Digital TV: airway robbery
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 10 Apr 97 14:05:41 -0700
Subject: Digital TV: airway robbery
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Published: April 7, 1997
By: Dan Gillmor
Mercury News Computing Editor
It may not have been the heist of the century, but until something better
comes along, it'll do.
Last week, you lost tens of billions of dollars worth of your property.
The scheme was entirely legal, proving again the adage that the biggest
scandals are often what's lawful, not what isn't.
Culminating a slow-motion, Kabuki-like dance whose outcome was never in much
doubt -- a triumphantly cynical connivance between America's broadcasters
and power brokers -- the Federal Communications Commission gave the TV
robber barons enormous amounts of unused "spectrum." Spectrum is another
word for the publicly owned airwaves.
The broadcasters didn't have to bid at auction for this valuable natural
resource, which you and I owned until last week. They "persuaded" the
powers-that-be that they'd already earned it.
And we, the people, paid for this scam.
Originally, the giveaway had a vague rationale. The broadcasters were going
to convert today's relatively fuzzy "analog" TV signals to high-definition
digital signals, giving us theater-like viewing in our homes. To provide
this, they needed much more of the airwaves than they use today, about six
times as much.
The broadcasters have been using public property for decades. At the
beginning of the broadcasting era, Uncle Sam, trying to spur a new industry,
licensed the airwaves to companies that promised to use the airwaves in the
public interest. As things turned out, those were licenses to print money.
The idea behind giving broadcasters even more of the airwaves this time was
entirely specious, given how valuable the airwaves had become. The
broadcasters, running one of the most profitable businesses in the world,
pleaded poverty when it was suggested that they bid for the digital
spectrum, despite successful auctions for other parts of the airwaves.
But then, this giveaway was never about merit. It was about raw financial
and political muscle. The fat-cat broadcasters rolled over Congress, which
cowered in bipartisan terror of offending the owners of the medium --
television -- on which political candidates rely to spread their messages.
Bucketloads of campaign contributions also helped persuade lawmakers to
abandon the public interest. And the ever-compliant Clinton administration
hid in the corner.
The broadcasters' greed is amazing, even in this era. Few of the TV moguls
appear to have had any intention of offering high-definition television,
the ostensible reason for giving them the new spectrum in the first place.
Instead, with the blessing of Congress and the White House, they'll branch
out into new businesses.
Broadcasters will use a fraction of the extra spectrum for converting
existing programming to digitally transmitted signals, re-creating the so-so
visual quality of what we now view, albeit with some moderate improvement.
Needless to say, these media barons are loudly complaining that the FCC is
forcing them to move to digital too quickly.
The real scam: The broadcasters are also free -- good word -- to use the
rest of their new airwaves to launch other TV channels and sell a vast array
of new digital communications services ranging from paging to financial
The gift of public property is raw industrial policy -- precisely the kind
that the so-called "conservatives" who run Congress profess to abhor. Free
use of the airwaves gives current broadcasters a price advantage over
would-be competitors who are being forced to pay for their piece of the
In theory, the broadcasters are supposed to pay a fee if they use the
spectrum for "subscription" services not supported solely by advertising.
And years from now, they're supposed to give back the spectrum they now use
once they've converted to digital. But if you believe they won't try to keep
every bit of spectrum they can and weasel out of any fees, you'll also be
interested in purchasing my North Dakota ocean-front property.
Not content to give our airwaves away, Congress and the FCC didn't even
bother to extract a guarantee that the spectrum would be used for the public
benefit. For example, they ducked the question of whether to require no-cost
air time for political candidates, considered by many thoughtful people a
vital step in cleaning up the political fund-raising cesspool.
Oh, right: They're going to hold hearings. About that ocean-front property
Most Americans today get their news from TV. Well, they didn't get this news
from TV, because for the most part the broadcasters didn't put it on the
air. What a shock.
The newspaper industry, which employs me, isn't exempt from greed. It has
arranged for some sweetheart laws, too, though none remotely on this scale.
The broadcasters have set a new standard. Shame on them for their sleazy
refusal to tell the public what they were doing. And shame on Congress and
the president for caving into yet another corporate power play, mocking that
moldering idea we once called the public good.
Write Dan Gillmor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, Calif.
95190; (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 1997 Peter Langston