network (EIN) news service for media industry professionals. EIN distributes a multitude of subscription only online publications and has an interesting history and well-connected membership. The article has been linked to by sites such as tweetmeme.com, International Business Times, Daylife (Daylife clients here), Zimbio.com, and the News Corp owned Sky News (UK), often through the Counterpunch newswire. That is how the op-ed below wormed its way onto the NPR web site, arabamerican.net, and the USA Today website, where it is fittingly filed under "Iraq". (It does look kinda neat there with its own little summary page and link along with the USA Today logo.) The Skanner probably broke this piece first, and it has been sourced a number of times by other publishers. Thanks to each and every outlet that has published this article. And many thanks to American Forum for sending this piece out to every newspaper, tv and radio station in the U.S. gratis. This blog post was last updated 10/31/09. Keep republishing this one folks! :)
The DTV Transition Puts Corporate Profits Ahead of the Public Interest
By Scott Sanders and Steve Macek
The much-delayed switchover to digital TV is now behind us. On June 12, all full power TV stations in the country ceased their analog broadcasts and made the final switch to a digital only format.
In the lead up to the DTV transition, the public's attention focused almost entirely upon ways of mitigating the switchover's effect on the elderly, the poor and non-English speakers who rely on over-the-air television far more than the general population. In response to such concerns, the federal government created a coupon program that subsidized most of the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes, but then failed to fully fund it. When it became clear that millions of households would not be ready for DTV by the original February 17 deadline, Congress pushed back the transition date.
The extra time -- together with an additional $650 million appropriated by Congress for more converter boxes and more public outreach -- seems to have done the trick. Though some viewers have reported losing the signals of individual stations in certain markets, the vast majority of Americans weathered the shift to DTV without losing service or being excessively inconvenienced.
Yet, there is another problem with the DTV transition, one that has never gotten the sort of headlines that the shortage of converter box coupons did. The fact is that the shift to digital television represents a massive government giveaway to a handful of powerful media conglomerates.
The Clinton-era 1996 Telecommunications Act which mandated the change to DTV stripped away most media ownership concentration limits and gave away huge swathes -- up to $90 billion worth -- of publicly owned digital broadcast spectrum to incumbent TV license holders. In return for giving up a single analog channel, each of these broadcasters received up to 10 digital channels in return. For free. Only one new public service requirement was added -- a modest increase in children?s programming.
To make matters worse, most digital subchannels run by the big network-affiliated stations air duplicative services such as sitcom reruns, old movies, weather, home shopping programs or cooking shows.
That is, if they run anything at all. Despite recent failures such as their flawed coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq, none of the commercial broadcasters have announced plans we?re aware of to use the new channels to expand or improve their public affairs or news programming.
Where are the digital channels for women and people of color, and the set asides to support independent programming by and for youth and other less advantaged groups, local C-SPANs and other experimental services? Where are the new public affairs programs designed to showcase the perspectives normally marginalized on commercial TV?
Such diversity on the airwaves is needed now more than ever. People of color make up 34 percent of the U.S. population, but only around 3 percent of commercial full power TV license holders, with women holding just 5 percent. Glen Ford, editor of the online Black Agenda Report calls the DTV transition ?the biggest squandering of public broadcast resources in the history of the United States."
Steps should be taken to ensure that corporations are not the sole beneficiaries of the digital broadcasting age. The value of the broadcast spectrum that Congress simply handed over to the big corporate media ought to be recovered through appropriate means (taxes, license fees, etc.) and used to subsidize a democratically run, decentralized public media system, the sort of media that will provide a forum for the minority and dissident viewpoints sorely missing on mainstream TV.
Many talented professional journalists are unemployed or waiting tables right now due to the deepening crisis of the corporate journalism model. We need to foster partnerships between professional and citizen journalists and public TV and radio outlets, PEG access centers, community and micro-radio stations, and other community media. Picture a local public media homepage that looks sort of like a daily newspaper but with prominent live TV and radio streams, lots of links to article and program related resources and social media, with the feel of an online public library and town commons. And no commercial advertisements whatsoever.
A functioning fifth estate is essential to the maintenance of democracy. We can and must fix this bad DTV deal, and create and permanently fund various new and extensively reworked public media outlets and centers. We must collectively piece together a system with the highest measure of accountability for every community across the nation as if lives depend on it. Because they do.
Sanders is a longtime Chicago media and democracy advocate. Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College.
Corporate radio is in the middle of some dismal days, with talk that even the proverbial big media poster child Clear Channel may soon face bankruptcy. Meanwhile, efforts to help expand the radio spectrum to a wider range of independent and local voices are in the ascendancy and have won a number of recent gains. For example:
* In June 2009, LPFM advocates successfully fought off a legal challenge by the National Association of
Bastards Broadcasters to have the LPFM service destroyed entirely.
* There was a recent House hearing voicing support for the Local Community Radio Act of 2009 (HR 1147 / S 592), legislation which would expand the number of low-power radio stations in Chicago.
* There is movement and organizing afoot to help galvanize support for the Act. Both Free Press and the Chicago Independent Radio Project are highlighting a national call-in day on July 20 to advocate for passage. The current "Conventional Wisdom" says that this will probably sail through the House, but face a more uphill climb in the Senate. But the more popular actions, the better the odds for popular decisions -- it's quite literally in your hands.
Meanwhile, in related Chicago TV, CAN TV Cable channel 21 on Saturday, July 18, at 8pm CT, will present "Community Media and You: Low Power Radio" with "Silvia Rivera, of Radio Arte, and Mitchell Szczepanczyk, of Chicago Media Action, discuss the use of low power FM radio as a media option available to community organizations."
The National Association of
Bastards Broadcasters -- the main trade lobby on behalf of U.S. commercial radio and television broadcasters, and which has a lot to answer for -- ranked among the most powerful and feared lobbies in Washington, but there are signs that its influence is waning, mightily. Consider:
(1) Acting FCC chair Michael Copps has now been openly pushing for shorter broadcast license terms (from 8 years to 3 years), which is a good start. Like a bunch of crybabies, the NAB complained, whining that "Congress wisely reformed license renewal terms to allow broadcasters to better compete against our pay platform competitors," [even though license renewals are a patent sham and have only been pulled twice in American history], and that "Reducing a broadcaster's term of license would actually harm localism by injecting greater uncertainty into a business model facing the worst advertising downturn in decades." [even though anything construing localism has been gutted by a neoliberal business model that has nothing to do with a crap economy]. Of course, it's not like CMA is biased or anything.
(2) David Rehr, the teetotalling beer lobbyist who was head of the NAB in recent years, abruptly resigned from the NAB in early May 2009. Rehr's reign has elicited negative commentary from industry types, where the NAB made a number of questionable and backfiring strategic choices under his thumb.
(3) Last week, the NAB lost a key lawsuit where they challenged the legitimacy of FCC authority to help manage low power FM radio stations. The NAB got duly slapped around. Congrats to our friends in the LPFM movement and our lawyer friends for this important win. John Anderson remarks: "The NAB is not the well-connected political juggernaut that it was close to a decade ago."
(4) The coup de grace: On June 12, all high-powered analog television ceases, and the NAB may well feel the brunt of criticism of problems that result in the conversion. The non-broadcast corporate media has been paying attention finally, and if this article is any indication, they may well be slammed as obsolete fuddy-duddies whose time has come and gone. The NAB still has mighty influences, but given the confluence of all these events and certainly more to come, might the NAB suffer something like a death of a thousand cuts?
UPDATE: TVNewsday reports that Meredith Broadcasting Group President Paul Karpowicz is elected president of the NAB Television Board.
On Friday afternoon, the CAN TV funding ordinance involving the state franchise that preivously went from good to okay has now somehow gone from okay to just horrible. (It'd be great to know this happened; we'd love to know how our tax dollars are being spent.)
A dispatch from CAN TV is posted below. Read 'em and weep (and stay tuned to CMA for further developments on this neverending story).
*** *** *** *** *** *** ***
We recently asked you to urge support of the Stone/Burke ordinance to fund CAN TV as a first step toward resolving one of the two funding issues facing the organization.
THAT ORDINANCE HAS NOW BEEN CHANGED IN WAYS THAT ARE HARMFUL TO THE FUTURE STABILITY OF CAN TV AND DOES NOT RESOLVE EITHER FUNDING ISSUE.
We've informed the City that we oppose this version of the ordinance. We don't know if it will be introduced or held for further consideration at Monday's meeting.
If the ordinance passes in its current form:
* The ordinance provides no adequate funding solution for CAN TV.
* The 1% PEG fee from all state holders except for AT&T will go to the City.
* Current funding support from Comcast, RCN and WideOpenWest will go to the City should those companies opt into state franchises.
The 3/16/09 meeting will be held at 10am, City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St., 2nd floor, City Council Chambers.
CAN TV | 312.738.1400 | www.cantv.org | email@example.com
UPDATE: The ordinance passed, and it wasn't pretty to watch. Read all about it.
CAN TV is Chicago's public access cable TV network -- the home of programs like Democracy Now!, Labor Beat, Chicago Independent Television, plus call-in shows hosted by Chicago groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Gay Liberation Network, not to mention many excellent and informative programs through CAN TV's Community Partners and Community Forum series. (Not to mention that CAN TV has hosted Community Forum appearances with CMA.)
But CAN TV's outdated funding structure has created funding problems for years, threatening the future stability of this important community resource. There is good news, however: On Monday, March 16, 2009, the City of Chicago Committee on Finance will vote on the Stone/Burke Ordinance to resolve CAN TV's funding issues. Yes, things are busy this time of year for many of us, but taking some time now is critical if we hope to keep a valuable media resource like CAN TV viable for years to come.
The stakes are high. If the ordinance passes, CAN TV can count on reliable funding now and in the future. But if the ordinance fails, CAN TV will lose 1/4th of its funding in 2009, resulting in significant service cuts.
CHICAGO RESIDENTS -- PLEASE TAKE ACTION TO HELP PASS THIS ORDINANCE TO HELP PRESERVE CAN TV.
1. ATTEND the March 16th meeting at 10am, City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St., 2nd floor, City Council Chambers.
2. CALL OR MEET WITH YOUR ALDERMAN prior to the meeting to urge a "YES" vote for the Stone/Burke CAN TV ordinance.
For your Alderman's contact information call CAN TV at 312-738-1400 or look up the info here.
If you plan to attend the meeting or if you need bus transportation from CAN TV to City Hall, please contact CAN TV:
Email: info at cantv.org