NOW Foundation Calls for Better Television

by Elizabeth Toledo, NOW Foundation Vice President Education,
and Sarah Rabin, Special Projects Staff

Imagine turning on your television and seeing NOW activists discussing current events without hostile opponents interrupting and distorting the message. Imagine full coverage of feminist events, press conferences and meetings.

Why is this scenario so remote?  In large part because nine major corporations [GE, Disney/Capital Cities, Time-Warner/Turner, AT&T/TCI, News Corporation, Viacom, Sony, Universal (Seagram) and Westinghouse] own or control almost all of the television, radio and print outlets in this country.

The media moguls recently tightened their grip on the airwaves by convincing Congress to give them the ability to broadcast even more channels, for free, through the use of the new digital spectrum. This gift of a public resource to private corporations is estimated to be worth $40-70 billion because it dramatically expands the capacity of current television stations.

At the National Conference in Los Angeles in July, the NOW Foundation launched the Digital Broadcast Project with a news conference, workshops and Monday's Media Institute.

"The current system only serves to reinforce the messages of corporations and reflect their values. While the public airwaves generate an estimated $115 billion in annual revenues, broadcasters pay no rent, no fees, no taxes—no charges at all—for their use of the airwaves," said Elizabeth Toledo, NOW Foundation Vice President Education. "Rather than serving the public, broadcasters are ripping us off!"

To make the scenario at the start of this article a reality, the NOW Foundation has joined forces with a broad range of coalition partners, including the Civil Rights Forum, the NAACP, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the United Council of Churches of Christ - USA, the National Institute on Media and the Family, the Benton Foundation and the Project on Media Ownership (PROMO), to demand well-defined and fully enforced public interest obligations for broadcasters.  This coalition is called People for Better TV.

"We need the FCC [Federal Communication Commission] to begin to protect the interests of the little guy.  We want TV that serves the needs of ordinary Americans in their local communities," said Mark Lloyd, Executive Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy. "We have a right to ask for these things because TV broadcasters use our public property—the airwaves."

At a May 3 press conference, the coalition called on the FCC to hold public hearings to let viewers define public interest requirements. Current recommendations from broadcasters and the Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (commonly known as the "Gore Commission") are that all obligations should be voluntary and decided by the broadcasters themselves.

"To protect the interests of consumers, the FCC should begin public hearings on the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters without further delay," said former Senator Howard Metzenbaum, chair of the Consumer Federation of America. "We are concerned about issues of privacy and excessive rates for pay-per-view programming over the public airwaves."

Beginning with the advent of television broadcasting in 1934, stations were able to use the public spectrum for free in exchange for serving "the public interest, convenience and necessity."  However, current television statistics show that what broadcasters are airing does not represent the public. A full 87 percent of all sound bites from "experts," such as doctors and lawyers, are male, 92 percent of whom are white.  In addition to broadcasters arguing that shows like "The Jetsons" and "Wheel of Fortune 2000" are educational children's programming, only 10 percent of shows labeled as educational or informative have females in the leading roles.  (See "Media Institute Sets Sights on Feminist Network" for more on this.)

Current recommendations from the People for Better TV coalition include increasing public affairs and political programming, educational programs and services and public service announcements, in addition to adding a content-based ratings system, financial support and channel space for public service media, community outreach and accountability, reports on diversity efforts, closed captioning and privacy and rate protections.

Please see the NOW Foundation website at and the People for Better TV (PBTV) web site at for the most up-to-date information on this issue. Please call the Action Center for a Digital TV leadership kit.  At the PBTV site, you can write your own letter to the FCC to call for public hearings, and also copy it to your Congressional representatives. Let them know that you are part of the 80 percent of the population that favors requiring broadcasters to meet certain public interest obligations in return for free access to the new public airwaves to provide digital television.

Return to Fall 1999 National NOW Times
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