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The Digital TV-Spectrum Giveaway

In the latest indication that our nation's media are too concentrated and corporatized, the news that a TV broadcasting "Giveaway of the century" (Sam Husseini) is underway has scarcely been mentioned by TV talking heads or commissars in print, and hence has not caused a firestorm of opposition.

The story concerns a large portion of the broadcast spectrum the Federal Communications Commission intends to allocate for High Density TV (HDTV). The plan is for the lucky parties who control this new spectrum to broadcast in either digital TV or HDTV. Broadcasters might use HDTV for special occasions, but on normal days could squeeze four to six channels of digital TV into the space one HDTV channel uses.

Whether seeing digital TV or HDTV, viewers of these new stations will need to purchase digital TVs to see the programming. In time, all homes in this country will have digital TVs. At that time, the present spectrum for analog TV will be dedicated to something else, making all analog (current system) TVs obsolete.

So who should get to broadcast in the new spectrum? Currently, the President and Vice President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader advocate granting virtually sole access to the new frequencies-which are owned by the public-to the current broadcasters (who will retain their present frequencies as well). Clinton is apparently content with asking Disney (ABC), Rupert Murdoch (Fox), Westinghouse (CBS), and General Electric (NBC) to promise to give free air time to political candidates-no doubt only to Democrats and Republicans. The FCC wants only for the broadcasters to devote a paltry 5% of their programming in the digital TV spectrum for the public interest.

The reaction of such a ridiculously friendly gesture to powerful interests was outrage-by the present broadcasters. (They must believe their contributions to the two business parties warrant no time promised or no stations dedicated to the public.) While they balked at donating 5% of their time for the public, the print media was doing its job to make sure their readers didn't understand what the argument was about.

In a rare reference to the new spectrum, an article in the Washington Post Company-owned Washington Post's business section (3/12/97) tells us that Clinton that day "challenged the broadcasting industry to provide free television time for political candidates." The piece failed to mention that Clinton is only asking for 5% of the programming time for the public interest-or how such a wimpy plea could be called any sort of "challenge." The status-quo-friendly article also never mentioned the possibility that the new digital-TV stations could be given to the big shots only after substantial influence was promised to the general public.

Sam Husseini mentions (In These Times, 7/22/96) three possibilities for allocating the new spectrum that would be better for the public than merely giving it away: (1) an auction, to give the spectrum to the highest bidders; (2) a comparative hearing, which would award space on the spectrum to those who demonstrated that they could best serve the public interest; or (3) giving the spectrum to the broadcasters, but placing genuine (not Clintonesque) public-interest requirements on them.

Now, the auction idea, while it might bring in $10 to $50 billion in revenue, is probably unconstitutional. This is because it would mean that the public would no longer own the airwaves. Instead, Alexander Cockburn recommends that the new spectrum be leased, with the public fully in control of the process (The Nation, 3/20/97)

If the general public only knew that a large part of the broadcasting spectrum that they own was up for grabs, many organizations might be involved in seeing to it that the broadcasters who control it did so much more socially than the ones in the. present space. Imagine if television were worthwhile, with engaging comedies and dramas interspersed with the occasional thought-provoking public issue forum. The possibilities are endless.

However, one should expect no help from the mainstream print and television media. The notion of increased public control of the new frequencies is so blasphemous to them that the new spectrum has hardly been mentioned by any of them.

Scott Loughrey

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