Next Steps for Ethnic Media -- Fighting for Low-Power TV

Next Steps for Ethnic Media -- Fighting for Low-Power TV

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Part 1 of a series. Read Part 2 here.

OAKLAND, Calif.--Most people in the San Francisco Bay Area won’t find the FilAm Network on cable, but many of the region’s more than 300,000 Filipino residents have no other access to FilAm’s array of local news and feature programs that the channel carries in Tagalog and English.

Through a little-known, community-friendly medium called low-power television (LPTV), the Bay Area’s Filipinos have their own station in Tagalog and English. What’s more, other ethnic communities can tune in to entire channels with programs in their own native tongues, such as Mandarin, Vietnamese and Hindi.

LPTV is also free, a major advantage for many low-income and immigrant populations for whom costly cable television packages are beyond reach.

LPTV has been around for decades, although largely under the media radar. But its 2009 conversion to digital technology, which permits a station to “multiplex”--or clone--its signal, increased LPTV’s programming possibilities and therefore its profile in communities nationwide.

For example, KAXT, a Class-A LPTV station based in San Jose, was able to create a dozen channels, each ideal for community programming, which serve many ethnic groups or niches. Moreover, the technical quality can be as good as most anything available on the airwaves.

Multiplexing represents a potential game-changer for televised diversity. Yet advocates have had to fight for LPTV’s life—often against mega-media corporations and in the halls of lawmakers and regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Digital Haves and Have-Nots

LPTV’s history illustrates what’s become known as the “digital divide” – the technology gap separating ethnic, immigrant and low-income communities from their usually whiter and wealthier counterparts.

Originally instituted in the early 1980s as a response to the onslaught of pay-TV networks, LPTV was designed to serve the public interest by offering free programming and easier access for underserved communities. Unlike cable or full-power TV, LPTV is mandated by federal law to carry both local news and children’s programming.

As of 2009, there were almost 2,500 LPTV stations in the United States--roughly twice the number of full-power stations. Nationally, about 30 percent of LPTV stations are owned by women and minorities--compared to three percent of full-power and cable stations.

According to KAXT vice-president Ravi Kapur, “There’s more diversity in low-power television than any other medium.”

Gilbert Dean Arcillas, who started the FilAm Network at KAXT, said his channel  “gives a voice and a face to the community” that makes a significant addition to the area's limited programming for the Filipino American community.

The shows on FilAm work with Arcillas to make sure the local Filipino American community is represented. Recent stories on the channel have ranged from the ongoing phenomenon of champion boxer Manny Pacquiao to “Birdman Mike” Parayno, an Asian American studies teacher who hosts a jazz barbeque each weekend at his Berkeley home.

A Model for Multicultural Broadcasting

Since its inception during the Reagan administration, the LPTV format has been overshadowed by network and cable TV, both in terms of viewer awareness and political and economic clout with policymakers. That, media blogger David Oxenford has written, is probably because “many of these stations operate in rural areas or serve minority or other specialized audiences, perhaps explaining the lack of coverage in the mainstream media.”

KAXT’s Kapur explained at the FCC’s Media Ownership Conference in May that digital television could finally level the playing field “by allowing stations to broadcast multiple streams of programming at the same time.”

Since KAXT converted from analog to the multichannel digital signal, its new business model has involved leasing all of its channels out to ethnic programmers. Besides Arcillas, some of KATX’s other producers are Andrew Kao, who programs TVHS, a Taiwanese station, and Khoi Nguyen, who programs the Vietnamese channel, Que Hong.

“How many Vietnamese programs have you seen on NBC?” said KAXT President Warren Trumbly.

The issue of diversity is a personal one for Kapur. Growing up in the San Francisco area as a person of Indian descent, he said, “I knew that the Indian community was being grossly ignored in mass media. I knew the Filipino community I grew up around in South San Francisco and Daly City were being completely ignored, as was the region’s emerging Vietnamese community.”

Kapur figured, “If we can do something just to serve those three communities, we [would] have something viable and beneficial.”

Calling itself “the most diverse television station in America,” KAXT’s new format also offers African American, Spanish-language and English-language programs.

A Medium for Many Voices

By spurring the creation of local news and information for ethnic populations in their own native languages, Trumbly said, KAXT is developing media entrepreneurs in those communities, as well as building relationships and helping small businesses that can’t afford to advertise on larger stations.

Kapur, a former television reporter, took the helm of Diya TV, the first-ever Hindi-language channel in America. The station also broadcasts local news in other Indian dialects—Punjabi and Marathi—as well as in English.

“We started from ground zero,” said Andrew Kao. He had no previous experience in television broadcasting when he started TVHS a year ago. His channel “provides a lot of information for the Mandarin-speaking community and the Taiwanese community,” he said. “Nobody did that before.”

In the months ahead, Kao plans to add more programs to meet the Mandarin community’s interests, such as real estate investment in the United States and financial investment in Asia.

Khoi Nguyen, who launched Vietnamese channel Que Hong, is among KAXT’s most experienced broadcasters. He arrived with an 18-year background in radio and TV. That included a stint producing occasional half-hour segments for SBTN, a Vietnamese channel on the local Comcast system. (It is only available to cable subscribers of Comcast’s Xfinity package, not to basic subscribers.)

Before the advent of digital LPTV, Nguyen said, “You couldn’t have your own channel. The price to lease was too high. You can’t even have one hour a day.”

Besides its lower cost, Nguyen said, digital LPTV is better and faster than analog TV. The programming on Que Hong includes four daily news segments--world, U.S., Vietnamese and local—filling specific needs of the Bay Area’s Vietnamese immigrant population.

Nguyen added that Que Hong has made it possible for the local Vietnamese community to do things like raise money for the funeral expenses of a low-income refugee who had died.

Although Nguyen voices the hopefulness of many communities when he speaks of a “bright future for local TV in digital,” serious legal, regulatory and technological obstacles are lurking for KAXT and other LPTV stations.

This article is the first in an investigative series by Eric K. Arnold. Part two will dissect the barriers to the spread of LPTV for ethnic and low-income communities. Arnold wrote this article 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.