Barriers to Digital Diversity -- The Threat to Low-Power TV

Barriers to Digital Diversity -- The Threat to Low-Power TV

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Part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here.

Editor's Note: This article is the second in an investigative series by Eric K. Arnold. Part one examined the advantages of Low-Power TV for ethnic and low-income communities—and the fight to preserve this medium.

OAKLAND, Calif.--Low-Power television (LPTV) stations were created in the 1980s to serve local public interests with more educational, children’s and local programming than their cable and network counterparts were willing to offer. When LPTV went digital in 2009, the new technology meant that one station could clone its signal into many channels to serve community niches and ethnic concerns in many languages.

Digital Dictionary

Analog Television: The original television format. This technology was phased out in 2009. By 2015, digital technology will replace almost all analog frequencies on the television spectrum.

Audio-Only Channel: Comparable to radio frequencies being aired on TV stations, this programming is often used for news or music by digital TV stations.

Digital Diversity: The inclusion of diverse, multicultural voices in emerging and existing technology, such as broadband and digital TV.

Digital Divide: The technology gap separating haves and have-nots in the new media environment. One effect is digital exclusion, whereby underserved communities with limited access to new technology have few opportunities to get services comparable to those that wealthier, technologically enabled populations can afford.

Digital Television (DTV): This term represents frequencies transmitted along a digital signal path. It replaces analog TV and allows stations to broadcast multiple signals over the same frequency.

Full-power TV: Network stations, such as NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates, which are guaranteed placement on cable operators' local systems.

Low-power TV: LPTV, a medium designed for the public interest, offers free programming and easier access for underserved communities. These stations are required to provide more educational, children's and local programming than their cable and network counterparts. LPTV is not guaranteed placement on cable systems and has no federal protections against having broadcasters take over their small slice of the broadcast spectrum.

Multiplexing: A technology making it possible for a DTV station to split its spectrum into several channels, all broadcasting on the same frequency.

Eric K. Arnold

With the advent of the digital media revolution, though, corporate-media interests—with the backing of Washington—have increasingly eyed LPTV’s thin slices of the broadcast spectrum in hopes of grabbing many for themselves.

Complicating matters, federal rules have stymied much of LPTV’s growth. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers LPTV a secondary service not protected under the law from interference or displacement by broadcasters.

So stations such as KAXT, serving much of the San Francisco Bay Area, have no rights of guaranteed placement on cable systems and thus no federal protections against the reallocation of their spectrums to other broadcasters.

LPTV has been allowed to survive, yet the U.S. government “hasn’t done much to allow it to thrive,” said KAXT’s attorney, Peter Tannenwald.

LPTV operators around the country took a major hit in 2005, when the FCC announced the nation would undergo the conversion to digital TV. As the public scrambled to get its instructions and, in some cases, digital boxes, few knew that the commission also mandated that it would reallocate or take back 25 percent of previously assigned frequencies. Full-power broadcasters were guaranteed a place in the new order, but as second-class citizens of the airwaves, many LPTV stations simply ceased to exist.

Even though LPTV addresses the needs of underserved communities and promotes localism, major media and regulators argue that broadband Internet technology could fill that gap instead.

Internet Falls Short for Blacks, Latinos

As KAXT’s Tannenwald explains, “The FCC thinks that the Internet is a sufficient vehicle” for digital diversity issues.

However, a higher percentage of people in minority and ethnic communities have less access to a computer than other demographic groups. Less than half of African Americans and Latinos have broadband access, according to a 2010 Commerce Department survey--well below the national average of almost two-thirds.

That proportion drops even lower in other ethnic immigrant communities. Yet, almost every household has a TV, even if it doesn’t have cable.

The FCC has made few efforts to promote LPTV as a tool for increasing diversity on the airwaves, despite the recommendation of the commission’s own Advisory Committee on Diversity. That panel has urged the FCC to “enhance the abilities of minorities and women to participate in telecommunications.”

The FCC has also rebuffed recent efforts by LPTV programmers to explore emerging technology that could allow them to expand their spectrum to utilize broadband. This resistance to an inclusive policy is raising concerns that the commission is motivated more by financial interests than public interest.

Media policy blogger Brendan Holland echoed media advocates last February when he suggested the FCC might be trying to nip LPTV’s greater development in the bud for fear of "foregoing the revenues that would come from an auction of reclaimed television spectrum."

LPTV Denied “Must-Carry” on Cable

Another barrier is LPTV’s exclusion from “must-carry” requirements, which state that locally licensed television stations must be carried on a cable provider's system. This policy, which Congress enacted in 1992, continues to hinder LPTV’s expansion.

Not being able to grab a foothold in the cable market is a major source of frustration for KAXT’s owners and programmers. Kapur recounted how, after waiting a year to get a meeting with Comcast executives, he made his pitch only to be told to come back a year later.

Andrew Kao worries that he’s not able to reach more affluent members of the Chinese-speaking community. They can afford cable subscriptions but could also benefit from more programming in their own language than currently offered.

Although LPTV stations, such as KAXT, represent the potential for using emerging technology to broadcast the voices of underserved and minority communities--which could narrow the digital divide if given a chance—they face an uphill struggle as long as the federal government and big corporate interests continue to hold the telecommunications industry in an iron grip.

The next article in this series will describe the battles between big-media Goliaths and LPTV’s Davids of many cultures. Eric K. Arnold wrote this series as part of a partnership between the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism and New America Media, in a media policy reporting fellowship sponsored by The Media Consortium.