All most of us know about the transition to digital TV are two things. The first thing we know is that some people will need converter boxes on their old TVs to receive the new digital broadcasts. The second thing we know is that digital broadcast technology will enable high definition TV. As far as corporate broadcasters and the FCC are concerned, that's all we need to know, and those are the boundaries of legitimate public discourse.
What the FCC and broadcasters are actively concealing from the public is that digital broadcasting technology enables thousands of new digital TV channels on the public broadcast spectrum, all of which broadcasters have allocated to themselves without the inconvenient public scrutiny issuing thousands of new station licenses might have attracted. Thus minorities and women, local entrepreneurs, colleges and universities, community, civic and labor organizations and local governments who otherwise might acquire a portion of the new digital TV channels and used them to broadcast local news, arts, information and public service in hundreds of US markets have been frozen out of the chance to serve the public over the public's airwaves without even the bother of public explanation or debate.
Utterly captured by the private broadcasters it is supposed to police and regulate, the FCC has been tasked with selling this piece of grand theft digital as a public service, and farmed out the job to the notorious PR firm of Ketchum Communications.
According to PR Watch, Ketchum Communicaitons are past masters of corporate disinformation, responsible for a string of suspect activities including
drafting ads for tobacco firms denying the links between smoking and disease, and promoting the myth that low-tar cigarettes are somehow less deadly;
co-ordinating PR for the KOOL Jazz Festival, intended to pretty up the name of Big Tobacco;
running fake business-funded science organizations toutling the "safety" of pesticides, hormones and food additives;
spying on, smearing and facilitating the firing of pro-environmental FDA scientists;
recommending, as early as the nineties, the labeling of environmentalists as "terrorists", and the suing of investigative journalists, and conducting a 30 city PR blitz against an EPA report on the health effects of dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals ever made;
covertly hiring TV host and syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams to discredit public education and shill for the administration's No Child Left Behind Act, and manufacturing dozens of fake video news releases which were distributed to hundreds of TV stations where they were broadcast as news.
Predictably, Ketchum's elaborate "public education" campaign on digital TV makes no mention of any obligations broadcasters might have to serve the public over publicly owned spectrum. It is calculated to confine public input on the DTV transition to those things the public must to in order to passively consume whatever commerical broadcasters decide to give them.
As part of this campaign, the FCC has announced plans to send staffers and commissioners to 80 cities across the country in what looks suspiciously like a "Not Listening Tour" between now and February 18, 2009. With few exceptions, FCC staffers and commissioners will be totally unprepared to explain their complicity in handing over the digital airwavces to commerical broadcasters who not only don't have programming for the new channels, but who will probably squat on the new frequencies till some profitable use appears. For the most part, the FCC won't be entertaining questions about why broadcasters are not obligated to broadcast news, local public service or other local content on the new channels, or why consumers ought to prize high definition TV over high quality content. The FCC will be talking. But it won't be listening.
Back in 2003, the FCC's OK of unlimited consolidation of print and broadcast media inspired a wave of public revulsion which almost nobody predicted, and almost nobody in the mainstream print and broadcast media reported. Nonetheless, it resulted in millions of letters and emails to the FCC, millions more signatures on petitions to Congress, and consequent intervention by the courts and congress nullifying the FCC's decree. It also resulted, to hear some tell it, in the formation of a self-aware movement for media justice in cities and towns around the country. If such a movement really exists, this may be its defining moment.
If there is indeed a movement for media justice, when the FCC commissioners and corporate PR flacks from Ketchum and the NAB fan out on their "Not Listening Tour" to 80 cities between September and February 2009, aiming to misdirect public attention on the digital TV question, citizens and communities will give them an earful, whether they're ready to hear it or not. Just as in 2003, the FCC decision and congressional legislation to privatize the entire digital TV spectrum are a train already on the tracks and in motion. Only a vast public outcry can derail them.
A new Congress and a new administration in and of themselves are absolutely no guarantee that the transformation of public digital broadcast spectrum into the unregulated private property of existing broadcasters who have failed the tests of localism and public service every day for decades, will not be consummated in February 2009. While Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are both well aware of the issues involved in the digital transition, neither seems willing to question this theft of public property.
Barack Obama's chief advisor on telecom affairs, a black attorney who has so far raised the Obama campaign at least $500,000, presumably from broadcasters and their lawyers, is William Kennard. As the FCC's general counsel from 1993 to1996, and its chairman from 1996 to 2001, Kennard is arguably one of the fathers of this monstrously crooked deal, and of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996. Upon leaving government at the beginning of the Bush administration, Kennard became managing director of media buyout operations for the bipartisan Carlyle Group. With the Bush administration having moved the ball downfield for broadcasters the last eight years, commercial broadcasters expect their interests to prevail over the public's no matter who runs Congress or the White House.
Below are the first round of cities and dates slated for the FCC's "We're Not Listening" tour. If Ketchum Communications, the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters, and the mainstream media can confine the story, and restrict the public conversation to converter boxes and high definition TV, a vast realm of public digital property will pass into unaccountable private hands, for nothing, and maybe forever. But if citizens come out, speak out and act out in the presence of each other and the FCC's corporate flacks, then maybe - just maybe the Congress, the courts, the FCC and a new administration will have to listen. Whether they want to or not.
Announced cities on the first round of FCC's Digital TV "Not Listening Tour"
San Francisco, California
New York, New York
Charlotte, North Carolina