Big Media Steals 5,100 Digital
by Glen Ford
Corporate media and their accomplices
at the FCC may have pulled off the biggest public rip-off since
"Congress conspired to grant millions of acres to the railroad
barons." Valued at $80 billion, the 5,000-plus new channels
are to become the quasi-property of the same corporations that
already hold the licenses for all of American television. The
public has been provided no chance to influence the disposition
of the digital treasure trove, a resource made possible by science,
not station owners. Big Media "used their political and economic
power to take possession of digital channels they have done absolutely
nothing to earn."
On February 17 of next year, 5,100 new
digital TV channels are scheduled to become operational. Every
single one of them is stolen.
The biggest theft of the public airwaves in U.S. history is nearly
complete, a crime perpetrated in semi-secret, that transfers a
brand new universe of the digital broadcast spectrum into the
possession of wholly undeserving corporations. As a result Blacks,
other minorities, unions, community organizations and all other
non-rich societal stakeholders may be shut out of the main streams
of television for the foreseeable future.
The Congressional Black Caucus and most
of what passes for African American "leadership" have
done virtually nothing to thwart the scheme to gift corporate
media four high-quality digital TV channels for every single full-power
channel license they currently hold. Where science has made possible
a new age of programming possibilities - a chance, finally, to
create islands and archipelagos of meaningful news, information
and cultural TV programming that serves and reaches all the people
- corporate-bought politicians have snatched away the prize.
Acting as agents of the broadcasting industry, rather than representatives
of the people, Congress awarded the already filthy rich a digital
TV bonanza valued at $80 billion. It is an unearned gift of a
priceless resource made possible by digital technology's capacity
to deliver far more information than analog technology. The Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) is overseeing the mega-theft.
Ironically, corporate media, already in
possession of 1,700 highly profitable, full-power TV channels,
doesn't know what to do with its 5,100-channel windfall. But the
industry is united in its determination to keep the channels out
of anyone else's hands. Such is the nature of monopolies.
This historically unprecedented heist
of the airwaves has been hidden in plain sight. By now, everyone
that owns a television set knows that something big will happen
early next year, that viewers who are not hooked up to cable or
already own a digital converter box might find themselves without
a TV signal when stations shut down their analog broadcasts and
switch to digital, on February 17. Far fewer people are aware
that the digital changeover will multiply the number of broadcast
channels four-fold. And most Americans will be totally shocked
to learn that these thousands of additional channels have already
been given away - stolen, really - further enriching the corporations
that have turned American commercial TV into a "vast wasteland."
The women of the Harlem Consumer Education
Council, gathered last week in a meeting room of the massive Church
of the Intercession, at 155th Street and Broadway, certainly had
no idea they were being robbed of the possibility of seeing their
lives and organizing activities reflected through a vastly expanded
array of digital New York City TV channels. They were vaguely
aware of the (inadequately funded) campaign to inform consumers
about coupons available for digital conversion. But only the council
leadership, veteran organizers Florence Rice and Marjorie Moore,
knew anything about the broader outlines of the digital transition
- possibly the biggest public rip-off since the Congress conspired
to grant millions of acres to the railroad barons. And Rice and
Moore had only learned about the scheme through Bruce Dixon's
June 11 article in BAR, "Grand Theft Digital: How Corporate
Broadcasters are Hijacking Digital TV."
The broadcasting industry and its servile
accomplice, the FCC, are committing daylight robbery. In the public
arena, the conspirators educate consumers on the technical aspects
of the digital changeover. At the same time, they are engaged
in a conspiracy of silence about the ownership and obligations
of the new digital TV regime.
The thieves have been spectacularly successful.
For more than a decade they have kept the public out of the loop
- purposely misinformed - about the most important development
in TV since the first commercial broadcast, in 1941. The official
FCC website on the digital transition, DTV.gov, claims to contain
"What you need to know about DTV." Yet there is not
a word to explain how and why the same corporations that controlled
the airwaves before the transition are to be enriched with 5,100
new channels. Nor is there any discussion of the corporate license
holders' obligations to the public. The FCC and the station owners
think the public doesn't "need to know" about such matters,
which might lead to questions like, "Why wasn't the citizenry
given an opportunity to decide how they would like to use the
Everyone in the broadcast business has
known since the mid-Nineties that the digital transition was inevitable.
Big Media was, however, anything but eager to take on the responsibility
of additional channels: Channel 2.1, Channel 2.2, Channel 2.3,
Channel 2.4. Back then - and now - commercial TV owners viewed
the prospect of quadrupling their channels as more of an imposition
than an opportunity. From an advertising standpoint, the industry
felt it had nothing to gain from taking control of so many new
channels. Audiences don't grow when new channels are added; they
fracture. Corporate broadcasters would much prefer to preserve
the "general audience" approach to television - bland
content aimed at huge numbers of people - than be compelled to
create program content targeting much slimmer demographic slices.
Additional channels were extraneous and potentially costly, according
to their business model.
But the digital future could not be avoided.
What would be circumvented was public interference in the disposition
of the new stations. As far as Big Media were concerned, the only
thing worse than being burdened with thousands of new channels,
each of them begging for programming dollars, was the prospect
of others getting possession of the resource. The industry's strategy,
slavishly implemented by the FCC, illuminates how monopoly capitalists
actively frustrate scientific advances that threaten existing
business models. Corporate media compelled the Congress and FCC
to structure the transition so that current owners would inherit
three additional channels for each license they held, with no
obligations to the public as to the channels' content. Home shopping
network clones, outsourced weather maps - whatever the licensee
chooses to splash on the screen is his business. The great channel
expansion made possible by science - humanity's common patrimony
- would be contained and rendered useless.
The Dream Derailed
As various U.S. media and technical organizations
gradually reached agreement on standards for digital television
in the late Nineties (the Americans lagged behind Europe and,
especially, Japan in this regard), it became apparent that the
multiplication of channels could usher in a brand new day for
ethnic (and political) minorities in television. Corporate television
had always defended the "general market" - a euphemism
for "white" - character of its programming, including
its news orientation, as necessitated by the limited number of
television frequencies. Minority-oriented programming was better
suited for radio, we were told, where there were plenty of places
on the dial.
Suddenly, with digital transmission, the
television spectrum promised to become as accommodating to minorities
as the radio spectrum. Cities with six or seven full-power stations
would be transformed into 24- or 28-channel markets. Surely, at
least a few of these new channels in scores of markets would,
based on local market forces, cater to Blacks! It seemed that
the digital television business model could one day soon resemble
the radio model, with multiple Black-oriented stations in markets
with significant African American populations. The demand for
informational and cultural content for these outlets could fuel
a renaissance in Black creative and political expression.
For once, the "free market"
might work in African Americans' favor, since the same logic that
led to ethnic segmenting of radio markets should also apply to
an expanded television channel universe - especially with the
rapid fall in equipment costs. One could easily envision at least
a hundred Black-oriented TV channels throughout the nation.
But of course, monopolies abhor "free"
markets; their entire purpose is to cage and destroy them. The
FCC is a captive of broadcasting monopolists, who instructed their
federal minions to deliver the new channels to the old masters
- as if all products of science and technology belong to them,
as a right.
"Cities with six or seven full-power stations would be transformed
into 24- or 28-channel markets."
By 1999, a coalition of civil rights and
public interest groups were demanding hearings to establish a
"digital public interest standard" to govern the new
channels. These groups included People for Better TV, Consumer
Federation of America, American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. Catholic
Conference, NAACP, Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy,
National Organization for Women, National Association of the Deaf,
Project on Media Ownership, and League of United Latin American
Citizens. However, nothing resembling full hearings on the obligations
to the public of digital channel license holders ever occurred
- much less a national conversation on who should receive those
The corporate media were too powerful,
the FCC too devious, and civil rights groups too weak and beholden
to corporations. Only supporters of children's programming succeeded
in winning concessions on advertising and a requirement of three
hours per week of children's shows on each of the new channels.
Blacks and other minorities got nothing.
In 2005, 15 members of the Congressional
Black Caucus (CBC) sent a letter to powerful committee chairmen,
requesting the setting aside of portions of the outgoing analog
TV spectrum for bids by minority entrepreneurs. The CBC members
made no requests regarding the public obligations of the new digital
television spectrum - thus revealing that they cared more about
making a couple of Black businessmen into millionaires than for
putting some democracy into the operations of the television system
that the entire nation would soon be watching.
Why was the CBC so reluctant to demand
elementary fairness in the disposition of 5,100 new channels?
The next year, 2006, told the tale. Two-thirds of the Black Caucus
sided with the telecom companies to vote for the infamous COPE
Act, which would have rolled back Black gains in cable TV access
and endangered Internet neutrality. The CBC's support for the
telecom giants was proportionately greater than among Democrats
as a whole. The Black Caucus showed itself to be largely in Big
"Only supporters of children's programming
succeeded in winning concessions. Blacks and other minorities
In 2007, the Leadership Conference on
Civil Rights (LCCR) took the lead in pressing for some semblance
of public accountability in digital TV. Mark Lloyd, writing for
the Center for American Progress, noted that the FCC and the Bush
administration constantly spoke of the "benefits" that
would accrue from the corporate-owned digital regime that was
"Yet the biggest problem with the
transition to digital television in the United States...is that
the Federal Communications Commission under the Bush administration
has locked the public out of the process of determining what those
benefits might be. What's more, yesteryear's Republican-controlled
Congress set the rules regarding this transition. Thus the public
interest obligations of digital broadcasters remain undefined
and insufficient money has been set aside for the digital conversion.
Both problems need to be addressed by Congress this year."
"The FCC," said Lloyd, "has
yet to reopen the proceeding begun in 1999 to define the public
interest obligations of digital broadcasters."
The FCC is determined to keep the new channels in the old corporate
family. The single "concession" granted by FCC Chairman
Kevin Martin, last year, was to "encourage" broadcasters
to lease time on stations' digital channels to "new entrants
in the broadcast area" - meaning, those who have been shut
out of the digital cornucopia by Chairman Martin and his corporate
friends. The Gannett Company and Media General Inc., corporations
that own TV stations and newspapers, promptly responded to Martin's
"trial balloon" by offering to support leasing time
to minorities and women if restrictions were lifted on their ability
to buy more TV stations. Imagine the gall of these corporate blackmailers.
Having used their political and economic power to take possession
of digital channels they have done absolutely nothing to earn,
they demand more privileges in return for allowing minorities
and women the honor of paying them rent!
However, GOP malice, FCC deviousness and
corporate media greed do not excuse Black capitulation to Big
Media. There has been no sustained African American resistance
to corporate Grand Theft Digital. Instead, a Who's Who of Black
and Latino organizations have joined with the Titans of monopoly
broadcasting to shift all attention to making sure that everyone
is equipped to consume the digital television experience, on February
17, 2009. This consumer project is, of course, a matter of simple
justice and of great importance to the 20 percent of the public
that is in danger of losing TV reception, entirely. But there
is no reason to treat the digital TV transition as a simple consumer
issue while abjectly abandoning the arena of media democracy.
Much of so-called Black leadership is collaborating with the same
corporations that are busy stealing 5,100 of the people's channels.
Don't Steal Anything Small
Two weeks ago, the FCC held hearings in
Rep. Edolphus Towns' district, in Brooklyn. The Black Congressman
expressed no irritation at corporate theft of the digital TV spectrum.
Instead, his greatest fear was petty criminals. "There is
no shortage of swindlers willing to capitalize on the confusion
and fears that could surround the DTV transition," said Towns.
"With vulnerable populations as their main prey, people
are already scheming to dupe people into the purchase of unneeded
televisions or converter boxes or scheming to siphon coupons from
the limited supply that is supposed to be for people who really
All this is , of course, quite true, and requires vigorous government
and community attention. But Rep. Towns would rather rail against
ghetto converter box swindlers than offend the corporate criminals
who are stealing $80 billion worth of TV spectrum. Unfortunately,
Towns's behavior is the norm in the CBC, which as a body is utterly
incapable of confronting Power.
"They have no business plan to exploit
their plundered booty."
Almost as an afterthought, the FCC decided
to do a "test" roll-out of the new digital regime in
one city, on September 8. They chose Wilmington, North Carolina,
a town with a population of about 100,000, one-quarter Black.
Wilmington has no Black-oriented radio station, and no Black college.
The head of the local NAACP knew nothing about the FCC's "test"
when telephoned by BAR in June. The state NAACP chief was only
slightly better informed. Clearly, FCC Chairman Martin knows how
to pick his test locations - to avoid concentrations of organized
minorities and other stakeholders who might demand media democracy.
But then, New York City these days seems no better organized than
There is one bright spot on the horizon.
Corporate TV still has no idea what to do with the thousands of
channels it has stolen. They have no business plan to exploit
their plundered booty. Program-wise, the transition should be
a disaster, a bleak digital expanse of uselessness and waste.
The shock may finally bring home the enormity of the crime, and
cause the public to awaken to the challenge - to take possession
of the pilfered spaces and fill them with programming that means
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be
contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
Broadcast Media watch