The much-delayed switchover to digital TV is now behind us. On June 12, all full power TV stations in the country ceased their analog broadcasts and made the final switch to a digital only format.
In the lead up to the DTV transition, the public’s attention focused almost entirely upon ways of mitigating the switchover’s effect on the elderly, the poor and non-English speakers who rely on over-the-air television far more than the general population. In response to such concerns, the federal government created a coupon program that subsidized most of the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes, but then failed to fully fund it. When it became clear that millions of households would not be ready for DTV by the original February 17 deadline, Congress pushed back the transition date.
The extra time — together with an additional $650 million appropriated by Congress for more converter boxes and more public outreach — seems to have done the trick. Though some viewers have reported losing the signals of individual stations in certain markets, the vast majority of Americans weathered the shift to DTV without losing service or being excessively inconvenienced.
Yet, there is another problem with the DTV transition, one that has never gotten the sort of headlines that the shortage of converter box coupons did. The fact is that the shift to digital television represents a massive government giveaway to a handful of powerful media conglomerates.
The Clinton-era 1996 Telecommunications Act which mandated the change to DTV stripped away most media ownership concentration limits and gave away huge swathes — up to $90 billion worth — of publicly owned digital broadcast spectrum to incumbent TV license holders. In return for giving up a single analog channel, each of these broadcasters received up to 10 digital channels in return. For free. Only one new public service requirement was added — a modest increase in children’s programming.
To make matters worse, most digital subchannels run by the big network-affiliated stations air duplicative services such as sitcom reruns, old movies, weather, home shopping programs or cooking shows.
That is, if they run anything at all. Despite recent failures such as their flawed coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq, none of the commercial broadcasters have announced plans we’re aware of to use the new channels to expand or improve their public affairs or news programming.
Where are the digital channels for women and people of color, and the set asides to support independent programming by and for youth and other less advantaged groups, local C-SPANs and other experimental services? Where are the new public affairs programs designed to showcase the perspectives normally marginalized on commercial TV?
Such diversity on the airwaves is needed now more than ever. People of color make up 34 percent of the U.S. population, but only around 3 percent of commercial full power TV license holders, with women holding just 5 percent.
Glen Ford, editor of the online Black Agenda Report calls the DTV transition “the biggest squandering of public broadcast resources in the history of the United States.”
Steps should be taken to ensure that corporations are not the sole beneficiaries of the digital broadcasting age. The value of the broadcast spectrum that Congress simply handed over to the big corporate media ought to be recovered through appropriate means (taxes, license fees, etc.) and used to subsidize a democratically run, decentralized public media system, the sort of media that will provide a forum for the minority and dissident viewpoints sorely missing on mainstream TV.
Many talented professional journalists are unemployed or waiting tables right now due to the deepening crisis of the corporate journalism model. We need to foster partnerships between professional and citizen journalists and public TV and radio outlets, PEG access centers, community and micro-radio stations, and other community media. Picture a local public media homepage that looks sort of like a daily newspaper but with prominent live TV and radio streams, lots of links to article and program related resources and social media, with the feel of an online public library and town commons.
And no commercial advertisements whatsoever.
A functioning fifth estate is essential to the maintenance of democracy.
We can and must fix this bad DTV deal, and create and permanently fund various new and extensively reworked public media outlets and centers.
We must collectively piece together a system with the highest measure of accountability for every community across the nation as if lives depend on it. Because they do.
Steve Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College.
Scott Sanders is a longtime Chicago media and democracy advocate.
This article originally ran in The Skanner.