television broadcasters, most of whom have made
fortunes exploiting the public's airwaves for the
past 50 years, are now trying to scare people into
thinking "free TV" might soon disappear.
your favorite shows...gone," exhorted a recent newspaper
ad bought by KRON-TV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco.
"Local news, weather and sports...gone. The Olympics
for free...gone. That's what some in Congress have
Such scare tactics would be laughable if it weren't
for the fact that many people actually believe them.
When the owners of the most powerful information
technology on the planet gear up for a disinformation
campaign, attention should be paid.
Of course, to begin with, there is no such thing
as "free TV." Never was and never will be. It's
all a smoke and mirrors deal where the monetary
price for watching the tube is included in the price
of goods and services in the marketplace. Most of
the cost of that box of Tide is not for the detergent
inside. It's for advertising and marketing.
Then there's the social cost of TV. One can argue
-- as did author Jerry Mander in his now classic
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
(Quill, NY) -- that TV has had a detrimental effect
on personal health, the natural environment and
to democratic processes.
The damage done to generations of children weaned
on a daily dose of commercial television is just
beginning to be felt. As the most powerful narcotic
in the society, television clearly dims the mind,
reduces the diversity of genuine experience and
creates a value system that celebrates the consumer
culture and discourages independent inquiry.
And it has only gotten worse. As the technology
of television broadcasting has improved in recent
years, the quality of television programming has
The "magazine" shows that replaced the dramas of
yesteryear are often little more than mildly disguised
pitches by celebrities for books, movies and other
products. Today's news programming offers a dumbed-down,
narrowly-focused world view, while public affairs
programs tend to push a pro-corporate, right-wing
agenda and children's shows are designed simply
to sell toys and snack food.
Despite claims to the contrary, American television
broadcasters have done little to repay the public
for use of the airwaves they are loaned for over-the-air
broadcasting. Now, as the technology of television
moves from analog to digital, the broadcasters are
being given -- no strings attached -- new frequency
spectrum worth billions of dollars.
Digital television, which requires new television
channels, offers the possibility of high definition
images, multiple channels of programming from a
single station and a wide range of new interactive
Senator John McCain, the Republican Commerce Committee
chairman from Arizona, argues that broadcasters
have no special right to free licenses from the
public. He waged a losing campaign to auction the
airwaves to the highest bidders and let them do
as they please with the spectrum.
What's not on the agenda is the simple concept of
returning the public's airwaves back to the people.
In light of their horrendous track record in public
service over the years, why should today's broadcasting
corporations be given any preference at all to new
digital spectrum? A strong argument can be made
that these broadcasters are parasites who have actually
damaged the communities they profess to serve.
Why must digital spectrum be auctioned off at all?
Who says every natural resource of this nation must
be sold to the highest bidder? Why not, for once,
use a valuable resource for the betterment of people
and not for commerce?
Is it too much to dream of a broadcasting system
that sells education, art, music and other forms
of human expression rather than consumer products?
Is it too radical an idea that the most powerful
communications medium ever devised be used to expand
human consciousness and experience rather than narrow
it. Is it too dangerous to the powers that be that
true diversity of thought and free expression of
ideas be made available to the public at large?
Of course, a political system under corporate control
will never give up its hold on over-the-air broadcasting.
Its utility for dispersing propaganda and preserving
the consumer culture is simply too great. But it
should be noted that we have the first chance in
nearly 50 years to "fix" what we don't like about
television broadcasting. The question is whether
we have the will to do it.
Public Television an anachronism? Discuss Here
© 1997 Frank Beacham All Rights Reserved
Beacham is a New York City-based writer and producer.
He is executive producer of the upcoming Tim Robbin's
feature film "Cradle Will Rock" from Touchstone
Pictures. Visit his web site at: www.beacham.com.