"This" Is Our Digital Future?

Charles Benton

Chicago has a rich media history, having been the center of the emerging broadcast industry in the early 1920's, home to the first radio station to broadcast the World Series, the "Chicago School of Television," and the city that pioneered the daytime-talk show format. Chicago has been an innovator and provider of high-quality content when new capacity demands new content. The question now is: As broadcast television migrates toward digital technology is Chicago media situated to be an innovative leader again? Unfortunately, the answer is "no." As the capacity of television broadcasters multiples with the migration to digital technology, far from acting as a model in creating new content and services, Chicago broadcasters are failing the community, mostly looking to the past for quick and cheap "solutions."

Last month, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting announced plans to capture the power of digital television technology to deliver viewers not innovative new programming, but more reruns. The two companies are teaming to offer "This TV Network," a round-the-clock programming service stocked with movies and old shows from MGM's library. This TV will be made available for commercial TV stations to air on their digital "subchannels" beginning this fall. MGM describes it as "a turn-key solution for generating revenue for the digital spectrum."

This TV will have competitors for placement on these digital subchannels: Retro Television Network (RTN), VTV: The Variety Channel, .2 Network, NBC's Universal Sports and the AccuWeather Channel. But where's the payoff for viewers?

In testimony before the Federal Communications Commission last September, I testified that Chicago's mainstream media ownership: 1) does not reflect the city's diversity, 2) is too concentrated and predominantly non-local, and 3) has been criticized for failing to adequately serve and represent the community

The This TV model does not address these problems in Chicago's television; it nationalizes them.

Broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public's interests, not just their own short term commercial interests. The government provides broadcasters free and exclusive access to a portion of the public airwaves - "spectrum" - for broadcasting. These profitable licenses come in exchange for broadcasters' commitment to serve the "public interest, convenience, or necessity." These basic obligations, called public interest obligations, are critical tools designed to ensure that digital television is at least partially meeting basic local and community needs.

Public interest obligations (PIOs) are about whether:

  • Our children can turn on a television and find truly educational content
  • We can be active and intelligent participants in our democracy with sufficient civic programming before elections
  • The voices and views on our airwaves reflect the diversity of our country
  • Our televisions can keep us alert and informed in national and local emergencies
  • People who are sight- or hearing-impaired can access all of TV's educational, informational, and entertainment programming

The This TV model does not address these problems in Chicago's television; it nationalizes them.

On July 28, 1995, the Federal Communications Commission first recognized the potential of digital television multicasting - or subchannels in today's industry lexicon. In a request for public comment, the FCC noted that analog television broadcasters are subject to a number of public interest requirements, including the obligation to air community-responsive programming, children's educational and informational programming, and to provide access to candidates for federal office. These public interest requirements were developed for the analog world, however, in which each broadcast licensee could do no more than send one signal over its single channel. Digital technology allows each broadcast licensee to send streams of video programming simultaneously.

To this day, the FCC has not answered the fundamental question of how multicasting impacts the public interest obligations of broadcasters. In the absence of FCC guidance, we get This TV's reruns of ancient television broadcasts.

As the nation transitions to digital television, we must decide whether our newest television technologies can support our oldest and most time-honored values of localism, diversity, education, and democracy. Consumers - investing heavily in new digital television sets -- deserve to know how broadcasters will serve their day-to-day television needs: healthy programming for children, healthy programming for our communities, healthy programming for our democracy, and as much information about the TV that comes into our living rooms as the food that comes into our kitchens.

Without public interest obligations, we'll just get reruns.

By Charles Benton.