A 'Threat to Democracy?'

4/1/2010 2:30:06 PM
By the time you read this, the FCC will have unveiled its Universal Broadband Plan. Since the plan was announced last year, there’s been some specula-tion in the industry that the proposal will come at the expense of broadcast—some have even surmised that the actions of the commission have been de-signed to eventually put our industry out of business. That speculation has been enhanced by recent revelations by a former FCC chairman.

In a speech to the Columbia Business School last month (and first posted on www.tvnewscheck.com), Reed Hundt, who served as head of the commis-sion during the formative years of the transition (1994-97) basically admitted to his audience that the commission decided as early as 1994 that broadband should replace broadcast as the “common medium” in the United States. Hundt—who had on his staff a young attorney by the name of Julius Gena-chowski—told his audience that “the choice to do this was made in a first draft from 1994-97 by some of the people who are now running the FCC.” And to put an even finer point on it, he admitted that the commission did something a “little naughty—We delayed the transition to HDTV and fought a big battle against the whole idea.” And he even advocated the promotion of the Internet because he viewed its two-way capability as “pro-democracy,” and that broadcast had become “a threat to democracy,” by creating intermediaries between the medium and the viewer.

I’m not entirely sure why the former chairman, (who was never a big friend of broadcasters in the first place), would lay all of this out 16 years later for all to see. Back then, as broadcasters were formulating a digital standard, we thought that our biggest enemy was the computer industry, which was fighting for a progressive over interlaced standard. Who would have thought that the real enemy was the commission itself?

And even though “conspiracy” was often whispered around the time of the great VSB/COFDM debate a decade ago, such speculation was just that—speculation.

It should be noted that Hundt’s comments are those of a private citizen and not someone who has the power to make decisions; the FCC’s plan does not necessarily reflect all of the original intentions relayed by the former chairman in his speech. But it does reveal a policy that was put in place before the transition even began and advocated by former Vice President Al Gore—so one wonders how our industry would look like by now had the 2000 election gone the other way. All those fights during the last decade over indecency and media ownership? Just window dressing for what was really going on be-hind the scenes (and what was to come).

Taxpayers should be outraged by these revelations. Putting aside the fact that the transition cost the broadcast industry billions of dollars, public funds were put aside to mislead the public into thinking that a new and robust over-the-air digital broadcast medium would continue to be available when all along, the intention was to decimate and eventually eliminate what is the last source of free information and entertainment to the consumer.

We agree with the NAB that this plan should not result in an either/or proposition and that, technologically, broadcast can co-exist with a robust, wireless broadband without compromising access to either. But Hundt’s comments show that both the public and policymakers need to take a closer look at the real reasons behind proponents’ current specious arguments that spectrum reallocation is needed based on scarcity. The original intentions have been revealed as a bit underhanded; who’s to say the current plans aren’t either?

Tom Butts