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“WHERE’S THE PUBLIC?
MEDIA REFORM IN THE DIGITAL AGE”
Charles Benton, Chairman, Benton Foundation
Engaging Democracy Series
Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies
Ithaca, New York
January 25, 2005
I believe the future of media and communications in America is cause for serious concern. In April 2004, I delivered this message to the Council on Foundations, and I repeat it tonight. As we move from an analog world to a digital one, we are truly at a crossroads. At stake is who controls what we see, hear, and read. At stake is our ability to get our message out and make a difference. At stake is nothing less than the health of our democracy. We all have a stake in this debate.
I come here three months after Representative Maurice Hinchey and Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps spoke to you about media concentration. Given Congressman Hinchey’s representation of this district, I feel I’m visiting the people who brought the message of media ownership reform to Washington – perhaps you can think of this address as Washington reporting back.
The sinking of the Titanic, the loss of some 15 hundred people, is the kind of disaster that has a long and lasting legacy. Our government's regulation of the use of radio spectrum is a part of that legacy. As the famous ship began to sink, distress calls were confused and unanswered. In response, Congress passed the Federal Radio Act of 1912, which provided for the licensing of radio operators. It required a separate frequency for distress calls and absolute priority for distress calls with 24-hour radio service for ships at sea.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, will also have a lasting legacy, including the regulation of the airwaves. In the wake of that disaster, we've come to realize that public safety workers still do not have the communications tools they need to respond in the worst emergencies.
Some disasters, however, do not have such grave consequences, but their legacies can be just as lasting. The debate over media ownership restrictions is just the tip of an iceberg that has jolted our time-honored communications policy priorities of competition, diversity and localism.
Some would say we are now rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic...that media concentration and consolidation are inevitable, and we will drown in a sea of commercialism.
But I see it differently. I believe we are embarking on a new journey – kept afloat – and indeed propelled – by the interest, enthusiasm, and energy of a new generation of people concerned about our media future.
Collected in this hall tonight, I hope, are new enlistees in the battle to preserve, protect, and strengthen the public space in America's media environment. Beyond this hall, I hope this message is received by other committed people and organizations who will offer their time, talent, and resources to prevail in this ongoing fight.
I learned recently that Ithaca is the birthplace of modern local currency, where a pledge of time is valued like cash. So let’s spend the time we have this evening speaking of another local currency – broadcasting – and national debates on media regulation.
By law, as reaffirmed in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public interest. The government provides broadcasters on loan and free of charge exclusive access to a portion of the public airwaves – spectrum – for broadcasting in exchange for their commitment to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”
Under the ’96 Act, the amount of spectrum given to television station owners was doubled. The policy rationale for this was to enable them to convert their signals from an analog to a digital format, thereby increasing the number and technical quality of their broadcast channels. For the spectrum needed for one analog channel, broadcasters can now simultaneously air six standard-quality digital channels or one or more high-quality high-definition channels. When at least 85% of households in a broadcasting market can receive digital signals, the spectrum currently used for analog channels is to be returned to the government for public safety uses, with some spectrum to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Digital television and radio make broadcasting more competitive and valuable in the market, and should enable broadcasters to better serve basic public needs. Remember that broadcasters are supposed to serve as public trustees in their use of the publicly owned airwaves. That at least is the theory on how the system is supposed to work.
Let’s look now at the reality, starting with who owns the media. Today, five companies own the broadcast networks, own 90 percent of the top 50 cable networks, and produce 75 percent of all prime time programming. People of color constitute over 30% of America, but they own only 4.2% of the nation's radio stations and around 1.5% of TV stations.
Even in small local markets, like here in Ithaca, we see the effects of media ownership concentration. Four of the top five stations here are owned by the same company, Saga Communications based near Detroit, Michigan. Saga owns and/or operates radio and TV stations and radio networks in 24 markets across the U.S. Type “Ithaca New York news” into a Google search and what’s the number one result? The Ithaca Journal, owned by the giant Gannett company which also owns USA Today and about 100 other daily newspapers, 21 television stations reaching 18 percent of the country and 130 web sites in the U.S. alone.
The current media landscape already shortchanges our historical commitment to competition, diversity and localism, but in June 2003, a majority of FCC commissioners voted to further weaken it. The FCC decided to relax media concentration safeguards and open the door to a fundamental reshaping of the media landscape. The action would have significantly deregulated broadcast media ownership rules, removing restrictions on the number of outlets a broadcaster could own and control. It would also eliminate “cross ownership” rules that prevented newspapers from buying broadcast stations and vice versa in the same community. The debate leading up to the decision sparked an unprecedented outpouring of public concern over the future of media in America.
Millions of Americans spoke out against relaxing the ownership rules – more people than in any other FCC decision to date – yet the FCC acted anyway to allow big media companies to get even bigger – reducing competition at the expense of the public’s need for diverse and local content. The sense that the FCC no longer cares about protecting the public interest may have led broadcasters to believe they can get away with more commercialization without protecting the public interest.
But in June of last year, the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia reversed the FCC’s action. This is a big, big win for diversity, competition and localism in the media, the three stated goals of the FCC. The judges ruled that preserving democracy is more important than freeing big companies to grow bigger.
Perhaps the most important
part of the decision is the Court’s holding that the
FCC improperly applied a presumption in favor of deregulation in its review of the broadcast media ownership rules. Thus, it sent the case back to the FCC for better analysis of public impact. This court action gives the public the chance to argue that ownership rules are necessary for preserving local civic discourse.
The victory in Philadelphia is rightly credited to the outstanding public interest lawyers led by Andrew Jay Schwartzman at the Media Access Project and the client in the case, the Prometheus Radio Project, which champions low-power radio. And even though this decision was based on a sound reading of current law, we should not underestimate the importance of public opinion rallied against the FCC rules changes.
But, more importantly, we cannot think that the victory won by MAP and others in Philadelphia is final. Far from it. From that decision is arising a new assault on the very foundation of broadcast regulation law.
In November filings to the Supreme Court, Media General and a coalition of major TV network owners made clear that they are seriously considering challenging the Philadelphia court decision by attacking the bedrock legal rationale for regulating the nation’s broadcasters – Red Lion. In the landmark 1969 Red Lion decision, the court held that because broadcasters use a scarce government resource – the radio spectrum – to deliver their programming over the air, the FCC is justified in its special regulation of the industry in the public interest. The scarcity argument justifies a range of FCC broadcast regulations, from its media ownership restrictions to prohibitions on indecent broadcasts.
But Red Lion is used as a rationale for other regulations that benefit broadcasters, too, including obligations of cable operators to carry the signals of local broadcasters.
Why risk this important commercial benefit? Broadcasters appear sick and tired of FCC regulations limiting their ability to add broadcast stations to their portfolios, regulations punishing them for off-color programming that may seem tame on cable, and regulations requiring them to serve the public interest, not just their commercial interests.
I am confident that even if the Supreme Court hears arguments launched by Media General and others against Red Lion and the “scarcity rationale” for broadcast regulation that the decision’s underlying principles will prevail. The most important of these, according to the Supreme Court, is that the First Amendment rights of viewers are paramount.
These giant companies – and, unfortunately, FCC Chairman Michael Powell – claim that we live in a time of unprecedented media choice: hundreds of TV and radio stations provided by terrestrial broadcasters, cable operators, satellite radio and TV systems, national and local newspapers, and the Internet. But who owns most of this media? You know the names: Time Warner, Fox, Viacom, Disney, GE Universal. Do we really have diverse, competing and local voices?
Additionally, spectrum remains a scarce resource. Wireless telecommunications companies are willing to spend billions – some estimate up to one hundred billion dollars – to start providing services over spectrum currently used by broadcasters. Perhaps if broadcasters are willing to enter auctions for the spectrum they use – like other users are forced to do these days – then they can be freed from what they call burdensome regulation. Until and unless they do so, they should be part of a constructive conversation to spell out their public interest obligations in the digital age.
Some responsible broadcasters are doing just that. As long-time commercial broadcaster Jim Goodmon, who served with me on a Presidential Advisory Committee that examined and made recommendations on digital broadcasters’ obligations, puts it, “The broadcast company is fulfilling a contract between itself as the user of a public asset and the public body that owns the asset. As with all contracts, both parties to the agreement need to know exactly the responsibilities that they have to each other. With minimum standards spelled out, there is no question. As a broadcaster I would like to know what is expected of me in serving the public interest. Required minimum standards and a voluntary code provide the benefit of certainty to broadcasters. I like to know what the rules are.”
Scarcity is not the only argument for regulating broadcasting. Television is ubiquitous and has become the engine of our consumer society. As former FCC Commissioner, Nicholas Johnson, used to say, “TV programs are the flypaper to get people to watch the ads.” Its importance in our democracy is easily highlighted by the vast amounts spent by candidates and organizations on political advertising. It is through these ads, unfortunately, not broadcasters’ programming, that most voters learn about candidates and issues.
In exchange for the use of our scarce spectrum, broadcasters have a commitment to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” These basic obligations, called public interest obligations, are critical tools that are designed to ensure that television, at least in part, serves fundamental public needs.
Unfortunately the vision and the reality are often at odds.
Press reports pegged Thursday, January 20th, as the due date for FCC Chairman Powell to share with fellow commissioners a plan to accelerate the transition to digital-only television broadcasting in the US. Of course, the Chairman shocked us all by announcing the next day that he was resigning. The FCC has been working on this transition, at the behest of the nation’s broadcasters, for some 20 years. Absent so far has been a comprehensive proposal for establishing public interest obligations that match digital television’s capacity.
Americans everywhere have begun to realize that as broadcasters get bigger, the public’s benefits are getting smaller. But Americans must also realize that there is more at stake than the impacts of media concentration and consolidation.
Television has never played a more important role in our lives. But today’s television is too often out of touch with today’s realities: parents struggling to find educational programming for their children, voters struggling to find basic coverage of local campaigns and elections so vital to our democracy. In each case, broadcasters have too often lost touch with the needs of the people who own the airwaves.
We have the right to demand and the FCC has the mandate to ensure that television and radio stations provide programming that is in the public’s interest, not just in the owners’ commercial interests.
Public interest obligations are about whether our children can turn on a television and find at least three hours per week of truly educational content, about whether in an emergency our televisions can keep us alert and informed. It is about whether we can be active and intelligent participants in our democracy. It’s about whether the blind and deaf can access closed captioning and video descriptors for digital works. And about whether we can work towards a day when the voices and views on our airwaves reflect the diversity of our country.
A growing number of Americans are working to ensure these public interest goals are met not just because the law says we must, but because we will be richer as a nation when we do. I hope you – especially you, the students assembled here tonight — will join that fight. The transition from analog to digital television does not just represent a technological change, but an important opportunity to reassess whether the public’s airwaves are being used to meet the public’s needs.
I in no way tonight want to minimize the important contribution of public broadcasters. They are truly delivering on the promise of broadcasting as a resource for democracy, diversity and education. In many, many communities, public broadcasters are the only locally owned stations. Unfortunately, public broadcasting is under constant political pressure concerning funding for both infrastructure and content. I believe that a significant portion of revenues generated by spectrum auctions ought to be set aside for public broadcasting to relieve these pressures.
But we cannot rely on public broadcasting alone to fulfill basic public needs. The task is too big. Relying on just one voice per market limits the diversity of voices that is so important in a democracy.
I also believe there is an untapped potential for developing community alliances between public broadcasting and local nonprofit organizations using digital technology. The schools, universities, public libraries, museums and other non- profits have the content. The public broadcasters have the channels. The transition of our media from an analog to a digital infrastructure provides the opportunity for building new alliances and models that can help assure that our media promote public, not just commercial, goals. There’s potential for a brighter future of strong public media – with new media voices and choices, new technologies that put citizens more in control, and policies that more effectively balance public and private interests.
Last year the Benton Foundation joined forces with two broad coalitions of organizations focused on delivering public dividends with the transition to digital television. Working with these groups, the FCC recently extended a requirement that broadcasters air a minimum of three hours a week of quality educational and instructional programming for children to all of their new digital channels. It is also exploring proposals that would benefit our democratic process and our society by requiring broadcasters to:
• Air a minimum of three
hours per week of local civic or electoral affairs programming on the most-watched
channel they operate.
• Promote the FCC’s often-stated goal of diverse viewpoints and voices on television by ensuring that independent producers provide a minimum of 25 percent of their most-watched channel’s prime-time schedule.
• Tell the public how they are serving the interests of their audiences by making this information available in a standardized format, not only at the station, but posted on the station’s own web site.
These really are minimal requirements, but nonetheless often opposed or ignored by the broadcasters. We are arguing that it’s time to put the remote control back into the public's hands and once again give the public greater control over the kind of democracy they participate in, the children they raise, and the security they deserve.
Congress, the courts, regulators and companies are continuing to make communications policy decisions. These decisions will have far-reaching consequences for competition and innovation and ultimately consumer well-being in the media marketplace. While public concern was raised over the FCC’s media ownership decisions, too few individuals are aware that broadcasters are obligated to serve them – or that they can get involved in ensuring they do. For those who understand the crucial role of media in this democracy, our first task is to inform and educate the public about this debate and the right of all Americans to participate in it.
In addition to a clearer television picture, consumers need a clearer regulatory picture for how the digital television transition will impact their lives. Consumers deserve to know how broadcasters will serve their day to day television needs – healthy programming for children, healthy programming for our democracy, and healthy programming for our communities. Citizens need as much information about the TV that comes into our living rooms, as about the food that comes into our kitchens.
But to achieve these goals, parents, voters, community leaders, activists, and concerned citizens need to pick up the television policy remote control – and change the tune coming from policymakers in Washington. It takes writing letters and picking up the phone. It takes letting policymakers know that you want reality based public interest obligations that can help make a difference in your lives.
Since Fall 2004, a group of national and local media advocates have been meeting regularly to share their visions of how the media could better serve the public and help citizens participate in their democracy. Under the auspices of the Arca Foundation and then Common Cause, this group has discussed how to build an affirmative media movement harnessing the public energies focused against ownership concentration while articulating a clear vision of what mass media can become. Working groups are developing different facets of a comprehensive media plan – a congressional briefing book, rapid response capability and a library of resources. Their first product is a Citizens' Bill of Media Rights – a positive statement of principles and goals of a media reform movement. Copies are in the back of the room. The Bill has recently been circulated for sign-on. If my message tonight makes you want to get involved, here’s the first thing you can do: Read “Citizens' Bill of Media Rights,” go online, and sign-on.
At the Benton Foundation, we are close to releasing the Citizen’s Guide to Digital Television Public Interest Obligations. Our guide will serve as a primer for the organizations and people considering taking the policy remote control out of the hands of media giants and their lobbyists and returning it where it belongs – in the hands of the American people, especially in your community. The guide shows what is possible if we take the time to define local broadcasters’ obligations. Action item number two: check www.benton.org in the next two weeks for release of the guide. Be an informed part of this debate.
This year in mid-May, activists, media creators, academics, and policy makers will meet for three days of learning, sharing, networking and momentum building at the second 2005 National Conference for Media Reform in Saint Louis. I hope you will consider joining us as we discuss visions for a more public interest-oriented media system in the US; build skills for media reform activism; and discuss goals and strategies for advancing positive media policy and increasing public participation in media policy making. Visit www.freepress.net for more information. Action item number three: Meet Me In Saint Louis.
There are many valuable resources for keeping up to date on what’s going on in media policy – let me highlight two. At the Benton Foundation, we provide a service which summarizes the top communications policy stories of the day. The service, Communications-Related Headlines, is delivered via email and is also available on our web site free of charge, www.benton.org. Action item number four: subscribe to Headlines.
HearUsNow.org follows Consumers Union's long tradition of promoting a fair and just marketplace by empowering consumers to fight for better and more affordable telephone, cable and Internet services or equipment. By focusing on major media, technology and communications issues and emphasizing local stories, HearUsNow.org will help explain increasingly complex issues and the connections between these issues, underscore what's at stake, and offer ways to make improvements. Action item number five: Visit www.hearusnow.org often.
Last April, I delivered this
message to an audience of philanthropists asking them to fund the ongoing
efforts to shape our media future… to fund media policy research, education
and advocacy. I am happy to say that there’s hope coming from this
important arena: The Arca Foundation board has committed $1 million
-$1.5 million per year for the next 3-5 years to a strategic media policy
for policy advocacy, organizing, research and content development. With Ford Foundation leadership, the Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media’s new Working Group on Electronic Media Policy was formed to respond to the burgeoning interest among grantmakers to build and share knowledge about key issues in media policy, as well as undertake targeted activities to help advance the dynamic media policy field. All participants hope that this funder cooperation will result in real capacity building for the media reform field.
Obviously, when working against corporate interests ready to devote billions of dollars to their cause, even more resources will be needed to win the day. But I am not just talking about money – I’m talking about you. What’s needed is your attention, your action, your passion.
Several members of Congress, including Representative Hinchey, are forming a Congressional Media Reform Caucus to continue the focus on media ownership, digital transition, and other media-related telecom issues. Its first meeting was Friday, January 21st. Last year, Representative Hinchey introduced legislation, the Media Ownership Reform Act of 2004. This proposed legislation has three goals: 1) To curb the deregulatory zeal of the Republican majority at the FCC; 2) To restore the Fairness Doctrine; and 3) To reform the broadcast license renewal process and require broadcasters to report both on their public interest performance and their plans for doing so every two years. In today’s political climate, the legislation may seem improbable. But most significantly, it provides a vision of where we’ll be when we have true democratic media reform in this country.
As I said earlier, we’re
at a crossroads. Left to its own designs, the majority at the FCC will
fight to allow greater consolidation in media ownership while further weakening
public interest obligations. With public pressure, with your participation,
we may help the FCC envision a democratic media future. In this alternative
vision, we, as American citizens, could have a media environment that delivers
a vigorous, uninhibited marketplace of ideas. In this alternative
vision, we could have a media environment that reflects and responds to
local communities. In this alternative vision, we could have a media
environment that embraces and enhances the public interest.
Wouldn’t you like to be part of that debate and help shape this more democratic and more open media environment? If so, why not join us and get involved?!