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Ready or not: Digital TV

Media activists say Friday’s conversion to digital television is likely to go relatively smoothly — though some viewers may still be left in the dark, and larger issues of broadcasters’ public obligations remain to be addressed.

The Obama administration helped smooth the conversion, said Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action, by postponing it and devoting stimulus funding to subsidizing consumers’ conversion costs. In addition, new FCC leadership that took public outreach on the issue much more seriously, he said.

Rainbow-PUSH is among community groups providing conversion assistance to Chicagoans, particularly the elderly, said Brandon Evans of the group’s international trade bureau. FCC staffers have been conducting twice-weekly digital conversion clinics there, he said.

Chicago had the highest rate of distress calls of any media market in a test run of the conversion last month. About 14 percent of Chicago viewers rely on over-the-air signals and must have digital TVs or converter boxes. Nationally some 3 million households could be unprepared for the conversion, according to an estimate from Nielsen.

A 2007 petition by 28 public interest groups led by the Benton Foundation called on the FCC to issue rules spelling out public interest obligations for digital broadcasters, including local programming, support for media access, and enhanced campaign coverage. It’s still pending, but the new acting chair of the commission, Michael Copps, has spoken in support of the groups’ concerns.

Local cable agreements requiring channel capacity and funding for public access television centers provide a model that could be applied to digital broadcasters, said Barbara Popovic of CAN-TV.

FCC Hearing In Chicago

Community and media activists across the city are mobilizing for Federal Communications Commission hearings September 20 at Operation PUSH on proposals to allow greater media consolidation.

[UPDATE 9-25-07: Audio and video clips from the hearing are being posted at]

FCC proposals to lift restrictions on cross-ownership of media outlets would further weaken local coverage and minority ownership, opponents argue. And with Chicago falling far short of other large cities in minority media ownership, that issue will be front and center at next week’s hearing, they say.

Community groups are holding prep sessions for next week’s hearing in coming days, including the West Side chapter of the NAACP, Illinois PIRG, Chicago Media Action, Radio Arte, and We The People Media, publishers of Residents Journal (schedule below).

The FCC proposals are “outrageous,” said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG. The Commission “should be protecting local control of media, because it’s so important to democracy and the flow of ideas.”

Karl Brinsen of the West Side NAACP chapter points out that radio conglomerate Clear Channel owns four of Chicago’s major black-oriented radio stations and last year signed an agreement to lease one of its frequencies to WVON-AM, Chicago’s only black-owned radio station.

He questions the negative images emphasized in youth music promoted by absentee owners, while local hip-hop artists with positive messages toil in obscurity. “It’s a big issue – how local conscious artists don’t get an opportunity to have airplay,” Brinsen said.

Chicago has the lowest level of minority ownership among the nation’s 22 largest radio markets, according to the coalition led by the Free Press and including major consumer, civil rights and labor organizations. Of the nation’s ten largest radio markets, Chicago is the only one with minority ownership in the single digits, according to the group.

This is the second round for Republican commissioners on the FCC pushing rule changes to ease media consolidation. After rules were passed in 2003, a public uproar led Congress to vote against the changes, and a federal court required the Commission to seek public input.

FCC staff studies have shown that easing restrictions on media consolidation has led to reduced local news coverage, according to Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action.

Prep sessions for people interested in testifying are being held:

Sunday, September 16, 7 p.m. at Chicago Media Action, 3411 W. Diversy

Monday, September 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the West Side NAACP, 3559 W. Arthington

Tuesday, September 18 at 6:30 p.m. at Illinois PIRG, 407 S. Dearborn

Wednesday, September 19 at 4 p.m. at Charles Hayes Family Center (We The People Media), 4859 S. Wabash

Wednesday, September 19 at 6 p.m. in Spanish at Radio Arte, 1401 W. 18th.

The Future of Music Coalition and Chicago Independent Radio Project hold at “Rock The Media” party Wednesday, September 19, starting 8 p.m. at Delilah’s 2771 N. Lincoln.

The FCC hearing, the fourth of six being held across the country, is scheduled for September 20, 4 to 11 p.m. at Operation Push, 930 E. 50th.

Forum on Inner City News Coverage

With their orientation toward violence, much of the mass media, including filmmakers and journalists, have incorporated the terms of right-wing ideologues who demonize urban America, according to Steve Macek, author of “Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City.”

Macek will join La’Keisha Gray of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, former Chicago Urban League researcher Paul Street, and Beauty Turner of Residents Journal at a Chicago Media Action forum on “Coverage of the Inner City and the Urban Poor” this Wednesday.

“The news media’s coverage of America’s inner cities and of the nation’s most important urban issues has arguably never been worse than it is today,” according to a statement from CMA announcing the event. “With the exception of small, independent publications like Residents Journal and the Chicago Reporter here in Chicago, the media largely ignore the concerns of city residents who are poor, working class, immigrants or people of color” — and when they do provide coverage, “they tend to portray inner city communities as deviant, dysfunctional, dangerous and a threat to the rest of society.”

CMA’s panel discussion will be held at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington, on Wednesday, October 4 at 7:30 p.m. WVON radio host Cliff Kelley will moderate.

Contact Chicago Media Action at 1-866-260-7198 or at

Reform Group Challenges Rush Telecom Vote

The media reform group Free Press has called on Rep. Bobby Rush to abstain from voting on any bills that could benefit AT&T, the telecommunications giant whose charitable arm donated $1 million to Rush’s Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corp.

The AT&T donation to Rush’s charity was reported today in the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Rush must stay out of any votes that impact AT&T until investigators can get to the bottom of this apparent quid pro quo,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a national media reform organization.

“We need to know if the congressman is selling his vote to AT&T and whether other members of Congress are participating in this kind of chicanery,” Silver said.

Rush is primary sponsor along with two Republicans — House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton of Texas — of the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act, which is scheduled for committee markup and a vote in the House tomorrow.

According to Common Cause, the COPE Act would place control of the Internet in the hands of a few powerful corporations, “transform the information superhighway into a toll road,” end consumer protections against abuses by cable companies, and expand the “digital divide.”

Lauren Coletta of Common Cause termed “baffling” Rush’s subcommittee vote against a Democratic amendment requiring cable companies to serve low-income rural and minority communities. “That’s obviously going to effect neighborhoods like Englewood negatively,” she said. “They’re not going to build out and invest in infrastructure in low-income communities” if they aren’t required to do so.

Michael Maranda, executive director of the Chicago Chapter of the Community Technology Centers Network, has urged Rush to reconsider his position on COPE, which he says will “open new dimensions of the digitial divide” and “give a green light to digital red-lining.”

Rush has not made a strong case for supporting COPE, said Bruce Montgomery, a local technology access activist and public access cable producer. Any benefits from the bill are outweighted by “much more onerous negatives,” he said — including national franchising for video companies that could undermine local control of cable franchises and support for community access TV.

(Last week Bill McCaffrey of the Department of Consumer Services told Newstips of the city’s concerns that the COPE act could vacate Chicago’s cable franchise agreements and remove requirements that all residents of a service area be served.)

Montgomery called for an extended public comment period and local hearings on the bill.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action says he was “just furious” to learn earlier this month that Rush was sponsoring the COPE act. He had participated in a 1st Congressional District assembly on telecommunications reform in October and “we thought we had an ally” in Rush.

The bill “will be tremendously damaging to local media and the internet,” he said. “Unless it undergoes dramatic changes, it deserves to die.” Among his concerns is the loss of “network neutrality,” allowing internet service providers to determine what content will be available to customers.

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