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Digital air fight 

Regulators, broadcasters wrangle over billions in TV bandwidth

In Rockdale County, teens find themselves the subject of national scrutiny when a prime-time report uncovers a clique deeply involved in alcohol, drug use and sex. In Fayette County, a teen-club owner accused of allowing obscene dancing defends himself by airing tapes of TV programs offering graphic images of scantily clad dancers rubbing each other erotically. And, everywhere, parents look at the calendar and brace for the onslaught of TV-fueled demands for this season's latest toy craze or CD-ROM bloodfest.
The common thread? The broadly held perception that mass media -- in particular, television -- is somehow disconnected from the public it aims to serve.

As television broadcasters pump millions of dollars into the next generation of television technology -- best-known as digital TV -- a battle is brewing between the mega-billion- dollar industry and an array of federal regulators and consumer advocates over how to best serve the public.

"The holders of broadcast licenses don't pay a dime for those extremely valuable commodities," says Mark Lloyd, an attorney and former TV news director affiliated with the Washington-based People for Better Television. "You can't even get a fishing license for free, and certainly not without taking on some obligations in return."

The president of the Cobb County National Organization for Women -- one of many groups allied with People for Better TV -- is more blunt.

"The broadcast spectrum is a resource we basically all own," says Beverly McMurray. "The government just wants to give it away to an increasingly small number of people who already own everything ... and we're very concerned that the programming won't really change."

Lloyd, in town for a recent consumer forum in Decatur, is in the forefront of an effort to ensure that the new technology will offer accommodations for children's programming, political commentary, emergency broadcasting and standards of conduct.

Since the passage of the Radio Act of 1927, the federal government has regulated the use of the broadcast spectrum on the theory that nobody "owns" the airwaves. Thus, broadcasters hold their licenses with the understanding that they are stewards of the public's property and must operate "in the public interest, convenience and necessity."

In 1996, Congress allowed broadcasters currently licensed by the FCC an extra slice of bandwidth, with the understanding that those licensees would update their facilities and capabilities in order to carry high-definition TV.

HDTV, which offers super-sharp images on advanced screens, is slowly entering the television market. It is the facet of DTV most familiar to consumers. Digital TV also promises to revolutionize interactive viewing and to offer broadcasters an opportunity to "multiplex," or send multiple programming along bandwidth restricted by old analog technology to just one signal.

In return for the new bandwidth, broadcasters will be allowed to use their current slices of the spectrum as well as the new bandwidth until the year 2006, or until 85 percent of American TV viewers are able to receive HDTV signals. Before either requirement is met, stations will need new broadcasting facilities, and viewers will need HDTV sets.

Despite the assertions of some critics, including then-Sen. Bob Dole and recent presidential hopeful John McCain, that the additional bandwidth constituted a $70-billion giveaway to the industry, Congress and the Clinton administration moved ahead with the initiative. Skeptics point to a massive influx of political spending by broadcasters: Since 1990, broadcasters have given more than $12.5 million to both parties, with almost $5 million of that pouring in for this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the wake of the '96 act, there have been some attempts to hold broadcasters to higher standards of public interest. In 1998, a White House advisory commission recommended that broadcasters adopt a "voluntary code of conduct," provide non-paid political commentary before elections and establish "minimum public interest requirements" in such areas as community outreach, accountability, public service announcements, public-affairs programming and closed captioning. People for Better TV and others said those proposals were a start but argued that broadcasters should go much further.

The National Association of Broadcasters and major-media organizations responded by lobbying for a "hands-off" approach. Noting that they're in competition with cable companies and Internet services, as well as traditional media outlets, broadcasters point to the enormous cash outlay they've already expended as evidence of a good-faith effort to make HDTV widely available to the public.

In Atlanta, four stations -- WSB-TV, WAGA-TV, WXIA-TV and WGCL-TV -- now broadcast whatever HDTV programming is available to them, although the four major networks have cut back on the meager selection of high-definition content they offer. While myriad uses for DTV are envisioned, it's still an investment that's nowhere close to paying off, says Andrew Fisher, executive vice president of Cox Television, the Atlanta-based media giant that controls 15 TV stations nationwide. (Locally, parent company Cox Enterprises owns WSB-TV Channel 2, WSB-AM 750, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, as of September, a 25 percent stake in Creative Loafing Inc.)

"At this point, nobody's made a single dollar off this technology," says Fisher, noting that Cox has spent "tens of millions" upgrading its capabilities, as have hundreds of stations around the country. "It's just way too early to start larding up this new technology" with a range of "well-meaning pet projects."

He points out that efforts to regulate content are unpopular with the public and the industry, and also have been successfully challenged in court as unconstitutional abridgements of free speech.

"As broadcasters, we're always open to hearing what the viewers would like," he says. "But things like the so-called voluntary codes of conduct are very, very tricky, because they are subject to tremendous opportunity for misinterpretation. It's not as simple as it sounds."

"As digital rolls out," he says, "there will need to be an appropriate level of public service."

The issue hasn't spurred a lot of interest among the public. Cobb County's McMurray laments that her efforts to introduce the topic at NOW meetings have drawn little response.

But the high-stakes battle over the future of America's airwaves has drawn plenty of interest among regulators, activists and the broadcast industry. FCC Chairman William Kennard recently fanned the flames by calling upon broadcasters to move more quickly to begin using HDTV technology, in order to free up the old analog channels for new commercial use. Blasting broadcasters for "cyber-squatting" on bandwidth they're not using (or are using for other purposes) and proposed charging fees to those who haven't made the transition. Not surprisingly, the broadcast industry says Kennard's criticism is misplaced.

"We believe the FCC should have taken a more leadership position, instead of leaving it up to market forces between television-set manufacturers, cable companies and broadcasters to work out the details," says Fisher, who sits on the NAB board. "Suddenly, the FCC has decided it wants to put pressure on broadcasters to abandon those channels faster than Congress or the FCC had previously demanded ... but we can't abandon our customers who rely on those channels."

Lloyd says he's not unsympathetic to such views. He and his cohorts "are adamantly opposed to any sort of censorship," he says, preferring to allow broadcasters to fashion their own responses to public-interest goals. But in exchange for the opportunity to profit on DTV, broadcasters should agree to provide more non-commercial children's programming, more uses for the extra services offered by multiplexing, and protection of children and the elderly from the perils of "click-through" scams offered by interactive TV viewing and marketing, he says.

"So far, they've given out more than 125 new licenses, and no rules have been created for this multi-billion dollar project."

As to broadcasters' protestations over the "cyber-squatting" issue, Lloyd's response is simple.

"Nobody's making 'em take that extra bandwidth," he says. "They asked for this giveaway. If they want it, they should pay for it. If not -- let's sell it to somebody who does want it."

greg.land@creativeloafing.com

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