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 Feb. 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 that 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 failures such as their flawed coverage leading up to the Iraq invasion, none of the commercial broadcasters have announced plans we're aware of to use the channels to 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?
Steps should be taken to ensure that corporations are not the sole beneficiaries of the digital broadcasting age. The value of the broadcast spectrum ought to be recovered through appropriate means 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.
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.
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 in Naperville, Ill. Scott Sanders is a longtime Chicago media and democracy advocate.