Verizon’s “Community Studio”—Civil Rights Digital Tokenism?

Last week’s announcement of a “new pilot program” from Verizon’s FIOS digital TV service that it will offer on-demand “public interest and civil rights content” needs to be seen in the context of U.S. media history. It’s not surprising that as Verizon and the other phone companies lobby to change U.S. media law—including sweeping away the open and non-discriminatory nature of the Internet in the U.S.—they would make such tentative promises (notice the word “pilot” in its release). Call us cynical. But we can’t really believe that the phone giant’s announcement, which “emerged in discussions between Verizon and more than 35 civil rights leaders” wasn’t timed to undermine the growing public opposition to its plans for a privatized and `command and controlled’ digital communications system. After all, Congress is about to vote—as early as next week—on new national broadband media communications laws.

As we all know, at each point in the 20th Century as a new media technology emerged, corporate interests made many public interest promises. But once the industry had successfully won its political agenda (having disarmed or overwhelmed critics), such commitments were ignored. Commercial broadcasters back in 1934 promised that radio would be a “classroom of the air,” among many other public interest services. Broadcasters were able to split the educational community and win a 1934 Communications Act without any specific public interest mandates. Of course, what Verizon is doing now is lifted entirely from the cable TV industry political playbook. Cable was going to be—its leaders promised back in the 1970’s—a “community communications” service. There were going to be many channels for all, reflecting the nation’s diversity, at the local and national level. Eventually, as we know, cable broke those promises and used its political power (and a conflicted opposition, such as today) to make certain (via the 1984 Cable Act) that it would be able to focus its resources on national, commercial programming. (There were many remarkable and dedicated civil rights activists who fought to make cable truly diverse, including Charles Tate).

We can understand the frustration many groups have with cable TV. After all, the two leading African American channels are either owned or controlled by conglomerates (Viacom runs BET; TV One is a creature of Comcast). Many Spanish-language channels are also owned by giants or major media investors (GE/NBC/Universal runs Telemundo; Univision is run by A. Jerrold Perenchio and gets much of its programming from Latin America).

The Time to Ensure a Diverse Programming Landscape is Now

The stark lack of ownership by persons of color of programming content must be rectified in the emerging digital era. New local and national programming services should emerge that offer a range of meaningful and truly diverse content—including news, public affairs, and culture. In order to ensure this, such programming needs to be within the foundation of the new telephone company deliver system.

That will take a serious and significant long-time commitment in terms of funding and distribution support. Instead of a “pilot” program offering up a rotating monthly assortment of content from 35 groups, our telephone giants should be expected to `pony’ up and do something significant in terms of programming diversity. Otherwise, African-American, Latino/Hispanic and many others will primarily be addressed as consumers—not as citizens and community members (see the Cable Advertising Bureau site for how the African-American and Latino communities are viewed as a marketing bonanza). [Since Verizon makes, according to the same release announcing the “pilot,” some $90 billion in operating revenues, we think they could afford more than a tentative, VOD plan].

There is, of course, a perversity with Verizon calling its new venture “Community Studio.” Verizon, AT&T, Qwest and others are about to destroy much of “community” media, as they get Congress to kill off community oversight of cable/phone digital media (the Barton-Rush bill, for example). Since both the phone and cable industry also seek to permanently eliminate the Internet’s non-discrimination safeguard, online community voices will likely face new obstacles as well.

Behind Verizon’s negotiations with the groups, we understand, was Kathryn C. Brown, a Public Policy VP. Ms. Brown was a former chief of staff to Clinton-era FCC head William Kennard. It was Ms. Brown who replied, when asked to support public interest policies for broadcast digital TV, to tell her what the “low-hanging fruit” was on the issue (meaning some meaningless quid pro quo). Also working with Ms. Brown, we were told, was B. Keith Fulton, head of Verizon’s “Strategic Alliance Group” (“responsible for the company’s outreach to multicultural, senior citizen and disabled organizations”). Mr. Fulton first came to Washington as a National Urban League staffer interested in addressing the digital divide. He was soon scooped up by AOL Time Warner (its foundation) and began his career helping the communications lobby.

Finally, it’s worth noting that on the same day Verizon announced its civil rights and new media pilot, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists blasted the Bush Administration for its plans to not investigate the sorry state of minority broadcast ownership. The last federal report, in 2000, showed that people of color owned less than 3.8% of all broadcast stations. We wonder what a study will find—if one is done a few years from now—of how much major digital content will be truly diversely owned?

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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