February 1, 2005

Our Media Odyssey

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future," quipped the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Few people predicted the developments in of media politics and media activism in the past couple of years. This is a surprise, especially since predicting media politics for decades has been easy: Big Media is the handful of commercial corporate media giants including firms like Newscorp/FOX, Disney/ABC, Viacom/CBS, and Time Warner/CNN, who produce much of the media we see, hear, and read. And these Big Media giants get anything they want. Lately, Big Media wanted a series of dramatic changes to some key media ownership rules. The changes would have likely made a media already dripping in idiocy, violence, and commercials far worse, but who'd report it? The media? And Big-Media-friendly politicians dominated key regulatory positions, plus both houses of Congress, plus the White House, plus the Courts. Cakewalk.

But in the past two years, a wide-scale media democracy movement has organized popular support and awareness, which derailed Big Media's big plans through activism, popular education, and a successful court order and lawsuit. In a stunning upset, we've won this round--for now. But in the wake of the 2004 elections, Right-wing national political forces are taking the stage for another two years of controlling all three branches of government, and commentators are making similarly dire predictions regarding the fate of our media. But at least one thing is different: we now know that we can defy prediction, that despite an ideological lockstep in the political realm, getting involved in media activism can make a difference, provided that we-- all of us--are working and organizing and speaking out. The payoff has been an outpouring of organizing and discussion on media issues since 2002 the likes of which Americans haven't seen in decades.

This media awakening could not have come at a better time, since the next few years will bring dramatic changes to our media system which could shape the media environment that we will all live with every day for decades. And the more everyday people are involved in the politics of our media, the better the chances that it will responsive to popular needs and concerns. So to help outline what's to come and where we can act, I will survey the forecast for media activism in Chicago, in Illinois, and nationwide for the next few years --where flashpoints and opportunities are likely to occur, and where and how you can contribute. We'll discuss the future of content industries like music and movies, the struggles over the internet, the coming radio and TV worlds (both public and private), and the expected digitization of our entire media.

But we launch this mighty odyssey with three little letters: FCC.

The Federal Communications Commission

The FCC is the government agency that regulates the U.S. media--cable and satellite, TV and radio--and has some jurisdiction over newspapers and computers. The three Republican FCC commissioners (opposed by the two Democratic commissioners) unsuccessfully tried to implement those aforementioned media ownership rule changes. These rules included limits on how many radio stations and TV stations could be owned, both within a city and across cities, and what's called the "cross-ownership" rule, which disallows a single company from owning a TV station and a newspaper in the same market. The biggest battle for the moment will center around those media ownership rules. By losing the lawsuit, the FCC is now forced back to the drawing board with an order to provide better justification for the rule changes. The FCC and their Big Media allies have begun the process of filing an appeal with the Supreme Court.

But as of this writing, something weird is up: Big Media have been salivating for these ownership rule changes for years, and yet they have delayed filing the necessary Supreme Court arguments. At this writing, it's unclear exactly why this is happening, though the delay requests "additional time to study the record, [and] explore the weighty and complex issues that it presents". Likely translation: We want to be sure that an appeal won't somehow unexpectedly reduce our future profit margins.

Nevertheless, the odds aren't good for Big Media to work the Supreme Court route: The case would have to get accepted, then the case would have to win, and even if it did win, it's best bet is with a "scarcity" argument - that technologies like the Internet have made the scarcity of public airwaves unnecessary, so the government should abolish these media ownership limits. If a scarcity argument wins out, that could backfire on Big Media with the possible loss of billions of dollars' worth of favored policy advantages.

But Big Media has a plan in the works to get around this problem: to launch a rewrite of the major communications law in America, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and directly implement into law the requested rule changes. Such a rewrite is serious task, which FCC chair Michael Powell said would require five to seven years to complete. It's so thorny mainly because, though all the Big Media players would agree on the change of the media ownership rules, you've got a lot of corporate media companies and competing interests fighting among one another for the biggest slice of the pizza.

There were tremendous fights over the 1996 Act, but the fights were among Big Media firms; the public was never a considerable factor in its drafting. That's probably the best prospect of all in the wake of a resurgent media democracy movement: that the public can actually have a voice in drafting media legislation for the next generation. That's your first homework assignment: Contact (and keep contacting) your elected representatives to encourage them to support greater public involvement in the coming rewrite of the Telecommunications Act.

One other FCC-related issue which might come be under threat is the very public mandate of the FCC itself. The FCC has a mandate to serve as an agent for the public "interest, convenience, and necessity." Anyone who knows anything about American media knows that current circumstances render those words hollow, but the law, nevertheless, remains on the books. Still, there's been talk about the opportunity to remove this public mandate amid an environment of right-wing political dominance and a White House occupant with nothing to lose. Keep an eye out for this, and be sure to also urge your elected officials to maintain the FCC's mandate to serve the public.

Since the FCC is still required by law to serve the public, it can be held to task for doing its job as a public servant. The FCC's record as a public servant is dismal, but at least the mandate can be used as an indirect organizing tool for highlighting media issues. One way is to challenge broadcast licenses. Television and radio broadcasters are licensed to broadcast stations; those licenses expire every eight years, and can be revoked if broadcasters don't meet their public mandate--in theory.

In practice, it's a much different story. In more than 70 years of "policing" licenses, the FCC has revoked a grand total of zero licenses, though broadcast licenses have been revoked by court orders twice. (FCC commissioner Michael Copps decried this sham of a renewal process as "postcard renewals"--that all a broadcaster needs to do to keep a license is mail in a postcard every eight years.) But licenses have been used to mount media organizing campaigns against negligent media outlets nationwide, particularly against Big Media players like Sinclair Broadcasting and ClearChannel. Sinclair, the nation's largest TV station owner, planned to air of a controversial right-wing documentary about John Kerry on all of its stations right before the 2004 elections. The documentary attacked John Kerry's 1971 testimony before Congress. A nationwide campaign by media activists forced Sinclair to change those plans. ClearChannel, the nation's largest radio station owner, has likewise used its media control to organize and promote "pro-war" rallies in cities nationwide and to blacklist "unpatriotic" songs from its stations.

In Illinois, the licenses for television broadcasters are up for renewal in 2005. Don't be surprised if one or more license challenges are mounted against corporate broadcasters in Illinois.

Digital Television, and the Digitization of the Media

You might have noted that many cable and network TV stations have begun broadcasts in high-definition television (HDTV). HDTV is the most advanced example of digital television, which marks the beginning of a wide-scale merger of broadcast television and the internet. Before this merger, the broadcast spectrum was used to transmit the data that is reassembled by your TV set into moving pictures and sound by analog means--as waves sent through the air or via cable. Digital television uses the spectrum to transmit broadcast data as a series of ones and zeros, which then get reassembled by your TV set. Digital TV is potentially a much more efficient use of broadcast spectrum since more data could be pushed through the spectrum than could via analog. And as the technology improves, increasingly more data can be squeezed through that spectrum, which would increase TV resolution and reception, and more importantly, increase the number of available TV channels over time.

This development has a number of consequences, including some we'll explore in depth later. But the obvious is that the commercial broadcast networks, who have been trusted for more than 75 years as the sacred keepers of the public interest, suddenly get a huge new windfall in broadcast potential, valuing perhaps hundred of billions of dollars. (One recent estimate put the spectrum and digital conversion at $360 billion). A single broadcast license which would grant the right of a single broadcast channel now might grant six additional digital channels, perhaps with an increase down the road to as many as twenty or more additional channels (WLS-A, WLS-B, WLS-C.).

But it doesn't have to be this way. You can contact elected officials and spread the word regarding this modest suggestion: Let Rupert Murdoch and the corporate boys keep the channels they already own, complete with their lame reality shows, insulting ads, and news-free news divisions. Let the forthcoming digital expansion of TV channels provide a new responsive broadcast resource for community needs across the country. (From the corporate media and a lot of the FCC, you'd probably get a better reaction if you recommended cannibalism).

Nevertheless, the FCC in recent years has been plowing full-steam ahead with this digital conversion and the handover of this new digital largesse to Big Media. Originally, the FCC mandated that broadcasters convert to an all digital format, and return to the FCC the analog airwaves used for decades by December 31, 2006. There have been a few problems with this proposal. For one, broadcasters have been forced to shell out considerable funds to convert their entire operations to digital-ready broadcasting. Another problem is a fairly small percentage of the population has TV sets that can receive digital broadcasts. The FCC had suggested distributing digital conversion boxes for analog TV sets, but again that won't be done at a wide-enough scale nationally to meet the original deadline. But analog and cable broadcasters urged the FCC to delay the mass deployment of digital for a few years, until 2009. At the very least, this buys activists more time to raise awareness of the issue and mobilize.

Community Internet Efforts and the Internet's Future

As you read this, mobilization is currently underway for local battles across the country over the future of the internet. The most heated debate is over the future of broadband and wireless at the municipal level. Broadband and wireless make for speedy internet connections with high communications potential and low cost. And for increasingly memory-intensive internet applications, very high speeds are increasingly preferred.

The question is over control and cost. Will broadband Internet become the for- profit province of media monopolies like Comcast, Time Warner, SBC, and Verizon, which might then limit content and control prices? Or will it be a municipally-controlled, public resource, like waterworks or electricity? What we saw recently in Pennsylvania may prove to be a bellwether of the struggles to come for municipal internet in this and coming years. The city of Philadelphia deployed high-speed wireless internet as an affordable, widespread municipal service across the city, and media activists hoped to deploy a similar arrangement across the state of Pennsylvania. But Big Media and Big Phone lobbyists--particularly from Verizon which stood to gain a captive market for the rest of the state--were able to squelch that proposal for the rest of the state.

Expect a similar battle in Illinois. In 2004, a referendum to establish municipal fiber broadband came up for a vote for the Chicago suburbs of Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles. Those three suburbs were subjected to a massive disinformation campaign by SBC, and the referendum lost by a few hundred votes. (A ballot snafu may force a revote on the matter in 2005.) But efforts to establish municipal internet projects have succeeded elsewhere: All 79 Chicago public libraries now offer free wireless internet connectivity, and a vibrant community wireless network is taking hold downstate in Champaign- Urbana. The big showdown for the statewide future of municipal internet is coming this year, with an expected rewrite of the Illinois Telecommunications Act. Efforts to mobilize public support are already underway.

Which side will win? Nobody knows. Both Big Media and grassroots organizers sides can point to tangible victories and efforts to ramp up campaigns, here and nationwide. Plus, technologies are changing all the time and the costs continue to decrease. What is certain is that the future of municipal internet is very much up for grabs, and the more people get involved in organized efforts, the better the chances for keeping the internet as an open medium in this country.

There are two more points to mention regarding the internet: First, you may also see efforts increasing in coming years in Washington to force a federal mandate about the internet on the municipal level, thus avoiding hundreds of little battles across the country. Second, there's a Supreme Court case coming which could determine the fate of open access to the Internet. It's called the Brand X case, and it's a challenge to the FCC ruling that cable companies can't limit Internet choice. If the case is overturned, it could give cable companies an edge in providing internet access, and thus lead to increased privatization and commercialization of the Internet.

Efforts in Reclaiming Radio

For years now, technologies to allow for low-power personal radio broadcasts have been increasingly affordable and increasingly available. A good radio transmitter with a strong signal to reach maybe half the city of Chicago can be bought now for under $1,000 dollars. But unlicensed broadcasting in the U.S. is illegal and carries stiff penalties (and for anyone who might be entertaining any ideas, beware: The FCC has a Midwest field office in Park Ridge). Still, the ease of broadcast would put a burden on policing efforts, so a low-power radio licensing scheme was proposed. But corporate pressure (and lobbying from National Public Radio [NPR]) prevented its implementation to prevent a potential defection among "their" listeners. As to unlicensed radio broadcasts, this is a sphere where the FCC actually does crack down hard: Near the end of 2004, the FCC raided low-power community radio broadcasters in Santa Cruz, California, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

For years, activists got nowhere with the proposed licensing scheme, but 2004 saw some successful progress on this front with an FCC recommendation and approval from parts of the Senate. It may end there for the time being because of shifting committee changeover in the new Congress. But the game isn't over: the only thing keeping responsive community radio from coming into being on a wide scale is the political muscle of the other side; all of the arguments are in activists' favor. Two years ago, the issue was thought to be effectively dead. Now, the issue is alive again and could move again depending on circumstances, including those we create and organize.

One factor that could become a spur is the increased enforcement challenges, since it was the difficulty of enforcement which helped galvanize the licensing campaign. There are now efforts underway to look into deploying low power AM radio, as well as low power TV, and there's now even really low power - milliwatt broadcasting. Couple that with an expected reduction in the FCC's enforcement budget, and the prospects could prove interesting.

We could also see convergence of trends: If a community wireless or broadband network emerges to serve the whole of Chicago, that could mean the likelihood of digital radio broadcasts serving a much wider audience than in the past.

The Future of Public Media

In early December 2004, Chicago played host to a conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art about the future of public broadcasting in the United States. The conference assembled many of the more prominent advocates from history of American broadcasting. It was there that Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) president Pat Mitchell gave a talk about the future of public broadcasting, and said that new sources of funding are being secured in order to establish PBS's future independence. The most prominent line of funding mentioned was one advocated by public broadcasting reformers for years--a public broadcasting trust fund amounting to multiple billions of dollars.

Here's where the digital spectrum changeover comes in: The expected funding source of this broadcasting trust is through auctioning off the analog broadcast spectrum to cell phone companies and other firms after the projected digital conversion. But there are expected possible plans afoot (as is the case with Chicago's main PBS affiliate, WTTW Channel 11) for public broadcasters to lease or sell some or all of their extra digital channels to Big Media. Then, we're to believe that the incoming funds will somehow be filtered from corporate taint and won't influence public broadcasting.

It's sad, yet understandable, that the public media just goes with the flow and hopes to carve out some niche. What public media there is tends to be marginal and underfunded by a corporate media sector that got corruptly set up without public involvement. But we didn't see recent victories against Big Media by curling up in a ball; it was because people worked and organized. If public broadcasting is to have a respectable future, it should take a cue, and be aggressive and proactive with policies that can attract widespread popular support.

The Copyright Wars: Music and Movies

In December 2004, the Supreme Court (those folks again?) agreed to hear a case in 2005 which stands to hold a significant impact on the future of digital music and movies. The case pits the online file-sharing service Grokster against MGM over whether or not peer-to-peer online file services could be held responsible for copyright infringement of copyrighted

Twenty years earlier, the court heard a similar case over the use of Betamax VCRs. The court ruled 5 to 4 that the technology had "substantial non- infringing use" and thus could not be held responsible for copyright violations; that opened the door to further advances in technology (TiVo anyone?) and to the widespread use of VCRs for recording movies and TV shows.

The Grokster case could do likewise for the digital technologies now being used to share music. But the technologies keep getting more widespread. One which has some movie moguls scared is Bittorrent, which allows for the speedy downloads of tremendous amounts of digital data, such as is found in TV shows and movies. One vice-president of CBS quoted in Wired News in January 2005 says that the movie industry has ten years to respond and defuse the threat posed by Bittorrent. But the application's popularity increases (despite recent forced shutdowns of a number of prominent Bittorrent Websites), and efforts to build easier-to-use version of Bittorrent for really widespread distribution are already underway. Otherwise, you may find the movie industry following the course of the music industry by suing its own fans.

Eventually, both the movie and music industries may arrive at some kind of collective licensing agreement for digital representations of content, much like an agreement between the music industry and radio stations for broadcasting songs. Such an agreement is getting a hearing, and if these industries are smart, they will choose to work with these technological changes rather than fight them.

One other promising development for the music and movie industries (and many others) which has gained tremendous support is the use of various flavors of copyleft. Not copy_right_, copy_left_. Instead of saying "all rights reserved" with copyright, or "no rights reserved" with public domain content, there's now a third option: "some rights reserved". The fleet of licenses devised by the Creative Commons coalition and inspired by the Free Software Foundation is perhaps the best example in use. Some of the more famous examples of copyleft is in the realm of computer applications like the Linux operating system or the Firefox web browser. Both have millions of users, are gaining widening audiences, and they have the usability and security to rival their commercial counterparts. The secret to their success is in the licensing arrangements of both tools; by openly sharing how they work, hundreds of computer programmers can repair bugs and offer helpful modifications. Hopefully, the use of these licenses will expand beyond computers and provide another tool for chipping away at corporate domination of our cultural commons.

The Media: The key to the sunset of Right-Wing Politics and the ascendancy of a popular political realm?

Call me hopelessly optimistic, but I suspect that things aren't as bleak as they seem for liberals, progressives, and radicals. The political right wing has used media as its centerpiece for winning political dominance, and I wonder if that media will be a key factor for the end of such political dominance. I'm thinking it might go something like this:

The political right wing combines a coalition of forces, including both the corporate media and the Religious Right. The Religious Right has media indecency as one of its bugaboos, and this has led to some friction with the corporate media which routinely (and ironically) uses lewd and violent content to bring in eyeballs and higher ratings. Sparks flew in 2004, and it's likely to continue in this and coming years as corporate media giants rely crucially on policies (like the aforementioned media ownership rule changes) largely supported by Republicans. If the hostility between two forces continues and is not resolved on a long-lasting basis, then this could lead to a split between these two factions and perhaps the end of Republican power. Remember that Republicans have won electorally in recent years, but those wins come by narrow margins, and anything that could drain votes and support from that coalition could spell doom.

But beyond party politics, the media themselves are losing credibility on a number of counts, and could face their own crisis of legitimacy in 2005. This loss of faith in the media is shown in stark detail by a report on the State of the Media by the Committee for Excellence in Journalism: audiences for news are shrinking, investment is devoted to disseminating content, rather than in producing it, and the quality of content is increasingly lousy. As I type this, the headline comes in that noted pundit Armstrong Williams was caught accepting money from the Bush administration to promoting the No Child Left Behind Act. Local connection: The guy had a weekly newspaper column distributed by Tribune Media Services.

Expect such scandals to continue and perhaps escalate. That can mean that increasing numbers of people grow despondent of the current state of media affairs, but it can also provide an opportunity for new media projects to assert their quality and integrity (just like the one you're reading now), and provide a genuine alternative. Leave your Nostradamus glasses at home: don't waste time trying to predict the future--help make it.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk (msszczep@midway.uchicago.edu) is an organizer with Chicago Media Action, a contributor to the Chicago Independent Media Center, a monthly columnist with the Chicago-area newspaper Third Coast Press, and hosts a weekly public-affairs radio show on WHPK, the radio station of the University of Chicago.

This article was originally published in the February 2005 issue of Third Coast Press, Chicago, IL.