Big Media Steals 5,100 Digital TV Channels

On February 17 of next year, 5,100 new digital TV channels are scheduled to become operational. Every single one of them is stolen.

The biggest theft of the public airwaves in US history is nearly complete, a crime perpetrated in semi-secret that transfers a brand new universe of the digital broadcast spectrum into the possession of wholly undeserving corporations. As a result Blacks, other minorities, unions, community organizations and all other non-rich societal stakeholders may be shut out of the main streams of television for the foreseeable future.

The Congressional Black Caucus and most of what passes for African American “leadership” have done virtually nothing to thwart the scheme to gift corporate media four high-quality digital TV channels for every single full-power channel license they currently hold. Where science has made possible a new age of programming possibilities — a chance, finally, to create islands and archipelagos of meaningful news, information and cultural TV programming that serves and reaches all the people — corporate-bought politicians have snatched away the prize. Acting as agents of the broadcasting industry, rather than representatives of the people, Congress awarded the already filthy rich a digital TV bonanza valued at $80 billion. It is an unearned gift of a priceless resource made possible by digital technology’s capacity to deliver far more information than analog technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is overseeing the mega-theft.

Ironically, corporate media, already in possession of 1,700 highly profitable, full-power TV channels, doesn’t know what to do with its 5,100-channel windfall. But the industry is united in its determination to keep the channels out of anyone else’s hands. Such is the nature of monopolies.

This historically unprecedented heist of the airwaves has been hidden in plain sight. By now, everyone that owns a television set knows that something big will happen early next year, that viewers who are not hooked up to cable or already own a digital converter box might find themselves without a TV signal when stations shut down their analog broadcasts and switch to digital, on February 17. Far fewer people are aware that the digital changeover will multiply the number of broadcast channels four-fold. And most Americans will be totally shocked to learn that these thousands of additional channels have already been given away — stolen, really — further enriching the corporations that have turned American commercial TV into a “vast wasteland.”

Daylight Robbery

The women of the Harlem Consumer Education Council, gathered last week in a meeting room of the massive Church of the Intercession, at 155th Street and Broadway, certainly had no idea they were being robbed of the possibility of seeing their lives and organizing activities reflected through a vastly expanded array of digital New York City TV channels. They were vaguely aware of the (inadequately funded) campaign to inform consumers about coupons available for digital conversion. But only the council leadership, veteran organizers Florence Rice and Marjorie Moore, knew anything about the broader outlines of the digital transition – possibly the biggest public rip-off since the Congress conspired to grant millions of acres to the railroad barons. And Rice and Moore had only learned about the scheme through Bruce Dixon’s June 11 article in Black Agenda Report, “Grand Theft Digital: How Corporate Broadcasters are Hijacking Digital TV.”

“For more than a decade they have kept the public misinformed about the most important development in TV since the first commercial broadcast, in 1941.”

The broadcasting industry and its servile accomplice, the FCC, are committing daylight robbery. In the public arena, the conspirators educate consumers on the technical aspects of the digital changeover. At the same time, they are engaged in a conspiracy of silence about the ownership and obligations of the new digital TV regime.

The thieves have been spectacularly successful. For more than a decade they have kept the public out of the loop — purposely misinformed — about the most important development in TV since the first commercial broadcast, in 1941. The official FCC website on the digital transition,, claims to contain “What you need to know about DTV.” Yet there is not a word to explain how and why the same corporations that controlled the airwaves before the transition are to be enriched with 5,100 new channels. Nor is there any discussion of the corporate license holders’ obligations to the public. The FCC and the station owners think the public doesn’t “need to know” about such matters, which might lead to questions like, “Why wasn’t the citizenry given an opportunity to decide how they would like to use the new channels?”

Unearned Resource

Everyone in the broadcast business has known since the mid-Nineties that the digital transition was inevitable. Big Media was, however, anything but eager to take on the responsibility of additional channels: Channel 2.1, Channel 2.2, Channel 2.3, Channel 2.4. Back then – and now – commercial TV owners viewed the prospect of quadrupling their channels as more of an imposition than an opportunity. From an advertising standpoint, the industry felt it had nothing to gain from taking control of so many new channels. Audiences don’t grow when new channels are added; they fracture. Corporate broadcasters would much prefer to preserve the “general audience” approach to television — bland content aimed at huge numbers of people — than be compelled to create program content targeting much slimmer demographic slices. Additional channels were extraneous and potentially costly, according to their business model.

But the digital future could not be avoided. What would be circumvented was public interference in the disposition of the new stations. As far as Big Media were concerned, the only thing worse than being burdened with thousands of new channels, each of them begging for programming dollars, was the prospect of others getting possession of the resource. The industry’s strategy, slavishly implemented by the FCC, illuminates how monopoly capitalists actively frustrate scientific advances that threaten existing business models. Corporate media compelled the Congress and FCC to structure the transition so that current owners would inherit three additional channels for each license they held, with no obligations to the public as to the channels’ content. Home shopping network clones outsourced weather maps — whatever the licensee chooses to splash on the screen is his business. The great channel expansion made possible by science — humanity’s common patrimony — would be contained and rendered useless.

The Dream Derailed

As various U.S. media and technical organizations gradually reached agreement on standards for digital television in the late Nineties (the Americans lagged behind Europe and, especially, Japan in this regard), it became apparent that the multiplication of channels could usher in a brand new day for ethnic (and political) minorities in television. Corporate television had always defended the “general market” — a euphemism for “white” — character of its programming, including its news orientation, as necessitated by the limited number of television frequencies. Minority-oriented programming was better suited for radio, we were told, where there were plenty of places on the dial.

Suddenly, with digital transmission, the television spectrum promised to become as accommodating to minorities as the radio spectrum. Cities with six or seven full-power stations would be transformed into 24- or 28-channel markets. Surely, at least a few of these new channels in scores of markets would, based on local market forces, cater to Blacks! It seemed that the digital television business model could one day soon resemble the radio model, with multiple Black-oriented stations in markets with significant African American populations. The demand for informational and cultural content for these outlets could fuel a renaissance in Black creative and political expression.

For once, the “free market” might work in African Americans’ favor, since the same logic that led to ethnic segmenting of radio markets should also apply to an expanded television channel universe — especially with the rapid fall in equipment costs. One could easily envision at least a hundred Black-oriented TV channels throughout the nation.

But of course, monopolies abhor “free” markets; their entire purpose is to cage and destroy them. The FCC is a captive of broadcasting monopolists, who instructed their federal minions to deliver the new channels to the old masters — as if all products of science and technology belong to them, as a right.

By 1999, a coalition of civil rights and public interest groups were demanding hearings to establish a “digital public interest standard” to govern the new channels. These groups included People for Better TV, Consumer Federation of America, American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. Catholic Conference, NAACP, Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, National Organization for Women, National Association of the Deaf, Project on Media Ownership, and League of United Latin American Citizens. However, nothing resembling full hearings on the obligations to the public of digital channel license holders ever occurred – much less a national conversation on who should receive those licenses.

The corporate media were too powerful, the FCC too devious, and civil rights groups too weak and beholden to corporations. Only supporters of children’s programming succeeded in winning concessions on advertising and a requirement of three hours per week of children’s shows on each of the new channels. Blacks and other minorities got nothing.

In 2005, 15 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) sent a letter to powerful committee chairmen, requesting the setting aside of portions of the outgoing analog TV spectrum for bids by minority entrepreneurs. The CBC members made no requests regarding the public obligations of the new digital television spectrum — thus revealing that they cared more about making a couple of Black businessmen into millionaires than for putting some democracy into the operations of the television system that the entire nation would soon be watching.

Why was the CBC so reluctance to demand elementary fairness in the disposition of 5,100 new channels? The next year, 2006, told the tale. Two-thirds of the Black Caucus sided with the telecom companies to vote for the infamous COPE Act, which would have rolled back Black gains in cable TV access and endangered Internet neutrality. The CBC’s support for the telecom giants was proportionately greater than among Democrats as a whole. The Black Caucus showed itself to be largely in Big Telecom’s pocket.

In 2007, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) took the lead in pressing for some semblance of public accountability in digital TV. Mark Lloyd, writing for the Center for American Progress, noted that the FCC and the Bush administration constantly spoke of the “benefits” that would accrue from the corporate-owned digital regime that was being established:

“Yet the biggest problem with the transition to digital television in the United States…is that the Federal Communications Commission under the Bush administration has locked the public out of the process of determining what those benefits might be. What’s more, yesteryear’s Republican-controlled Congress set the rules regarding this transition. Thus the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters remain undefined and insufficient money has been set aside for the digital conversion. Both problems need to be addressed by Congress this year.”

“The FCC,” said Lloyd, “has yet to reopen the proceeding begun in 1999 to define the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters.”

The FCC is determined to keep the new channels in the old corporate family. The single “concession” granted by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, last year, was to “encourage” broadcasters to lease time on stations’ digital channels to “new entrants in the broadcast area” — meaning, those who have been shut out of the digital cornucopia by Chairman Martin and his corporate friends. The Gannett Company and Media General Inc., corporations that own TV stations and newspapers, promptly responded to Martin’s “trial balloon” by offering to support leasing time to minorities and women if restrictions were lifted on their ability to buy more TV stations. Imagine the gall of these corporate blackmailers. Having used their political and economic power to take possession of digital channels they have done absolutely nothing to earn, they demand more privileges in return for allowing minorities and women the honor of paying them rent!

However, GOP malice, FCC deviousness and corporate media greed do not excuse Black capitulation to Big Media. There has been no sustained African American resistance to corporate Grand Theft Digital. Instead, a Who’s Who of Black and Latino organizations have joined with the Titans of monopoly broadcasting to shift all attention to making sure that everyone is equipped to consume the digital television experience, on February 17, 2009. This consumer project is, of course, a matter of simple justice and of great importance to the 20 percent of the public that is in danger of losing TV reception, entirely. But there is no reason to treat the digital TV transition as a simple consumer issue while abjectly abandoning the arena of media democracy. Much of so-called Black leadership is collaborating with the same corporations that are busy stealing 5,100 of the people’s channels.

Don’t Steal Anything Small

Two weeks ago, the FCC held hearings in Rep. Edolphus Towns’ district, in Brooklyn. The Black Congressman expressed no irritation at corporate theft of the digital TV spectrum. Instead, his greatest fear was petty criminals. “There is no shortage of swindlers willing to capitalize on the confusion and fears that could surround the DTV transition,” said Towns. “With vulnerable populations as their main prey, people are already scheming to dupe people into the purchase of unneeded televisions or converter boxes or scheming to siphon coupons from the limited supply that is supposed to be for people who really need it.”

All this is, of course, quite true, and requires vigorous government and community attention. But Rep. Towns would rather rail against ghetto converter box swindlers than offend the corporate criminals who are stealing $80 billion worth of TV spectrum. Unfortunately, Towns’s behavior is the norm in the CBC, which as a body is utterly incapable of confronting Power.

Almost as an afterthought, the FCC decided to do a “test” roll-out of the new digital regime in one city, on September 8. They chose Wilmington, North Carolina, a town with a population of about 100,000, one-quarter Black. Wilmington has no Black-oriented radio station, and no Black college. The head of the local NAACP knew nothing about the FCC’s “test” when telephoned by BAR in June. The state NAACP chief was only slightly better informed. Clearly, FCC Chairman Martin knows how to pick his test locations — to avoid concentrations of organized minorities and other stakeholders who might demand media democracy.

But then, New York City these days seems no better organized than Wilmington.

There is one bright spot on the horizon. Corporate TV still has no idea what to do with the thousands of channels it has stolen. They have no business plan to exploit their plundered booty. Program-wise, the transition should be a disaster, a bleak digital expanse of uselessness and waste. The shock may finally bring home the enormity of the crime, and cause the public to awaken to the challenge — to take possession of the pilfered spaces and fill them with programming that means something.

Glen Ford is Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Glen, or visit Glen's website.

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  1. James Harrington said on August 4th, 2008 at 12:29am #

    There were quite a few black radio stations in wilmington when I was a kid but they all sold out. Even the media used to have a good proportion of black outlets but these days as is the case, everything has become whitewashed.