Copps eying DTV side channels


In recent remarks, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps decried the overconsolidated and homogenized state of the media, ticked off a list of resultant ills and speculated that DTV side channels could be regulated into a solution.

Democrat Copps spoke at the Joint Center for Political and Econonic Studies, and had a number of comments about broadcasting. He was particularly exercised by the decline of the news media, which he laid at the feet of ownership consolidation. He said companies took on too much debt to get too big and have been cutting news and local service just to stay afloat.

He then suggested the possibility of using the split-channel capacity of digital television to remedy the situation.

“We should be developing policies, for example, to use some of that new digital television multi-cast capacity for programs that focus on local culture and diversity groups, on local civic affairs and elections, on local music and arts and sports. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful counterweight to all the nationalized, homogenized, stereotyped mono-programming that seems to be evermore the norm? With a few media dance-masters calling the tune, too few of the kind of stories I am advocating make it to our screens. Too little real hard-hitting journalism. Too little news about what’s really going on in America. I think we’re playing with fire letting this happen. I think we’re taking huge risks with our democracy. And I think we need to change it now. For openers, maybe, just maybe, when your FCC looks at a station’s license renewal, instead of stamping the post card that comes in, we should be asking how that station is serving the interests of its locality?  And the answer should determine our action.”

RBR-TVBR observation: There are two things the government could do right away to make this dream a reality, but what it won’t do is provide funding and force people to watch.

Number one is to approve BET Founder Robert Johnson’s proposal to use these very side channels from ION to create the new proposed Urban Television Network. It’ll require must carry rights for UTN, which the government will have to provide.

The second thing, for something like this to occur, is multichannel must-carry. That’ll have to come from Congress.

But nobody’s been pushing for it, because so far, nobody’s been able to figure out what can go on a digital side channel and pay for its own presence there. Mostly it’s been used as a revenue-neutral or money-losing place to put 24-hour weather.

Maybe people would watch local programming on a digital side channel, but odds are it will have much more in common with local-origination cable or local county government meetings. Nobody watches these things in strong enough numbers to generate any advertising revenue.

So using digital side channels to add a little more “hard-hitting journalism” to a station’s repertoire would not work. In fact, it would be one more expense making the pursuit of hard-hitting journalism that much more difficult.


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