For U.S. media, it’s public or perish

ABy Dr. William F. Baker A storm over media deregulation is reaching hurricane strength. And in its wake, a battle over the future of public broadcasting is brewing. The American people have spoken out about media deregulation – and they don’t like it. A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that 50 percent of Americans view the recent Federal Communications Commission vote to relax media ownership rules in a negative light. A mere 10 percent feel it will have a positive effect.

Concern over the FCC decision has increased dramatically over the past few months, according to the study, precisely because newscasters have finally begun covering the story. Despite a wealth of 24-hour news stations, discussion of what FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has called “the most sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protection rules in the history of American broadcasting” received virtually no mention on mainstream television and radio programs until a few days before the June 2 vote. Clearly, major media outlets had little incentive to alert the public to the pending rule change when doing so would almost certainly have undermined the furious lobbying efforts of their corporate parents.

Now, alarmed that public needs and concerns are increasingly being factored out of the media equation, many Americans are urging Congress to roll back the rule changes. Yet even as people from across the political spectrum unite to keep the airwaves in the public domain, the last stronghold of truly public-oriented media in the United States is under attack. And, once again, the debate is flying well below the radar screen.

On July 9, a House subcommittee voted to eliminate essentially all federal funding for public stations to convert to digital signals. Digital conversion is required by federal law. The costs of digital conversion barely dent the budgets of deep-pocketed commercial broadcasters who stand to recoup their investments many times over by using digital channels to haul in new sources of revenue. But for public broadcasters with extremely limited budgets, the burden of digital conversion is tremendous. The House committee suggests public stations dip into general funds to pay digital conversion expenses. But that would force stations to cut their budgets for local programming and community service.

Community is the operative word. Public broadcasters remain the only community-operated media outlets left in the United States. They are the only television and radio providers truly connected to their cities and towns, responsive to the needs of local audiences, and, above all, dedicated to public service – not to profits and stock prices. With the transition to digital, public stations will use their expanded bandwidth to provide even greater services to their neighbors – from instructional materials for schools to lifesaving communications for firefighters. Opponents of public broadcasting continue to make the absurd claim that public broadcasting is too expensive. Yet public broadcasting costs each American approximately $1.35 per year, and the $65 million public broadcasters seek for digital conversion in the new budget amounts to a one-time investment of just $0.25 per American. Canada spends 10 times as much per capita on its public broadcasting service; the United Kingdom spends 20 times as much and Sweden spends 40 times as much.

Public broadcasting, far from being costly, is a unique source of good, noncommercial programming and services at rock-bottom prices. But today it is more than that. Today, it is the only provider of independent, community-focused programming that U.S. cities and towns have left.

The airwaves – which, like our national parks, belong to the people – have become the object of a ferocious land rush. A handful of companies now control the majority of media programming and distribution in the United States – and if the FCC ruling stands, it will only get worse. But Americans are finally discovering the extent to which our national patrimony has been commercialized, commodified and compromised, and they are expressing their dissatisfaction. They are letting their lawmakers know that what belongs to the public should serve the greater public good, not the profit of a few. Surely they will not be happy to learn that public television is also under attack. Surely, when this story gets out, the outcry will grow even louder as Americans speak up to demand a strong public broadcasting system. So, here’s a caveat to those on Capitol Hill who are deliberating over the future of U.S. airwaves. Act in good faith. The public is watching.

Dr. William F. Baker is president of Thirteen/WNET New York, one of nine community-based public television stations in New York State.

Send letters to the editor to [email protected]