Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's Not About Ugly Betty: The DTV Transition and Why It Matters

On May 3, 1963 the North was stunned as it saw broadcast images of Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor,turning fire hoses, dogs, cattle prods, and billy clubs on peaceful black protesters that had organized a campaign targeting the local business community. The response was immediate and profound. The public outcry forced President Kennedy to send a negotiator to the city. By May 10 the campaign was ended, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had won, and television was catapulted into the national arena as a tool for social change.

Over the next decade, images of violence from the Civil Rights movement and from the Vietnam War entered U.S. homes on the evening news. For the first time in U.S. history, people far removed from the realities of the South and urban black communities, people that could not find Vietnam on a map, found themselves staring at images of violence, death, destruction, segregation and apartheid. And the nation was moved. A national consciousness, begun by community organizers working in the streets and fields, was broadened and deepened by the family television set.

The right to information is a fundamental human right. More than 80% of American households still receive the majority of their news and the issues that impact them through their local television broadcasts. Anything that threatens easy and bountiful access to timely and accurate news and information has very real impacts on the lives of American people. The Digital Television Transition, ill conceived and corporate focused, is poised to strip millions of Americans of their ability to receive the information they need to make decisions about their lives.

Although Congress passed legislation changing the digital television transition date from February 17th to June 12th, 491 stations are choosing to switch early. Combined with those stations that have already made the transition, there will be more than 700 television stations broadcasting in digital after February 17th. And yet, at least 21 million households are either completely unready or will have significant problems when the switch happens. Indeed, already, the DTV Assistance Centers created by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) in partnership with the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, have received hundreds of phone calls from families that are experiencing major difficulties, and some, after having followed the esoteric instructions for connecting the DTV converter boxes, are finding that they are still left with black screens despite their best effort and the promises of a smooth transition.

Fundamentally, the digital transition was ill conceived. From its inception it was focused on corporate media giants. Scarce resources were allocated for the transition, and poor outreach was done to ensure that those most impacted by the transition--people of color, low income communities, people with disabilities, and the elderly--were prepared for the switch. The federal coupon program ran out of funds more than two months before the switch. National retailers, looking to profit from the underfunded federally mandated switch, refused to carry the $40 converter boxes, creating an undue economic burden during a time of economic crisis. And local community organizations, already cash strapped and overworked, were left to pick up the pieces and develop solutions to problems created by Congress.

And, unfortunately, the public discussions about the switch have either been complaints with few solutions or have dismissed the switch as unimportant in the context of the current state of the U.S.A. From the left and the right, people have exclaimed that “TV is not a right!” And they are absolutely correct. TV is not a right. This transition is not about ensuring that folks get their Ugly Betty fix. This is about the fundamental human right to information and the the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that right is protected for the least as well as the privileged. And this right is directly tied to economic and racial justice.

When a transition occurs or a decision is made, and those impacted or left behind are people of color and working class people, it is clear that there are race and class implications to the decision. As we move forward with rebuilding our economy, those that have ready access to the most current information will be those that succeed in getting newly created jobs and finding new opportunities to support their families. When millions of low income people and people of color are locked out of the information system, they , too, are locked out of economic opportunities. As we continue with massive corporate consolidation, radio stations run remotely, and disappearing newspapers, television will continue to maintain its hegemonic place as the common green.

But it is not too late to close the gaps in this transition. There are solutions. MAG-Net is launching a national Socially Just and Responsible Transition campaign. The campaign is targeting electronics retailers with the aim of having the major national chains in multiple metropolitan and rural communities commit to providing a $40 converter box with analog pass through capability and closed captioning. Each retailer will receive a certification that they have taken the Socially Just and Responsible Pledge and will receive a designation indicting such.

Congress has included funds in the economic stimulus package geared at making sure that the coupon program is sufficiently funded. In addition, Congress must also provide significant funds to support the grassroots organizations across the country that are providing direct assistance to their communities to ensure that the 16.5% of Latinos that are currently unready in Phoenix and the 13% of the households in Albuquerque are prepared for June 12th.

Further, Congress should work with the FCC to create impact guidelines for future major shifts in communications policy. President Obama is committed to building a broad band infrastructure, the digital switch is opening analog spaces for public consumption, a battle is being waged over free speech rights on the internet with regards to content, “net neutrality,” and as new media and communications systems are developed new communications policies will be developed. The FCC and Congress should create guidelines focused on the racial and economic justice issues of major transitions. Questions should be asked, in advance, that will ensure that low income communities, people of color, immigrants, elders, and people with disabilities are not left scrambling to catch up. And resources should be allocated to ensure that government and community partnerships are able to make sure that America and not just corporate America is ready for these changes.

We now have the opportunity to rectify one of George Bush’s many mistakes. The work is happening on the ground, in San Antonio, Oakland, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, Kentucky, and elsewhere. Community organizations are stepping up to and doing work that they can ill afford to do. As we make our break with the corporate values of the Bush administration and re-center the value of the people in the national consciousness, we must act proactively, with vision, and use this transition to lay the ground work for future communications policy that works for the people instead of including the people as an afterthought. The air waves are a public trust. And the public should be able to trust that they will have their full use by June 12, 2009.


  1. "The right to information is a fundamental human right..."


    This is going to be (and already is, obviously) such a battleground of philosophies in the 21st century. This is how it's all going to shake out. The way we love; who we love; the way we wage war; the battles we choose not to fight; the people who matter; the people we forget...none of these things can be hidden anymore. Nor should they be.

  2. Angry Black Bitch is talking about this, too:


    Scroll down to "Pondering the Photo Ban."

    Interesting stuff. Talk some good stuff in your interview today, you little genius!

  3. RE: my last comment -- obv I'm still talking in general terms about the public sphere.

    In regards to the calculated and obstructivist manner in which certain communities are denied information about information: I'm not surprised. But I am heartened at the way in which grassroots/on-the-ground activists like yourself refuse to allow that kind of top-down model to continue.

    Ok, I am done commenting!

  4. Right! Denied information about information....that is the crux of it....you don't even get to know that there are things you need to know let alone find out more about those particular topics. Girl...you smart as hell. Somebody ought to give you a PhD or something.

  5. Brandon: another point that should be made is the total lack of substantive public service obligations imposed on the broadcasting industry as a condition of facilitating the transition.

    This is a huge lost opportunity - to demonstrate this, let's take a typical mid-range market with five incumbent local analog broadcast stations, each of them providing commercial television 24 hours a day (or 120 hours total). Digital television enables them to effectively increase their broadcast capacity by 500% - or from 120 to 600 hours a day of digital standard definition broadcast television. If only, say, 10% of the resulting capacity had been reserved for local community television efforts (such as many cities have imposed on their cable monopolies), that would have resulted in making over 60 hours a day of broadcast community television (in standard definition) available! Similarly, to fund such activities, a small tax of say, 2.5% of revenue generated by new channels, would likely be more than enough to fund ongoing activities (and perhaps a 2% transfer tax on licenses, etc. as well).

    Imagine what folks could do with that: provide news of substance, directly on the television, to the community... host a television talk show with local community leaders, in a community's native language (Tagalog, Vietnamese, Somali)... create a weekly broadcast covering local community government news - school board meeting summaries, city council meeting recaps, reports summarizing commission meetings.

    I think it is no coincidence that the final date of transition was picked to be less than a month after Bush's successor took office, preventing any substantive change in policy along these lines by the new administration.


    These are old figures (2005), but I doubt they've changed much (except for the worse):
    * Only 0.3% of digital programming focused on local public affairs - compared with 8.8% for reality shows, 6.9% for paid programming and 2.5% for celebrity news shows (such as Access Hollywood).
    * Less than five percent (5%) of all programming aired by digital broadcasters is aired in high-definition (HD).
    * Ninety eight percent (98%) of all HD programming is entertainment-oriented in nature.
    * There is little evidence that broadcasters are using their multicasting capabilities to provide enhanced public interest service to the local communities to which they are licensed.




Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and insights. And thank you for reading!