Saturday, July 2, 2011

2011-06-09 "Next Steps for Ethnic Media -- Fighting for Low-Power TV" by Eric K. Arnold
Arnold wrote this article as part of a partnership between the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism and New America Media, in a media policy reporting fellowship sponsored by The Media Consortium.
OAKLAND, Calif.--Most people in the San Francisco Bay Area won’t find the FilAm Network on cable, but many of the region’s more than 300,000 Filipino residents have no other access to FilAm’s array of local news and feature programs that the channel carries in Tagalog and English.
Through a little-known, community-friendly medium called low-power television (LPTV), the Bay Area’s Filipinos have their own station in Tagalog and English. What’s more, other ethnic communities can tune in to entire channels with programs in their own native tongues, such as Mandarin, Vietnamese and Hindi.
LPTV is also free, a major advantage for many low-income and immigrant populations for whom costly cable television packages are beyond reach.
LPTV has been around for decades, although largely under the media radar. But its 2009 conversion to digital technology, which permits a station to “multiplex”--or clone--its signal, increased LPTV’s programming possibilities and therefore its profile in communities nationwide.
For example, KAXT, a Class-A LPTV station based in San Jose, was able to create a dozen channels, each ideal for community programming, which serve many ethnic groups or niches. Moreover, the technical quality can be as good as most anything available on the airwaves.
Multiplexing represents a potential game-changer for televised diversity. Yet advocates have had to fight for LPTV’s life—often against mega-media corporations and in the halls of lawmakers and regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Digital Haves and Have-Nots -
LPTV’s history illustrates what’s become known as the “digital divide” – the technology gap separating ethnic, immigrant and low-income communities from their usually whiter and wealthier counterparts.
Originally instituted in the early 1980s as a response to the onslaught of pay-TV networks, LPTV was designed to serve the public interest by offering free programming and easier access for underserved communities. Unlike cable or full-power TV, LPTV is mandated by federal law to carry both local news and children’s programming.
As of 2009, there were almost 2,500 LPTV stations in the United States--roughly twice the number of full-power stations. Nationally, about 30 percent of LPTV stations are owned by women and minorities--compared to three percent of full-power and cable stations.
According to KAXT vice-president Ravi Kapur, “There’s more diversity in low-power television than any other medium.”
Gilbert Dean Arcillas, who started the FilAm Network at KAXT, said his channel “gives a voice and a face to the community” that makes a significant addition to the area's limited programming for the Filipino American community.
The shows on FilAm work with Arcillas to make sure the local Filipino American community is represented. Recent stories on the channel have ranged from the ongoing phenomenon of champion boxer Manny Pacquiao to “Birdman Mike” Parayno, an Asian American studies teacher who hosts a jazz barbeque each weekend at his Berkeley home.

A Model for Multicultural Broadcasting -
Since its inception during the Reagan administration, the LPTV format has been overshadowed by network and cable TV, both in terms of viewer awareness and political and economic clout with policymakers. That, media blogger David Oxenford has written, is probably because “many of these stations operate in rural areas or serve minority or other specialized audiences, perhaps explaining the lack of coverage in the mainstream media.”
KAXT’s Kapur explained at the FCC’s Media Ownership Conference in May that digital television could finally level the playing field “by allowing stations to broadcast multiple streams of programming at the same time.”
Since KAXT converted from analog to the multichannel digital signal, its new business model has involved leasing all of its channels out to ethnic programmers. Besides Arcillas, some of KATX’s other producers are Andrew Kao, who programs TVHS, a Taiwanese station, and Khoi Nguyen, who programs the Vietnamese channel, Que Hong.
“How many Vietnamese programs have you seen on NBC?” said KAXT President Warren Trumbly.
The issue of diversity is a personal one for Kapur. Growing up in the San Francisco area as a person of Indian descent, he said, “I knew that the Indian community was being grossly ignored in mass media. I knew the Filipino community I grew up around in South San Francisco and Daly City were being completely ignored, as was the region’s emerging Vietnamese community.”
Kapur figured, “If we can do something just to serve those three communities, we [would] have something viable and beneficial.”
Calling itself “the most diverse television station in America,” KAXT’s new format also offers African American, Spanish-language and English-language programs.

A Medium for Many Voices -
By spurring the creation of local news and information for ethnic populations in their own native languages, Trumbly said, KAXT is developing media entrepreneurs in those communities, as well as building relationships and helping small businesses that can’t afford to advertise on larger stations.
Kapur, a former television reporter, took the helm of Diya TV, the first-ever Hindi-language channel in America. The station also broadcasts local news in other Indian dialects—Punjabi and Marathi—as well as in English.
“We started from ground zero,” said Andrew Kao. He had no previous experience in television broadcasting when he started TVHS a year ago. His channel “provides a lot of information for the Mandarin-speaking community and the Taiwanese community,” he said. “Nobody did that before.”
In the months ahead, Kao plans to add more programs to meet the Mandarin community’s interests, such as real estate investment in the United States and financial investment in Asia.
Khoi Nguyen, who launched Vietnamese channel Que Hong, is among KAXT’s most experienced broadcasters. He arrived with an 18-year background in radio and TV. That included a stint producing occasional half-hour segments for SBTN, a Vietnamese channel on the local Comcast system. (It is only available to cable subscribers of Comcast’s Xfinity package, not to basic subscribers.)
Before the advent of digital LPTV, Nguyen said, “You couldn’t have your own channel. The price to lease was too high. You can’t even have one hour a day.”
Besides its lower cost, Nguyen said, digital LPTV is better and faster than analog TV. The programming on Que Hong includes four daily news segments--world, U.S., Vietnamese and local—filling specific needs of the Bay Area’s Vietnamese immigrant population.
Nguyen added that Que Hong has made it possible for the local Vietnamese community to do things like raise money for the funeral expenses of a low-income refugee who had died.
Although Nguyen voices the hopefulness of many communities when he speaks of a “bright future for local TV in digital,” serious legal, regulatory and technological obstacles are lurking for KAXT and other LPTV stations.

Low-Power television (LPTV) stations were created in the 1980s to serve local public interests with more educational, children’s and local programming than their cable and network counterparts were willing to offer. When LPTV went digital in 2009, the new technology meant that one station could clone its signal into many channels to serve community niches and ethnic concerns in many languages.
With the advent of the digital media revolution, though, corporate-media interests—with the backing of Washington—have increasingly eyed LPTV’s thin slices of the broadcast spectrum in hopes of grabbing many for themselves.
Complicating matters, federal rules have stymied much of LPTV’s growth. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers LPTV a secondary service not protected under the law from interference or displacement by broadcasters.
So stations such as KAXT, serving much of the San Francisco Bay Area, have no rights of guaranteed placement on cable systems and thus no federal protections against the reallocation of their spectrums to other broadcasters.
LPTV has been allowed to survive, yet the U.S. government “hasn’t done much to allow it to thrive,” said KAXT’s attorney, Peter Tannenwald.
LPTV operators around the country took a major hit in 2005, when the FCC announced the nation would undergo the conversion to digital TV. As the public scrambled to get its instructions and, in some cases, digital boxes, few knew that the commission also mandated that it would reallocate or take back 25 percent of previously assigned frequencies. Full-power broadcasters were guaranteed a place in the new order, but as second-class citizens of the airwaves, many LPTV stations simply ceased to exist.
Even though LPTV addresses the needs of underserved communities and promotes localism, major media and regulators argue that broadband Internet technology could fill that gap instead.

Internet Falls Short for Blacks, Latinos -
As KAXT’s Tannenwald explains, “The FCC thinks that the Internet is a sufficient vehicle” for digital diversity issues.
However, a higher percentage of people in minority and ethnic communities have less access to a computer than other demographic groups. Less than half of African Americans and Latinos have broadband access, according to a 2010 Commerce Department survey--well below the national average of almost two-thirds.
That proportion drops even lower in other ethnic immigrant communities. Yet, almost every household has a TV, even if it doesn’t have cable.
The FCC has made few efforts to promote LPTV as a tool for increasing diversity on the airwaves, despite the recommendation of the commission’s own Advisory Committee on Diversity. That panel has urged the FCC to “enhance the abilities of minorities and women to participate in telecommunications.”
The FCC has also rebuffed recent efforts by LPTV programmers to explore emerging technology that could allow them to expand their spectrum to utilize broadband. This resistance to an inclusive policy is raising concerns that the commission is motivated more by financial interests than public interest.
Media policy blogger Brendan Holland echoed media advocates last February when he suggested the FCC might be trying to nip LPTV’s greater development in the bud for fear of "foregoing the revenues that would come from an auction of reclaimed television spectrum."

LPTV Denied “Must-Carry” on Cable -
Another barrier is LPTV’s exclusion from “must-carry” requirements, which state that locally licensed television stations must be carried on a cable provider's system. This policy, which Congress enacted in 1992, continues to hinder LPTV’s expansion.
Not being able to grab a foothold in the cable market is a major source of frustration for KAXT’s owners and programmers. Kapur recounted how, after waiting a year to get a meeting with Comcast executives, he made his pitch only to be told to come back a year later.
Andrew Kao worries that he’s not able to reach more affluent members of the Chinese-speaking community. They can afford cable subscriptions but could also benefit from more programming in their own language than currently offered.
Although LPTV stations, such as KAXT, represent the potential for using emerging technology to broadcast the voices of underserved and minority communities--which could narrow the digital divide if given a chance—they face an uphill struggle as long as the federal government and big corporate interests continue to hold the telecommunications industry in an iron grip.

Digital Dictionary -
Analog Television: The original television format. This technology was phased out in 2009. By 2015, digital technology will replace almost all analog frequencies on the television spectrum.
Audio-Only Channel: Comparable to radio frequencies being aired on TV stations, this programming is often used for news or music by digital TV stations.
Digital Diversity: The inclusion of diverse, multicultural voices in emerging and existing technology, such as broadband and digital TV.
Digital Divide: The technology gap separating haves and have-nots in the new media environment. One effect is digital exclusion, whereby underserved communities with limited access to new technology have few opportunities to get services comparable to those that wealthier, technologically enabled populations can afford.
Digital Television (DTV): This term represents frequencies transmitted along a digital signal path. It replaces analog TV and allows stations to broadcast multiple signals over the same frequency.
Full-power TV: Network stations, such as NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates, which are guaranteed placement on cable operators' local systems.
Low-power TV: LPTV, a medium designed for the public interest, offers free programming and easier access for underserved communities. These stations are required to provide more educational, children's and local programming than their cable and network counterparts. LPTV is not guaranteed placement on cable systems and has no federal protections against having broadcasters take over their small slice of the broadcast spectrum.
Multiplexing: A technology making it possible for a DTV station to split its spectrum into several channels, all broadcasting on the same frequency.

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