Albion Monitor /Commentary

Land Grab in the Sky

by Frank Beacham

The panel's non-binding recommendations have no teeth, only PR value
In what may be the largest corporate welfare handout in American history, the Clinton Administration has agreed to give the nation's over-the-air television broadcasters more than $35 billion worth of new digital channels free of charge.

In order to give the illusion that the public is getting something in return for its valuable airspace, the White House agreed to appoint a panel that will recommend a public service quid pro quo for broadcasters receiving the free spectrum. However, the panel's non-binding recommendations (to be made in a year) will have no teeth, only PR value.

In the popular press it was treated as a technology story, not the political one that it really is
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), long a protectionist agency for corporate broadcasting interests, will have final say-so over any public service conditions that might (or might not) be imposed on the new digital broadcast stations. Expect any new requirements to be lame, very lame.

The White House cave-in on spectrum, announced by Vice President Al Gore, is a stunning surrender to the nation's television broadcasters, the most powerful lobby operating in Washington today. Gore, dreaming of his own run for the White House in the year 2000, clearly did not want to offend the gatekeepers of the American airwaves.

"I believe (spectrum) is an asset owned by the American taxpayers and they deserve a return on it... just as any other natural resource that we have," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who now heads the Senate Commerce Committee and has been an outspoken advocate of spectrum auctions for digital broadcasting.

"I don't see why the broadcasters should have any particular privileges, especially since they receive such enormous benefits from using something that belongs to the taxpayers," McCain told me in an interview. "Just like someone who owns a concession at the Grand Canyon. No, I don't buy their argument (that they deserve free spectrum because they perform a public service). They make their situation worse when they say they are going to act in the public interest and almost never do."

The digital television issue picked up steam on Christmas Eve, 1996, when the FCC approved a "compromise" digital television transmission standard proposed by the broadcasting, computer and consumer electronics industries. The agreement was hailed in the popular press as the beginning of a new era of "crystal, clear" digital television pictures. It was treated as a technology story, not the political one that it really is.

"The key battle has been and always will be what happens in the spectrum. It's a land grab up there"
Buried in the technical agreement, however, was a significant political compromise. It binds the parties (including the computer giants Microsoft, Compaq and Apple) not to support efforts in Congress or elsewhere for the auctioning of spectrum allocated for digital television broadcasting. And, to mute further discussions of the volatile issue, the negotiators agreed to keep their deliberations forever bound in secrecy.

"The broadcasters got a number of vocal troublemakers in the PC industry to shut up about the spectum auctions and that's all they got," said Bill Frezza, president of Wireless Computing Associates, Yardley, Pennsylvania. "I think the PC industry got nothing."

However, Frezza predicted, the broadcaster's victory will be hollow. "Don't think for a minute that the PC industry is a monolith. There are hundreds of companies that never signed that agreement and you can bet they are going to be back. To assume the PC industry has been bought off is a false assumption."

Despite outward appearances that the broadcasters have once again used the government to secure their future with another lucrative free ride on the public's airwaves, a new generation of digital entrepreneurs may eventually get the last laugh. The fact is few broadcasters have any real idea how to make money with the expensive new video technology and most have long resisted the looming change from analog to digital broadcasting. Some technology experts even predict that new digital direct broadcast satellite and cable systems will soon turn over-the-air broadcasting into the likes of a horse and buggy business in the era of the automobile.

"The future of (video) pictures doesn't need standards anymore,"said Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and head of the Lab's research into the future of television. "Those kinds of things are migrating in software faster than anyone thought ten years ago. The key battle has been and always will be what happens in the spectrum. It's a land grab up there. Who gets to use it and what they use it for is at this point what's most interesting."

Regardless of who wins the spectrum gold rush, public service broadcasting is almost certain to be low on their agenda. Sadly, there's no serious movement to seize the public's airwaves from the media conglomerates and return the spectrum to the public for non-commercial use. The only options even being discussed in the current political debate are whether the broadcasters should be sold or given the spectrum. No one in power is seriously advocating the use of this valuable publicly-owned resource for anything other than commerce.

Most people (more than 70 percent) no longer watch TV over-the-air anyway
In light  of the broadcaster's horrendous track record in public service over the years and the Clinton Administration's lack of political backbone on this hot potato issue, the public should expect business as usual on the digital airwaves. The situation is so bad that the broadcasters are even arguing that their exploitive "if it bleeds, it leads" newscasts should be counted as a public service contribution. They reject evidence that their current programming dims the mind, reduces the diversity of genuine experience and creates a value system that celebrates the consumer culture and discourages independent inquiry.

But maybe, just maybe, there's a glimmer of hope for those who would like to slow down the digital broadcasting express. The whole thing might just backfire. In fact, there's a better than even chance of it.

Here's how it could happen: The success of this government/industry movement is dependent on a complete overhaul of the American television broadcasting infrastructure. This means -- at a date to be set by the FCC -- the over-the-air analog television broadcasting system we use today will be turned off and shut down. It means every participant -- from television producer to broadcaster to home viewer -- will have to chuck their current TV equipment and buy new, more expensive digital gear.

That's a tall order and an arrogant assumption on the part of the broadcasting and consumer electronics industries. To assume that the American viewing public will automatically pay a significant premium for a TV set that receives a slightly better over-the-air picture flies in the face of recent history. Most people (more than 70 percent) no longer watch TV over-the-air anyway; they now get it from cable and satellite.

If one wants and is willing to pay for improved digital picture and audio quality, it is now readily available through several direct broadcast satellite services that work very well with conventional analog television receivers.

So, what if the public balks at throwing out their old TV sets? What if lines don't form at the digital TV department at Circuit City and Sears? What if broadcasters transmit digital TV and nobody springs for the expensive new sets? It could happen. History has taught us that in chaotic times comes unpredictable change. Right now, traditional broadcasters -- even with the help of the government -- are headed into the future on a wing and a prayer. Who knows... maybe this time they'll get their comeuppance.

Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer and producer

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Albion Monitor February 18, 1997 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)

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