The biggest federal government giveaway of a public asset since
the days of the railroads is about to occur in Washington, D.C. In a
matter of weeks, the FCC is scheduled to decide how digital TV
licenses in this country will be distributed. This represents the
last major TV allocation to local markets before the 21st century.
Unless more deliberation and debate occurs before this decision, the
FCC will literally give away billions of dollars worth of licenses,
mostly to large media conglomerates.
As a result, a host of new players who want to compete in the new
digital age would be kept out of this market. To make matters worse,
this huge federal giveaway to large media conglomerates will occur
as the government urgently seeks to balance the budget, provide
economic investment incentives, and reduce federal programs.
Prior to the upcoming FCC decision concerning the digital TV
channel giveaway, there remains an opportunity for all of us to
ensure that all segments of our society will benefit in the digital
TV age. As we approach the year 2000, it is imperative that the
government provide viable, new opportunities for new entrants in the
digital marketplace. I strongly feel that entrepreneurs --
especially minorities and women -- should participate in all aspects
of digital communications services, including digital TV ownership.
The best way to achieve this objective is for the FCC to auction
spectrum for digital TV services to new businesses that are ready to
compete. This plan would benefit our country by promoting consumer
choice, competition, and generating new federal revenues to offset
federal programs or tax cuts.
So far, the discussion concerning digital TV ownership has been
tightly controlled by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)
and a few media conglomerates. Their opinions should not dominate
the entire debate on how the valuable public asset of digital TV
should be licensed. Entrepreneurs should be given the opportunity to
own a piece of digital TV, one of the most important bridges to the
While some politicians quibble and argue about the exact amount
of revenue a spectrum auction for digital TV would generate, there
can be no serious doubt that an auction of digital TV channels in
1998 would raise a few billion dollars.
Recently, columnist Alexander Cockburn criticized the spectrum
giveaway plan and said, "If the new frequencies were auctioned, they
wold fetch anywhere from $11 billion to more than $70 billion."
Similar observations were made by New York Times columnist William
Safire. The Clinton Adminstration's budget has predicted that an
auction of television channels associated with digital TV could
raise $14-17 billion. Even if the Administration's estimate is
partially correct, this amount of money could be used for a large
payment toward federal budget priorities.
Some of us already know that digital television will provide far
more than an opportunity to buy a larger, more expensive television
set. A digital TV set will likely serve as one of the local
information and technology "command centers" for America's
households. Many predict that these digital TV channels will carry
interactive telecommunications services, educational programs,
Internet access, and links to other important information networks
that will help narrow the gap between rich and poor.
Now is the time for the FCC, the Clinton Administration,
and Congresss to step up to the plate and develop an action plan to
provide viable, new ownership opportunities in digital TV. I
emphasize the need to act now because the FCC's deadline
for making a decision on how to give the incumbent broadcasters
their free TV channels is fast approaching. One plan under
consideration by the FCC would place all incumbent TV broadcasters
in a core spectrum area and auction the remaining channels.
Recently, the Coalition for a Sound Spectrum Policy, which includes
myself and groups from across the political continuum -- from the
Coalition for Diversity of Ownership and the Media Access Project to
Americans for Tax Reform and the Small Business Survival Committee
-- endorsed this core spectrum plan. Certainly, the FCC should
auction as much digital TV spectrum as possible to provide new
We need an effective strategy to create a vibrant and varied
digital marketplace. The digital TV age should offer viable, new
opportunities for imaginative businesspeople, particularly
minorities and women, to own and operate facilities that will serve
their growing audiences. In a country as diverse as the United
States, a handful of media conglomerates should not control the vast
majority of information flowing to American citizens. Diversifying
the digital television market makes a lot of sense.
Robert L. Johnson is chairman and chief executive
officer of BET Holdings, Inc.