The Transistor Triangle: NAB, Congress, and FCC collaborate to keep airwaves a corporate wasteland

Federal Marshals armed to the teeth storm private residences confiscating micro-radio transmitters, computers, and CD collections. Twenty-nine million dollars worth of lobbyists swarm the halls of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to press for legislation allowing ever greater consolidation of the media and telecommunications industry. After major protests by the NAACP and others, the NBC prime-time line-up is still 99.4% white. Welcome to the world created in large part by the National Association of Broadcasters and its members.

Federal Marshals armed to the teeth storm private residences confiscating micro-radio transmitters, computers, and CD collections. Twenty-nine million dollars worth of lobbyists swarm the halls of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to press for legislation allowing ever greater consolidation of the media and telecommunications industry. After major protests by the NAACP and others, the NBC prime-time line-up is still 99.4% white. Welcome to the world created in large part by the National Association of Broadcasters and its members.

What is the NAB?

The NAB is a 77-year-old trade association of local television and radio stations and the major networks, which has controlled Federal broadcasting law since the industry’s inception. NAB-sponsored legislation provides the economic and technical base for the vast wasteland that is commercial television and radio today. The NAB and its members have successfully expropriated a public resource–the nation’s airwaves–and use that resource to further an economic, political, and cultural agenda contrary to the public interest.

The NAB was founded with a membership of 16 radio stations in 1922–almost a dozen years before the creation of the FCC. Today, NAB has annual revenues of more than $35 million, and claims to represent 85 percent of the network-owned and affiliated commercial TV stations and 40 percent of all independent and public TV stations in the United States.

Using its “grassroots base” of TV and radio owners across the country, and the considerable muscle of the network conglomerates Disney, General Electric, and Westinghouse, the NAB in the past two decades has won concession after concession for the broadcast industry from Congress and the FCC. Most recently, the association has moved vigorously and publicly to quash the FCC’s moderate legalization of Low Power FM (LPFM) broadcasting. Last year it persuaded FCC commissioners to postpone issuing new rules on public interest obligations for digital television, and the year before it forestalled any follow up on the auctioning of digital spectrum rights as promised by Congress in 1996. In 1996, the NAB was a leading proponent of the Telecommunications Act, which permitted a single company to own television stations serving over one third of the U.S. public, and allowed ownership of up to six radio and two television stations in a single city.

‘The NAB and its members control the media which Congress members rely upon to get re-elected.’

The NAB’s biggest single financial coup was the $70 billion giveaway of digital television bandwidth. Even as telecommunications services were required to bid for the right to use the public’s airwaves for private profit, the incumbent broadcasters, represented by the NAB, received the technological equivalent of a six-fold increase in spectrum allocation. As it turns out, despite being sold to the public as a means to a bigger and brighter picture, digital broadcasting and the prohibitively expensive High Definition TV (HDTV) have not caught on with consumers. And although the FCC has issued over 130 digital licenses, only a smattering of programs are broadcast digitally.

According to Carrie Biggs-Adams, an NBC engineer and union organizer, the real bonanza in digital television lies in its ability to broadcast at least six distinct signals in the amount of bandwidth that would previously have accommodated only one signal. These newly allocated channels can be used by incumbent broadcasters for additional services, such as interactive shopping, or leased to voicemail, paging, data transmission, Internet, and other communications services. (Of course the incumbent broadcasters get the fees–the public doesn’t even get a brighter picture.)

How do the NAB & its members control broadcast policy?

Since the advent of the transistor, the triangular relationship between the NAB, Congress, and the FCC has put the public on the receiving end of more and more uniform content delivered through more and more channels.

Broadcast industry critics, campaign finance reformers, members of Congress, and the NAB itself all agree that the NAB and its members are one of the most effective lobbies in Washington. Common Cause, a public interest nonprofit advocating campaign finance reform, calls the NAB and its members “successful players in the Washington special-interest money game.” They’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses to push their policies through Congress and the FCC. (See NAB & members Buy Influence in Congress below.)

Andrew J. Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a Washington, DC public interest telecommunications law firm, told MediaFile that lobbyists for the broadcast networks, the large radio chain owners, and the NAB collaborate on legislative strategy and “prowl the halls of the FCC every single day and monitor everything that comes out of the FCC.” Despite some tension between the smaller operators of TV and radio stations, Schwartzman says that “the networks call the shots” at the NAB.

NAB & Members Buy Influence in Congress

In a 1997 report issued after the passage of the Telecommunications Act, Common Cause notes that “The PAC contributions of three broadcast interests–General Electric/ NBC, NAB, and Westinghouse/ CBS–were large enough to place them among the top five percent of all PACs for the decade [1990s].”

From 1988 through 1996, Common Cause tracked PAC contributions of over $9.5 million to federal candidates and another $3.1 million to national parties from the broadcast industry. Actual contributions were even higher, it warns. “News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch gave more than $1 million to the California Republican Party, with $750,000 donated in October 1996 alone–gifts that do not show up on FEC [Federal Elections Commission] records.”

In this presidential election year, the industry’s contributions will most likely increase at the same rate as other political contributors–15-20% since the previous election. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of June 1, 2000, the TV and movie industry together had already donated $1,541,221 to federal candidates. Common Cause, including other related industries in entertainment and media, pegs the June 2000 tally at $2,654,258. Over the last two years the NAB alone has given $1,986,631. (NAB largess favors the Republican side, but candidates from both parties are supported generously.)

NAB lobbying expenditures have also increased. According to FEC filings, the NAB spent $ 5.2 million in 1998, and $ 2.75 million in the first half of 1999 on its lobbying efforts. Furthermore, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, NAB members and the parent media conglomerates in the TV and movie industries spent at least $29.7 million on lobbying in 1998. –B.C.

More Than Money

But the NAB and its members aren’t just another industry special interest association like the National Rifle Association. The NAB members also control the media which Congress members rely upon to get re-elected. Following passage of the Telecommunications Act, Congress held a hearing on the issue of broadcasters having to pay for their new digital licenses. The NAB immediately blitzed the national airwaves with a blatantly distorted “Stop the TV Tax” ad campaign which identified Congress members who who wanted the broadcasters to pay their way. Following a deluge of calls to an NAB sponsored 800 number, Congressional opposition to paid licensing crumbled. (U.S. viewers may be dissatisfied with the quality of TV but they certainly don’t want it taxed.)

As Common Cause pointed out in its 1997 report, the members of the NAB “have the power to report and shape the news, including the power to control how issues affecting their own operations–such as the spectrum giveaway–are covered. They also control how, and if, members of Congress appear on television.”

In a further twist on a closed loop that keeps the public from effective participation in democratic institutions, political candidates spend the bulk of their PAC and other campaign contributions buying television and radio advertising. The Television Bureau of Advertising expects TV stations to take in more than $600 million in political advertising in 2000. According to the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California at Annenberg, television stations ran 151,000 commercials for politicians and earned $114 million during the first four months of this year–long before the election season began in earnest.

According to a June 2000 USC at Annenberg study, paid advertising completely overwhelmed local election news programming during the primary races this spring. Sixteen out of nineteen stations television stations across the United States spent an average of 39 seconds per night on the actual content of the congressional races. (Pure “horse race stories” were excluded from the count.) And in all but two markets, paid political advertising far out-paced local news and public affairs coverage. “During the culminating two weeks of the primary campaign [a television viewer] was 10 times more likely, while watching evening and late night news programs, to see an ad about the New Jersey race than to see a story about the New Jersey race,” states the study.

PSAs = Public Service?

Not surprisingly, the paucity of meaningful campaign coverage and public affairs and public interest programming in general is a direct result of the successful lobbying by NAB members to keep commercial television for commercials. The Fairness Doctrine, which mandated equal coverage of all sides of a controversial issue, was eliminated during the Reagan administration, as were broadcast license renewal procedures that once required broadcasters to provide serious documentation of their public affairs offerings. The broadcast of public service announcements (PSAs) are the scant fig-leaf gesture to the public interest that remains.

What the NAB touts as public service programming–according to a promotional brochure–is a “congressional families PSA project featuring spouses and children of members of Congress . . . [with] locally tailored on-air messages [that] have alerted audiences to vital social and health issues for over twelve years.” Pro-NAB Congress members can look forward to an invitation to create public service messages that will be broadcast in their districts, heightening name recognition and re-election prospects.

All told, the NAB claims its members have provided public service worth “$8.1 billion in a single year of service to hometown America.” And while many NAB sponsored PSAs are ‘apple pie’ support for relatively non-controversial issues such as childhood vaccination, safe communities, and prostate cancer screening, their sponsored ads reflect the overall broadcast trend–the largest single category of broadcast PSAs is anti-drug advertisements. According to Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey’s Office of the National Drug Control Policy, “the biggest public service campaign in history” is the ONDCP’s three billion dollars plus worth of ads to be broadcast over five years. The ONDCP program, requiring a fifty-percent match by the broadcaster, is the most significant public service requirement passed by Congress in decades. (Readers may recall the tempest that arose when network executives admitted receiving public service credits for submitting TV scripts which met ONDCP anti-drug criteria.)

The NAB Says No to Low Power FM

Relations between Kennard and the NAB have been tense since he went ahead with the moderate legalization of Low Power FM. When the FCC issued regulations allowing for the licensing of micro-radio broadcasting, the NAB immediately hit the congressional panic button. Ohio Congressman Michael Oxley and other NAB allies and beneficiaries sponsored the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. The bill, which would effectively halt legalization of LPFM, sailed through the House in April.

In the opinion of Mark Lloyd of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, “The FCC chairman is having his head handed to him every other week by congress [over the LPFM issue].” At the 2000 NAB Annual Convention in Las Vegas in April, Kennard challenged broadcasters on their LPFM stance. “Why, amidst all this opportunity for broadcasters, have you chosen to muster your considerable resources to deny churches and schools and community-based organizations just a little piece of the broadcast pie?” Kennard asked.

NAB’s sole pretext for resisting the bill is “signal interference.” But FCC engineering studies and almost all independent studies show that properly tuned LPFM stations will not interfere with other radio broadcasts. For public consumption, NAB spokesperson Dennis Wharton is fond of raising the specter of interference with air traffic control. He’s unable to cite a single instance where this actually happened, and again no independent experts forsee such interference from LPFM. It’s apparent that the real fear driving the NAB is that LPFM might demonstrate just how effectively the public could use its own airwaves if given a chance. This might interfere with NAB members’ long-term profits.

Richard Edmondson, San Francisco Liberation Radio founder and author of Rising Up: Class Warfare in America from the Streets to the Airwaves, thinks the NAB may lose its battle against LPFM. Hundreds of civic organizations have weighed in with the FCC in favor of micro radio and thousands of underrepresented groups that may not have been inclined to broadcast illegally are just waiting for the go ahead. Edmondson’s own interest in running an LPFM station grew out of his experience as a member of a community that has no voice and no representation on commercial or public radio: the homeless. “SFLR makes a serious attempt to meet the public’s needs . . . and not just broadcast our favorite CDs,” he says.

The FCC has already received 760 applications from community organizations in the first ten states eligible to apply for LPFM licenses. Groups ranging from high schools and churches, to school districts and Native American tribes are ready and willing to put together micro-radio stations. This ground swell of interest in low-power radio has apparently slowed down the NAB’s usually successful steamrolling.

Although it’s unlikely that San Francisco would even get a micro-radio station–the FCC rules give existing radio stations “2nd adjacent channel” protection against interference meaning that most urban areas won’t be eligible–Edmondson still hails the new FCC rules as a step forward. SFLR has applied for a license, even as the FCC continues its threats to seek a $100,000 fine, civil forfeiture, and jail time for Edmondson if SFLR doesn’t stop broadcasting.

Micro-power activists are also attempting to pressure the NAB by targeting the specific station and chain owners who have fought hardest against LPFM. Bonneville International CEO Bruce Reese incensed Edmondson with this cavalier dismissal of micro radio’s potential to serve communities cut off from commercial radio. As a consequence, SFLR and other LPFM supporters are pressuring advertisers to pull their ads from Bonnevile’s San Francisco station KOIT if Bonneville continues its opposition to micro radio. “Reese apparently regards concerns over diversity on the airwaves to be purely trivial,” says Edmondson.

At this writing, the NAB-backed bill to completely block micro radio is stalled in the Senate.

Activists Say Broadcast Policy Limits Content and Ownership Diversity

In addition to allocating channels on the broadcast spectrum, the FCC is supposed to determine whether media mergers are in the public interest and to evaluate their effect on diversity. But in reality, the FCC gives the green light to almost every single merger. In Commissioner Powell’s opinion, the 859 mergers of 1996 and the 840 mergers of 1997, “probably made radio stations more effective competitors.” In fact, the consolidation of ownership in both radio and television has only further reduced the diversity in programming and ownership. (See accompanying article, The Politics of Urban Radio.)

In fall 1999, the NAACP, National Latino Media Council, and others launched a major campaign to get more minority actors on screen and more minority producers off screen. Not a single person of color had been cast in a leading role among the 26 new comedy or drama series set to premiere that television season. So far, according to Carrie Biggs-Adams of NBC, in Burbank the NAACP-led pressure has resulted in a few more minority faces, but mostly as daily hires whose contracts expire at the end of each workday.

The NAB opposes almost any requirement on broadcasters to address the lack of diversity of station employees. The organization fought against FCC rules requiring stations to recruit minorities and women, arguing that sending out job announcements to a diversity of recruiting sites was simply too expensive and burdensome.

But diversity in hiring is only one part of the picture. Activists say that commercial media programs leave out voices and perspectives that challenge corporate interests and broadcast only the programs that get the audience demographics that appeal to big-money advertisers. “The fact that the NAB and its members prevent non-commercial spaces from existing means that the airwaves are preserved for those whose sole motive is money,” says Andrea Buffa, executive director of Media Alliance, the San Francisco-based media advocacy group.

The NAB not only fights against non-commercial owners like LPFM broadcasters, it also advocates ownership policies that have hit minority-owned radio stations hard. While diversity of ownersmay not be sufficent in itself to create diversity in programming –the economic pressures are the same or greater on minority-owned commercial stations–the decreasing number of minority owners since the passage of the Telecommunications act is yet another cause of the monotonous character of commercial television and radio.

In a 1998 report on minority ownership, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that minorities owned only 2.9 percent of the country’s 11,524 stations. The report also found media concentration was a likely factor to cause small broadcast station owners with less capital to leave the industry because they could not compete against group owners. (Two years after the report, the Clinton administration announced a new initiative–to study the problem some more by surveying 195 minority owners.)

NAB to Meet the Media Democracy Movement

Groups like the Media Access Project and Civil Rights Forum on Communication Policy have filed numerous lawsuits and petitioned the FCC around the issues of public interest programming and diversity in broadcasting, constantly reminding the FCC that its charge is to protect the public interest. Mark Lloyd of the Civil Rights Forum thinks there’s a lot to be gained by grassroots lobbying of the FCC and Congress.

“Activists usually have their power directed at the wrong target,” says Lloyd. He believes that the networks are too insulated from public pressure to concede systemic improvements, and that community organizations that want to improve broadcasting should go to the same people that the NAB goes to: Congress and the FCC. For example, activists could pressure the FCC on public service requirements for digital television. According to Leanza of MAP, the FCC has yet to issue any regulations on public service requirements–not even the mandatory three hours of educational TV per week required by the Children’s Television Act–for the new digital broadcasters.

“Let’s not whine about the [$70 billion digital] giveaway, let’s use it as leverage for fighting back,” Lloyd advises activists. He points out that most members of the public are unaware that broadcasters don’t pay for their licenses. Once they find out, he believes the public will be in a good place to ask what local communities are going to receive from broadcasters in exchange for their use of the spectrum.

Micro radio activists are leading the organizing efforts of a coalition of media groups that is calling for protests at the NAB radio convention in
San Francisco this September

Many micro radio activists don’t share Lloyd’s faith in the FCC and Congress. They claim that it was the unrelenting civil disobedience campaign of groups like Free Radio Berkeley that broadcast from micro radio transmitters without FCC permission that forced the government’s hand on LPFM. They are leading the organizing efforts of a coalition of media groups that is calling for protests at the NAB radio convention in San Francisco this September. Endorsers include groups ranging from the Civil Rights Forum to the Micropower Action Coalition to the Direct Action Network to Media Alliance.

Media Alliance’s Buffa considers the protests part of a much broader fight for media democracy in the United States. “The first step is to get people to realize your media system doesn’t have to consist of Survivor, Big Brother, Rush Limbaugh, and Howard Stern,” she says. “Congress and the FCC have sold off the entire media infrastructure to corporate interests. Our goal should be to get U.S. media policy out of the hands of the corporations and change the architecture so that there are many ways for people to put on programming relevant to the cultural, economic, and political needs of their communities.” She advocates reserving 50% of the digital TV and radio spectrum for non-commercial local programming, reinstating restrictions on media ownership, and preserving and expanding open access on Internet broadband services. Buffa and others argue that the diversity of applicants for LPFM licenses shows that once technology reduces the economic barriers to bradcasting thousands of community organizations will be able to provide the content.

Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project, a group which trains community organizations on how to set up legal LPFM stations, advocates that media activists take on the struggle for a share of the digital radio spectrum. He notes that in Europe, as commercial broadcasters migrate to digital, the entire FM dial is being freed up, with significant space being allocated to public interest broadcasts. Because U.S. incumbent broadcasters don’t want to move off their analog frequencies, and the U.S. military refuses to free up additional bandwidth, the FCC plan for digital radio in the United States won’t follow the European model. Tridish says that activists can still fight for more education, information, and democratic participation in digital. (See accompanying articleThe Next FCC Giveaway: Digital Radio, page 3.)

Broadcasters are also getting ready to stake out their territory in the online world. In the very speech in which he chided them for opposing him on the LPFM issue, Kennard invited NAB members to get in on the action anticipated for broadband Internet services. “Convergence is not just about technology. . . it means finding a new business model for television in the digital age,” he advised the broadcasters.

Citing the example of Bill Paley whose leadership of CBS in the 1930s succeeded because he “because he saw advertising as the key to radio’s future,” Kennard encouraged broadcasters to search for the “killer application or applications that will reinvent television for the age of broadband Internet.”

“No industry is better positioned than broadcasting to transmit content that is frequently accessed.”

Turning back the NAB’s attempt to shut down legalized micro radio is one step in building a movement capable of providing authentic diversity in broadcasting. Winning open access in broadband and community representation in digital radio will take sustained mobilizations, but if activists and the public fail to act, the power of the new technologies may make the 20th century corporate hegemony seem quaint.

Ben Clarke is editor of MediaFile. He has never owned a television set. Go figure.

Author: Ben Clarke

News Service: Media Alliance


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