Why choose an ‘unofficial’ DTV site?

If you’ve seen a television spot directing you to a site about the digital TV transition, it certainly wasn’t this one. But you found us anyway, and I’m glad you’re here.

Digital TV Facts wants to be your “unofficial” DTV site. My own humble goal is for this site to be your first and best choice for information and commentary about the switch to digital television. (Maybe that’s not such a humble goal. I’ll work on the humble part, too, OK?)

What do I think of the supposedly “official” DTV sites?

First of all, no such site exists. Even if it did, I think it pays to approach the “official” story—about anything at all, really—with a certain skepticism. In the present instance, as in all others, no one owns the story of digital TV. The broadcast lobby, representing the owners of television stations and networks, doesn’t. Nor are they neutral observers. The same goes for the ostensibly independent, yet demonstrably politicized, government agency charged with regulating the television industry.

We are not a promotional site

The promotional DTV sites funded by the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters provide useful information, and their advice to consumers about the digital TV transition is generally accurate. What they offer is public relations and marketing content, and it is competently produced.

A reader of those sites might imagine that the digital TV conversion is a topic devoid of controversy. If you read this site, you know that is not the case.

Like the government and trade-group sites, this site offers consumer information about DTV converter boxes and how to participate in the federal coupon program. But as a site providing news and commentary, DTV Facts can present issues that public-relations DTV sites avoid or sugarcoat.

On our pages, you can learn about controversies over digital TV reception. We can speak frankly about the political debate concerning cable carriage for “multicasts,” additional channels that broadcasters gained through the switch to DTV. We can even discuss topics the PR sites might consider sacrilege—like whether too much spectrum is devoted to broadcasters.

The DTV transition isn’t just about technology

The switch to digital television is not merely a change in technology. Nor did the United States’ multibillion-dollar switch to digital airwaves simply slide into being through the benign agency of electronics engineers and impartial technocrats. This is a change that includes political and economic dimensions. The digital TV story isn’t just about zeroes and ones; it’s also about dollars and cents. As the auction of publicly-owned radio spectrum currently used for analog TV broadcasts shall soon demonstrate, what may seem like so much empty air in fact comes with a very steep price tag.

The awarding of spectrum is preceded by a lengthy political battle, during which key players spend millions on lobbying efforts in Washington. In 1996, the FCC, under federal law and at the behest of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), bestowed upon incumbent television station owners an additional chunk of public spectrum. The additional allotment for each station, while equivalent in size to the existing allotment for analog television service, would support the delivery of up to six separate channels.

The FCC and the broadcast lobby, while sometimes viewed as adversaries, are joined by a strong symbiotic relationship that helps each party navigate the corridors of political power. NAB, with reported net assets totaling $66.7 million in 2003 [link] and an annual income then estimated at more than $50 million, has been called “the most powerful of all media lobbying groups” by the American Journalism Review. Besides being gatekeepers to both news coverage and politicians’ access to the public airwaves, broadcasters spend millions, year after year, on lobbying activities and contributions to candidates. After the 2000 election, the then-president of NAB served on George W. Bush’s FCC transition team, recommending appointments to an agency the organization lobbies on a daily basis.

Not everyone finds such arrangements reprehensible. But I don’t think anyone can sincerely deny that they present a conflict of interest. The Federal Communications Commission calls itself “an independent United States government agency.” But if a regulated industry, licensed to use the public airwaves and to serve the public interest, is put in the role of, in effect, choosing its own regulators, then how truly independent can the regulator be?

Whose agenda?

On this site, the FCC is a frequent target of criticism. I do not, however, view the FCC as some monolithic force of evil. (We’ll talk about the Ticketmaster people some other day.) The commission has five members—three Republicans, including the chairman, and two Democrats—some of whom appear to be sincerely interested in their duty to protect the public interest. I am also appreciative of the efforts of its career employees, many of whom are very dedicated to their duties. Some people actually go into public service because they believe in helping people, and a few even come out having done so.

I don’t hate broadcasters, either. They provide a public service, and you can find members of their industry—too few, I fear—who still take that role seriously. Any industry needs a trade group to share ideas and defend its own interests, and the broadcasters do that quite ably. But I sincerely believe the industry’s lobbying activities are often at odds with the public interest. I am convinced, moreover, that the growing and unchecked influence of lobbyists is undermining our democracy.

This site is not powerful or generously funded. Obviously. We are dependent upon the goodwill of our readers, and every day we strive to earn their trust. This site is supported in part by advertising. We value our advertisers, but they do not dictate our content.

The broadcasting lobby and the FCC—sometimes the same people, depending on the year, thanks to revolving-door employment policies between government agencies and lobbyists—are insiders. Insiders already enjoy a near-monopoly in determining what we see on television. I don’t think we should hand them control over the story about television, too.

Steven Sande
Publisher, Digital TV Facts