Telecommunications as a Civic Sector
"A vibrant telecommunications civic sector could serve as a counterbalance to the commercial forces of the media marketplace. It could address a number of critical societal needs which have not been well-served by the existing media system and are unlikely to be addressed effectively by future market-driven services. The most urgent needs are to:
- Strengthen community life. If the undeniable power of television were better deployed in communities, it could do a great deal to enhance community identity, participation, and responsibility. Programming that can serve the community has long suffered at the hands of national programmers beholden to advertisers. Airtime has been too valuable and production costs too expensive (relative to other commercial uses) to develop substantive, original programs of local interest. Local programming has too often been limited to prosaic, low-budget productions on cable access channels. Given the proper structure and funding, a new genre of local video communication could be developed which would serve educators, parents, businesspeople, artists, activists, and other regional community leaders.
- Support and nurture families. Telecommunications could offer a rich array of services and programs designed to support and sustain families--from "parenting channels" to noncommercial children's channels. These new services must be both affordable and accessible for all children and families. They must also be free of excessive commercialism. Children of the next generation will not acquire the personal values or educational skills they need if the electronic media insist on regarding them primarily as passive, easily manipulated consumers.
- Invigorate the democratic process. Fiber optics and other new technologies promise rich possibilities for direct citizen-candidate and citizen-to-citizen dialogue. Many new formats and services could contribute to the revitalization of citizen participation in government, both locally and nationally. These could include electronic town meetings, interactive video and computer bulletin boards, affinity group programming, channels that serve as "video publishers" for independent producers, and similar innovations that commercial media interests are unlikely to find lucrative enough to initiate.
- Facilitate participation by all segments of our society. The full range of our nation's ethnic and cultural traditions has never been presented on television. Minority programming is usually confined to conventional commercial formats that filter and distort the authentic voices of those cultures. Our nation is enriched--as a culture and as a democracy--by hearing from all the voices in its midst. If the emerging telecommunications infrastructure fails to give access to such voices, despite it vast channel capacity, it will not live up to its real promise.
Third, federal policymakers must ensure a truly open and competitive telecommunications marketplace. The new media marketplace must be as open, fair, and competitive as possible. The importance of aggressive federal supervision of the marketplace is confirmed by the anti-competitive history of modern communications. Historically, rival industries have created artificial barriers, the better to secure long-term marketplace advantages and thwart broader competition. Their preferred tools have been regulatory policy, technology, and sheer market dominance through vertical integration. This dynamic is likely to plague the fiber-optic marketplace as well. The largest media companies already are entering into strategic alliances in order to dominate envisioned T.V. markets preemptively and erect de facto barriers to access.
Benign neglect of economic concentration in the media is a formula for an eventual political backlash, similar to the recent revolt of cable consumers. Yet by the time a crisis arises, policies which could structurally reform the marketplace are politically impossible because of the private sector's huge commitment of capital and entrenched business practices. At that point, the only available policy remedies are likely to be ineffectual.
As we enter a new era of technological change, no media industry or faction is "entitled" to anything; we can use this opportunity to introduce more enlightened, long-term policy planning. For example, it is essential to designate the next generation of fiber-optic telecommunications networks as common carriers, offering fair, non-discriminatory access to all comers, at just and reasonable prices. The companies that own the networks should be prohibited from owning video programming in competition with other programmers. The temptation to discriminate against their competitors or cross-subsidize their own video networks with revenues from other lines of business would simply be too great. Without an absolute separation between conduit and content, monitoring for abuses would be extremely difficult.
Policymakers must also recognize that the convergence of once-separate media industries will only sanctify and accelerate the media's ongoing vertical integration. This inexorable trend, absent federal intervention, will result in even fewer and less accountable companies possessing even more concentrated economic power (with less interest in risk-taking programming). Although fiber's boosters argue that the new infrastructure will unleash a riotous diversity of free expression, this myth will never become a reality as long as major media corporations determined to insulate themselves from meaningful competition dominate the medium.
The history of cable television is instructive. The "blue skies" promises of limitless capacity made by cable boosters in the 1970s turned out to be hype. As a dwindling number of companies came to control the leading cable networks, the industry fashioned a controlled marketplace offering generically similar fare and broadcast reruns.
Policymakers must recognize that the free-market model has never been a reality in the media world. Because the various electronic media are interlinked in a daisy chain of marketing "windows" for the same programming (movie theaters--pay cable channels--broadcast/cable networks--videocassette--foreign release), the respective media do not necessarily compete against each other. Economically, they tend to complement each other and foster homogeneous programming that can sell in as many media windows as possible. Thus the existence of a limited-competition marketplace will not yield even a close approximation of the classic "free marketplace of ideas." Nor is the kind of limited program "choice" offered by the T.V. media in any way equivalent to the diverse kinds of expression that we witness in American pluralism and, indeed, in daily human experience. The new telecommunications infrastructure must serve as an instrument to liberate and reinvent contemporary television. But this will first require fresh, imaginative federal policy.
The most formidable challenge to designing a telecommunications system with bold public purpose may be our own imaginations. As long as advertiser-driven entertainment programming is the primary model for television, we ignore other innovative uses of video programming and information services. There are many administrative, financial, and political challenges to overcome, but the first priority is the desire to pursue this vision and to join in common cause with others who share this fundamental concern.
At the very least, a new policy framework for the emerging telecommunications infrastructure should provide for:
- Universal service--guaranteeing free or affordable access for all citizens to basic services, including news, public affairs, health, education, and electoral information;
- National public networks--providing a range of non-commercial programs and services, including news, documentaries, and children's programming;
- Local and state information networks--serving educational, governmental, health, and social service needs (including local and state versions of C-SPAN);
- Multicultural programming initiatives--encouraging authentic expression of our nation's diverse ethnic and cultural traditions; and
- New funding sources and mechanisms--facilitating the production and distribution of the widest range of programming and information.
Financing could come from a variety of fees on the commercial system, such as spectrum fees, bandwidth fees, excise taxes on VCRs, income-tax check-offs, special taxes on fiber-optics bills, or a tax on advertising revenues. One of the least intrusive policy options would be a nonprofit rate structure similar to nonprofit postal rates, to provide a fair and workable system of non-discriminatory access. Each fee system has its own political implications, which would need careful consideration. Yet the basic idea that commercial users of the telecommunications infrastructure have an identifiable quid pro quo with the government, as an agent for the public, is a sturdy principle.
Recovering a sense of common public purpose is one of the most urgent national challenges of the 1990s. The telecommunications infrastructure we create for the next century will profoundly affect our economy, educational system, communities, civic dialogue, democratic participation, and moral values. While there is still time, we must develop a national vision for telecommunications that embraces and promotes the values we hold dear in our society." (http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/jul1993_bollier)