Thursday, July 29, 2004

A Tragedy of Airers

Each of the major networks have decided that the major party political conventions merit but a scant three hours each out of their precious prime-time schedules.  This, in their view, apparently meets their statutory obligation to operate in the public interest in exchange for their free use of a limited public commodity - the airwaves. 

There is little disagreement that the political conventions have become well-scripted events.  The speeches, the message, the pageantry, the pomp, and the patriotism of the conventions are all so well honed as to appear a little slick to the average viewer.  The networks bemoan the facts that there is simply no news to come out of the conventions and that their convention ratings are below their normal primetime fare.  This supposedly justifies cutting back on convention coverage by 80% from 1992 coverage levels.

A few thoughts:

1) Even if the conventions have become slicker than they used to, and much of the nominating drama no longer exists, they still remain the most visible platform for which the parties to communicate their message to the American people. 

Once every four years, the two parties which account for around 99% of elected offices at the state and federal levels come together to discuss and present their stance on the issues of our time, and to nominate the person from their party best-suited to lead us as a nation.  So what if they present an over-produced show?  Americans can decide for themselves the level of sincerity and truthfulness behind the parties' presentations of themselves.  They don't need the networks to make that decision for them.

2) The networks are in part to blame for the slickification of our nation's politics. 

Aside from the fact that they tend to pursue and broadcast the most sensational of stories, the networks offer no free airtime for policy discussions or presentations.  As they live by the soundbyte, our nation's democracy dies by it.  We do not get candidates' or parties' full-fledged positions on how to ensure that all Americans have access to adequate healthcare, or how to ensure that all of America's children have access to a quality primary, secondary, or college education, or how we are going to protect our country's shores, or deal with the deficit, or tax policy, or jobs, or governmental waste. 

That the parties shape their message into twenty-second near-meaningless soundbytes to fit into the broadcasters' presentation of it is hardly surprising.  The broadcasters cannot fault the politicians for adhering to a system that the broadcasters themselves played a huge role in creating. 

3) The airwaves truly belong to the public.

- Even though the airwaves and digital spectrum seem intangible to all but physicists and telecoms, they are as much a public-owned space as the village common, public park, or city sidewalks and streets.  Imagine a concessions business trying to deny access to a stage in a local park for a debate between candidates for mayor because it thought the debate might hurt its hotdog sales.  The networks make billions of dollars off our public property, and they can't take thirty hours out of their schedule every four years to further the public discourse?

- The airwaves are also just as limited as the village common of yore in terms of space.  A major reason the Communications Act of 1934 (the act that requires the networks to operate in consideration of the public interest) was passed was because of the havoc wrought by so many players trying to dominate a limited spectrum.  Too many competing signals over the same frequencies made it hard for any to get through clearly.  (Imagine thirty bands trying to play at the same time in your local city park.)   So, only a limited number of companies received licenses to use the public's airwaves, creating a virtual monopoly over one of the most important channels of communication.  Although a few cable channels offer much more comprehensive convention coverage, not everyone can afford or has access to these channels.  The same holds true for the internet.  Only the networks can offer so many Americans an opportunity to see and hear the people who would be their leaders.

The networks received their free licenses to use America's public property based on the premise that they would do so in the public interest.  Their current practices of cutting convention coverage go directly against that agreement.  Offering more convention coverage would encourage the parties to address more squarely and completely the issues which face us today, and offer the American public a greater amount of information about the candidates and their positions with which to make their decisions come Election Day.

If the networks refuse to live up to their end of the bargain, it is up to the American people, through Congress or the FCC, to make sure that they do.

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