February 4, 2015

My Nine Million TVs

I wrote and submitted the following essay for the TV Issue of Chicago Literati magazine. The essay wasn't accepted by Chicago Literati for publication, so I'm posting it here. I finished the essay on February 4, 2015.

My Nine Million TVs

By Mitchell Szczepanczyk

Nonfiction – 1,018 words

Title: How I took nine million TV sets to the FCC

First I had zero TVs, then I had one TV, then in the eyes of the FCC I represented nine million TV viewers.

Sounds weird? Let me explain. I have lived in Chicago since 1996, and for the first eight years I lived in Chicago I didn’t have a television. With a full time job, a return to graduate school part time, and diving headlong on political activism on media issues (including helping to produce a TV and radio series), who had time to watch television? It was that last part -- becoming politically active on media issues -- which resulted in the end of my no-TV détente.

I had studied and worked to become an authority on the politics of media in Chicago and the United States, and I was speaking and protesting about the ins-and-outs of the behind-the-scenes of the politics that shape our media, fighting tooth and nail for improved media and against the increasing specter of accelerating media concentration and all the negative effects therein. Even so, as fellow activists pointed out to me, it would be (ahem) a bit embarrassing to be a media activist in the public eye and look blankly when people mentioned local Chicago names like Bill Kurtis and Ron Magers. So in 2004 I got a TV set; I even got cable.

Having a TV set would come in handy for another reason, one directly connected to my media activism. But first, some brief background on the politics of American broadcast television.

In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required license renewals for all Illinois TV stations. Over-the-air television broadcasters in the United States must be licensed by the FCC and those broadcast licenses must be renewed once every eight years. The renewal process is little more than a rubber stamp; the FCC standards for license renewals are embarrassingly low, and the FCC almost never rejects license renewals (a rate of maybe four rejections for some 100,000 license renewal requests in the FCC’s history). That’s little surprise, considering that most FCC commissioners wind up working for the very Big Media establishments they "regulated" at the FCC.

That rare once-every-eight-year window for license renewals brings a rare opportunity for various legal actions, including the granddaddy of them all – the Petition to Deny, a formal rejection of a broadcast renewal. You’d need to have reasons for filing a petition to deny, and the corporate broadcast media, fresh from its obsequiousness in leading America (and Chicago) into a disastrous war in Iraq that lasted nearly a decade.

My compatriots and I spent a good deal of 2005 doing everything ready for our big filing -- planning, getting supporting statements, organizing our paperwork. It was exciting in some ways, working with colleagues on an intriguing project, and certainly hectic, before the looming license challenge deadline of November 1, 2005.

Then things got even more hectic; a friend of mine – an attorney – told me about a second license challenge, one with even greater potential. Recent research of the Chicago TV market in the run-up to the 2004 elections demonstrated quantitatively the shoddy coverage of local electoral politics; that research could serve as the grist for a license challenge, and would we be interested? I was certainly interested. But a flurry of phone calls with my compatriots and I would characterize the reception as lukewarm, as I recall it. We had just spent all this work, and we’re torpedoing our plan, what we worked on for almost a year?

But we had no time to lose. By the next morning, there had been a conference call, and a plan of action – two license challenges would be filed, with our legal eagles doing the bulk of the work for the second challenge. Oh, by the way, I had been named the Party of Interest -- the local contact impacted by the broadcast footprint at play -- because I lived in Chicago and I owned a working TV (ding!). Thus I represented all the television viewers in my broadcast footprint – an estimated nine million television viewers. Prettty cool!

One of our attorneys quoted the expected rejection probability for our petitions, despite our arguments and evidence, at "100%". So why file? Because we hope to set a precedent that others can then use down the road; indeed, the fact that our challenge could even move forward was a benefit from previous legal and activist victories going back decades. More to the immediate, the filing garnered attention and a newsworthy "hook", even in some corporate media outlets, that helped to raise attention to media policy issues.

We reaped the benefits of that almost immediately: We got a number of radio interviews, local and national. We got newspaper and website articles written and published, including one in the media business press responding to an op-ed that pooh-poohed our petition. We even got coverage in the Chicago Sun-Times on a number of occasions, but interestingly not in the Chicago Tribune whose parent company at the time also owned WGN-TV, which was one of the stations whose license we challenge. We were also featured presenters at a standing-room-only panel about broadcast licenses at the 2007 National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis.

True to form, the FCC rejected both petitions about a year after we filed. The second petition (involving ) has wound its way through the FCC labyrinth after four appeals over the years – each one resulting in a rejection. Extraordinarily, our fifth appeal is still pending before the full commission; this will mark the last appeal that we can make at the FCC.

I expect a fifth rejection whenever the FCC gets around to it, but thereafter who knows? A lot has changed in the ten years since we first filed, especially when it comes to television. The success of this license challenge -- and future challenges to come, legal and otherwise -- hinges on continued activism outside of the courtroom. Indeed, that has been the bulk of work that my compatriots and I have done since our filing in 2005 with some success, and which we will continue to do.


Mitchell Szczepanczyk is a longtime organizer and activist with Chicago Media Action, and a radio and TV producer with Chicago Indymedia. His website is www.szcz.org