ABC’s Digital Convention Scam

ABC’s Digital Convention Scam

The Center for Digital Democracy is part of a “Public Interest, Public Airwaves” coalition supporting a policy that would require broadcasters to air more public service programming in the digital age. Click here for more info.


ABC, like other broadcast networks, will cover the forthcoming GOP convention precisely as it covered the Democratic event–by largely ignoring it. After all, nothing must get in the way of the multibillion-dollar revenues from prime-time commercials.

CBS, NBC and ABC will air a measly three hours of the GOP convention, the same short shrift they gave the Democrats. (Fox Broadcasting doesn’t show any convention coverage at all!) Although the four big broadcast networks’ fortunes are predicated on free use of the public airwaves, no major politician will publicly chastise them for their greed and disregard of the public interest. In our hypercommercial media culture, even presidential candidates know that civic discourse doesn’t bring premium prime-time ad rates.

So for the majority of viewers, who still watch broadcast TV, their glimpse of the convention will be for a slim, single hour at 10 pm Eastern time on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, August 31 to September 2.

Despite this lack of broadcast time, ABC is even boasting of its “comprehensive” coverage. Through its new, purportedly ground-breaking ABC News Now digital service, the network promises “a more comprehensive look at what this election and these conventions mean.” Using a combination of broadband streaming (via AOL and others), Sprint “Vision” phones and a handful of digital TV channels, ABC’s “FAQ” sheet crows that “no other network is offering that kind of comprehensive coverage across multiple platforms.”

Yet very few people are likely to watch Jennings and company digitally. Despite all the hype about tens of millions of potential viewers, only about 500,000 may have access to News Now, admits ABC. That’s out of 108 million US TV households and the 68 million US adults who have high-speed Internet service. As for its digital TV channel, one must either have an over-the-air digital tuner (which very few have at present) or pay extra for premium cable service. If you live in Kansas, Maine, Missouri, New Mexico or several other states, the channel is simply not available at all. And if you live in other states where it is available, you still need to know about it, which most people don’t.

ABC News president David Westin didn’t mention any of this in a recent Washington Post op-ed criticizing anyone concerned about the networks’ failure to broadcast the conventions as hopelessly “out of date.” Cable and the Internet have now created a “media democracy,” and “time and technology are passing the critics by.” What the big networks do is largely irrelevant today, he claimed. (We have to wonder if his colleagues tell the same story to ABC’s advertisers.)

But while Westin was offering journalistic gloss to cover up the network’s unwillingness to expend much prime-time programming on public service, Disney’s president, Robert Iger, spoke more candidly when he addressed investment analysts earlier this month. If the FCC or Congress passes the new rules that Disney and other broadcasters are lobbying for, new digital news channels like ABC News Now will flourish. In other words, ABC’s new political programming offerings are a digital “Trojan horse” to help the company achieve a billion-dollar bounty of new corporate welfare. Disney paid more than $5 billion for a single cable channel (Fox Family) back in 2001 and has remained extremely profitable. Imagine how the bottom-lines of the broadcast industry will prosper from a policy which gives each broadcaster multiple cable channels for free.

Disney/ABC, GE/NBC and the National Association of Broadcasters say they can offer the public more channels as their TV stations broadcast digitally. All US broadcasters are converting to digital transmission. Each local TV station will soon be able to transmit as many as six distinct channels in the place of the one they have today. Some readers may recall the notorious giveaway of new public airwaves to broadcasters by Congress in 1996. It was worth $70 billion then. Under the policy sought by Disney and others, cable systems would have to show all these new channels. That would likely bring broadcasters tremendous new revenues, all because of government largesse.

But Disney/ABC and other broadcast companies want this new policy without any public-interest strings attached. They oppose even a modest requirement that they would actually have to provide additional news and public affairs programming as a condition for such a policy. It is likely that once the government approves the cable “must carry” policy sought by Disney, such vaunted efforts as ABC News Now would be quickly replaced by entertainment, sports and other ratings-proven fare.

So while Peter Jennings and company appear on tiny cell-phone screens, Disney lobbyists are promising lawmakers that–with the right help from government–they can vastly improve the quality of political news coverage. No mention, of course, that all networks (thanks to Congress and FCC deregulation) are now part of larger media conglomerates rolling in dough. This year, broadcasters are also reaping historic profits from the sale of ad time to candidates, likely to approach $1.6 billion this year.

But don’t expect to see coverage on network news–even ABC News Now–about how the networks are working on a scam of their own while they shortchange the public. Even with the expanded reach of digital, that’s one story they won’t broadcast–even to a cell phone.

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