Take Back Our TV
by Mark Huisman
People for Better TV, 1999
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
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
People for Better TV 818 18th Street,
NW, Suite 505
Washington, DC 20006
Media Reform page