Media Circus: Digital Christmas

You'll be getting high-definition digital TV with CD-quality sound -- for a price. The nation's broadcasters just got the digital airwaves -- for nothing.

Published April 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

if you've been watching the television news -- on that soon-to-be obsolete box in your living room -- you've undoubtedly been hearing a lot about the glories of digital TV, scheduled to arrive at a television set near you within the next nine years. What you haven't been hearing as much about is the Federal Communications Commission's giveaway of an estimated $70 billion of digital television licenses to broadcasters -- free of charge.

As protesters marched outside FCC headquarters bearing signs bemoaning this boondoggle of corporate welfare, FCC commissioners announced their long-awaited plan to allow broadcasters to bring digital television to the people. All the last-minute huffin' and puffin' from the likes of Congress, public interest groups and most of the nation's newspapers couldn't make the FCC back down on what Gigi Sohn, executive director of the Media Access Project, called "one of the largest federal giveaways of the century."

The public airwaves -- the spectrum -- are hot property these days. Broadcasters of free TV have historically used the airwaves without cost, but the process of licensing out the extra spectrum allotments needed to carry out the transition to digital TV was viewed by many as an opportunity to take broadcasters to task for a host of examples of broadcast negligence, like dwindling adherence to public service obligations.

Bob Dole had suggested auctioning off pieces of the spectrum to the highest bidders and using the money to reduce the deficit. Campaign finance reform crusaders like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wanted to squeeze more free air time for political candidates out of broadcasters' budgets in exchange for the digi-TV licenses. Media reformers wanted to see high-rent, short-term leases on those spectrum rights, in order to funnel millions of dollars into the limping public broadcasting system. And just about everybody wanted to force broadcasters to somehow live up to a higher standard of public service.

But it was not to be. And what's worse, almost no one even heard about the ongoing debate. "Here we had the most important debate over public property in this century going on, and most people didn't know a thing about it because the networks that stood to gain from this deal didn't run news stories explaining what was happening," says Sohn. Even FCC Chairman Reed Hundt chastised TV journalism earlier this week at a media-mogul-studded industry conference in New York. "It seems the real digital story is never covered on television," he mused.

Not completely true, but pretty close. After prodding from McCain's office, constant nagging from special interest groups and, finally, a public poke in the corporate rib from Hundt, ABC's "World News Tonight" chose to air a segment about the controversy ... on the night before the licenses were handed out. And last night, with those licenses safely in hand, all three major networks ran pieces about the brave new digital television era. "Better late than never" might actually not hold true in this case.

This Thursday, Hundt's song was a little bit different. "I'm dreaming of a digital Christmas in 1998," he crooned. And it looks like he'll get it. As part of Hundt's dream, every TV station in the country has been granted an additional channel, in order to make a full transition from analog to digital technology in nine years. Top 10 markets will begin digital transmission within 18 months, but you don't need to run out and buy your new $2,000 digi-set just yet. Broadcasters will use their additional channel to send out analog and digital pictures simultaneously, and converter boxes (costing about $200) will also be available. Without the new-generation set, though, you won't be witness to the "astonishing clarity of images and CD-quality sound" of that High Definition Television (HDTV) all the broadcast kids are raving about. Still, as the Associated Press laconically noted, at least "this way, existing analog TV sets will not be rendered immediately useless."

The FCC and broadcasters seemed pleased as punch with their new deal, which outlines all the technical mumbo jumbo and makes few demands on networks and station owners. An advisory committee will be set up to look into "possible further public service obligations" -- a far cry from what various factions opposed to the "giveaway" had been angling for.

Broadcasters weren't exactly happy with the criticism. "We're not talking about a 'giveaway' of anything," says Gil Schwartz, V.P. of corporate communications at CBS. Like other network execs, Schwartz says the additional spectrum is crucial to making a seamless transition to digital, so that TV sets across the country won't go dark. And, broadcasters warn, the economics of forcing them to buy spectrum would result in the disappearance of free over-the-air TV.

One wonders. No other digital industry -- including paging and cable -- gets its spectrum for nothing.

"We're talking about an industry that makes billions of dollars off a free gift from taxpayers," says Steve Rendall, spokesman for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "You'd think they'd be more willing to provide more democratic media -- more representative of the people's needs."

"There were a million ways this could have been handled to better meet the needs of the public," says the Media Access Project's Sohn. "Instead, it seems the best interests of the broadcasters were more dear."

By Jennifer Nix

Jennifer Nix has written for New York, the New York Observer and the Nation.

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