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Lost in Space

Satellite TV providers work to ensure progressive voices stay earthbound

By Mindy Farabee

 Free Speech TV accepts neither corporate sponsors nor government funding. A rabidly independent national news and arts outlet, the network is one of the few places to watch the video component of Amy Goodman’s popular radio show Democracy Now!—a sitting-in-the-studio affair that gives the radio experience a fuller context and encapsulates FSTV’s progressive stance. But Goodman’s political Molotov cocktails are just one weapon in FSTV’s eclectic guerilla approach. On any given day, viewers can tune into a smorgasbord of you-won’t-see-this-anywhere-else fare, be it installments from its Monkeywrench Cinema series of experimental short films, a documentary in which investigative journalist Greg Palast connects the dots between the White House and California’s recent energy crisis, or in-depth news analysis from a gay and lesbian perspective.

FSTV bills itself as the only national progressive network in the country. This has been the case going back to the 1990s, when the Denver-based station was aptly called The 90s Channel and carried by cable provider United. But in 1992, a company called TCI bought out United and, suddenly and without explanation, made clear its desire to shut The 90s Channel down.

“[What happened to us] is emblematic of what’s happened to media in the U.S. over the past few years,” says Jon Stout, the general manager of both The 90s Channel and its reinvention as FSTV. “One of the first things TCI did upon taking control was send us a letter announcing their intention to take us off the air.”

Through a court order, he says, they were able to get a stay of execution which lasted through the remainder of the channel’s lease agreement. But once The 90s Channel came up for renewal, TCI presented the non-profit with two choices—an astronomical rate increase or a swift demise. “It was a legal way of saying no without saying no,” Stout says. “They never gave us an explicit reason, but TCI is owned by John Malone, who is known for his arch-conservative views. He’s friends with people like Newt Gingrich. [We were] at odds with his worldview.”

According to federal legislation, Malone’s worldview isn’t supposed to allow him to cherry-pick what all’s piped into your television. The “airwaves” belong to the people and the government leases them out to corporations on our behalf, and in return, 4 percent of the satellite spectrum is set aside to broadcast nonprofit programming in the public interest. Similarly, cable providers have to make room to a small number of locally produced public-access shows. But vague wording and lax enforcement in this age of omnivorous media consolidation have conspired to erode media diversity and empower media moguls.

Unbowed after their run-in with TCI, Stout and 90s Channel head John Schwartz regrouped and resurrected their platform as Free Speech TV. Across the country, the channel is currently available in 25 million homes via a patchwork of regional cable providers, public-access programming, college campuses, and satellite options, with Dish Network—a direct broadcast satellite provider (or DBS) in the number two slot behind Rupert Murdoch’s DirecTV—providing the largest single boost to their numbers. But ever since the TCI debacle, in many markets—including Los Angeles, the second largest media market in the country—it’s damn hard to tune in to the U.S.’s only all-liberal television station.

‘There are now a lot more media outlets around, but many of those outlets have been dominated by conservative voices,” says Peter Hart of the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “It’s a trend that appears to be continuing.”

“A prime example is the number of voices that appeared on the nightly news in the run-up to the Iraq war who supported the administration, as opposed to voices calling for an alternative course,” says Stout. “The proliferation of outlets lends the impression that there’s a proliferation of voices, but what’s accompanied this explosion of outlets is consolidation of ownership.”

Annually, usually each summer, satellite networks are required to inventory their spectrum. If they’ve grown in audience, they need to increase their “set-asides.” Every year, a slew of would-be broadcasters submit detailed applications hoping to be one of the chosen few to get tacked on to the end of a 500-plus-channel orgy of commercial programming. For seven years, FSTV has been asking for one of those slots. This summer, they’re asking again.

And now for an ironic twist. In early April, DirecTV announced that shareholders had approved a move by Rupert Murdoch, who just three years ago aggressively acquired the DBS network, to sell off the company to Liberty Media, a growing conglomerate headed up by none other than—wait for it—John Malone.

As it is, we Americans have but two DBS providers—News Corp.’s DirecTV and Echostar’s Dish Network—to choose between. A few years ago, Echostar suggested a merger; the FCC said no, thanks to some serious lobbying by media reformers, Murdoch, and people who wanted to do business with Murdoch. But now that your phone company just won the right to also be your cable company, there’s much speculation that DirecTV could soon reintroduce the idea of a merger, this time arguing that the telecoms are injecting enough competition into the market. And perhaps, the pundits say, Malone is getting ready for that day.

In the meantime and in practical terms, swapping Malone for Murdoch probably doesn’t change much for the FSTVs of the world. Despite unofficial murmuring within Murdoch’s empire that the progressives made an impressive case in their bid to be granted a set-aside, the official word has always been no.

“They don’t have to explain why,” says Stout. It took six years—from 1992 to 1998—for the FCC to come out with rules governing how to fill the mandated 4 percent. After such thoughtful consideration, it ultimately decided to leave the decision to the discretion of satellite providers themselves. Stronger regulations, they worried, could hamper the satellite networks’ ability to compete most effectively with cable, which heretofore had monopolized pay TV.

Anyone curious as to whether this leeway has lent itself to abuse could ask the Brooklyn-based Hispanic Information & Telecommunications Network. For three years, DirecTV carried HITN, the only Latino-owned and -managed nonprofit public-interest educational television network in the country, as a set-aside. Two months ago, DirecTV informed the FCC they would be dropping HITN, effective June 30. The company claimed it was replacing HITN with Spanish language programming they believed “would be of greater interest to its subscribers.” They made their decision immediately after HITN filed comments with the FCC opposing the Liberty-DirecTV deal on the grounds it would curtail diversity in the media. After stories about the controversy appeared in the trades, there are some indications that DirecTV is rethinking the move.

DirecTV and Dish Network do both carry Link TV, which seeks to provide Americans with a multi-national perspective on news, politics, and the arts. It’s not an overtly progressive channel, but progressive ideas do get representation. Link TV is one of the only other places you can find the video feed for Democracy Now!

But “what’s troubling is that what’s carried on the set-asides is often duplication of what’s already airing on the pay channels,” says Andy Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project.

“It’s instructive to take a look at who has been selected,” Stout adds. “What’s found there is a large number of evangelical, religious broadcasters.” Religious broadcasters have always had a well-funded place on U.S. airwaves; still, of the 14 nonprofit channels on DirectTV, for example, eight of them are religious broadcasters, which is nearly 60 percent. When considering both satellite networks, approximately 40 percent of the nearly 40 nonprofit channels being carried on Dish Network and DirecTV had been awarded to entities like the Mormons, Trinity Broadcasting Network, and the National Religious Broadcasters. That last bunch, interestingly enough, double as one of the most powerful lobbying forces on Capitol Hill, and were granted their slot on DirecTV after helping pave the way for Murdoch’s acquisition of the company.

So is it simply time to give up on TV? Web surfers in search of unmediated news, after all, can log on to any number of dot-orgs, like Indymedia, Undercurrents, or Alternet, and bypass the powers that be.

“Potentially, over time, that might be the case,” Schwartzman says. “But the penetration of broadband, especially among lower incomes and rural communities, who make up the bulk of satellite customers, is low.” Besides, for now, squinting at a computer screen can’t compensate for the picture quality of a television set. “Over-the-air television, cable, and DBS aren’t going away any time soon. Comcast’s stock is doing fine,” Schwartzman adds. “And John Malone just spent how many billions to buy DirecTV?”

Billions are something FSTV doesn’t have—its entire annual budget tops out at $2.6 million—but it’s governed by a philosophy placing a higher premium on integrity than flashy special effects. “Even if Democracy Now! had the same budget, it wouldn’t look like CNN,” says Sam Durant, an L.A.-based artist who recently organized a fundraiser dumping $95,000 into FSTV’s coffers. “For corporations, the news is superfluous. It’s just about selling ads, so you have to work to keep the viewer’s attention. With independent media, it’s about the content.”

And thus, despite the hype that Americans are slavish consumers of infotainment who can’t be bothered to pause their relentless clicking for any image that isn’t blonde, exploding, or bleeding, FSTV’s demographics are reflecting back a more nuanced picture of the country. Rural America, by and large, is not wired for cable, and as such gets much of its window to the outside world through satellite TV. Through its presence on Dish Network, FSTV has found itself increasingly popular in places it barely expected to be tolerated.

“It’s given me a deeper understanding of the country,” says FSTV CEO John Schwartz. “Other people categorize their thoughts in ways I wouldn’t. I couldn’t do this, but other people can watch Free Speech TV and listen to Rush Limbaugh. When I answer phones during our pledge drives, it gets to be so that I can finish people’s sentences. Over and over again, I hear them say ‘it’s a lifeline.’ ”

And that’s not just true in the hinterlands. According to the channel, in East Cleveland, Ohio, municipal authorities had an idea: What if we cancelled Fox? And what if we replaced it with FSTV? There’s a thought to talk you back off the ledge—a major Midwestern American city sporting a flagrantly progressive major news network. That East Cleveland could entertain such a notion is precisely what the United States government once intended. That they could lose the right to do this is what the telecom industry is busily ensuring.

Mindy Farabee is a regular contributor for Los Angeles CityBeat where this article first appeared.


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