In 1992 Congress passed a law designed to increase the diversity of television programming and to amplify traditionally underrepresented voices. The law required satellite TV services to reserve at least 4 percent of their programming capacity for noncommercial, educational channels. They would pay a relatively small fee to be included in the satellite services’ basic programming packages. Today, many of the public-service channels the satellite services are carrying to meet that quota are run by well-financed Christian organizations, while alternative, non-Christian viewpoints remain scarce. On DirecTV, the nation’s largest direct-broadcast satellite service, six of the twelve public-service channels are Christian. A seventh, run by the Mormon Church’s Brigham Young University, airs religious programs several times a day. The Dish Network, the other main satellite TV provider, carries many of the same Christian channels, although fewer count toward its public-service requirement. The two satellite networks fill the rest of their quotas with the likes of C-SPAN, teacher-training channels and university stations.
Critics say diverse public-interest programming never became a reality in large part because Congress left the law’s details up to the Federal Communications Commission. When the agency got around to implementing the law in 1998, regulators acknowledged the diversity goal but rejected calls to actually require any diversity among the public-service channels, instead giving the satellite services full discretion over which channels to carry. “We’ve reaped the unfortunate reward of the FCC [rules],” says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, which had lobbied regulators to create an independent panel to select programming that would satisfy the public-service obligations. “The FCC has basically washed its hands of enforcing the set-aside.”
The ubiquity of Christian programming–and the lack of independent perspectives–infuriates John Schwartz. He runs Free Speech TV, a channel that aims “to advance progressive social change” through antiwar programming and international documentaries. The Dish Network counts Free Speech TV toward its public-service quota and beams the channel into approximately 8 million homes. But DirecTV, with nearly 11 million subscribers, has repeatedly rejected Free Speech TV’s applications to be carried. “This whole right-wing religious thing, I think, is a pretty sorry way to implement” the law, Schwartz says. Free Speech TV is the only unabashedly liberal channel available on satellite television. The next closest thing is WorldLink TV, which is carried on DirecTV and the Dish Network and features programs that often have a liberal tilt. Still, WorldLink’s mission is to expose Americans to global viewpoints, not to embrace a progressive agenda.
There is no such shortage of unbridled advocacy among the Christian channels, several of which are on both DirecTV and Dish. Trinity Broadcasting Network, for example, has a daily programming lineup that includes shows hosted by John Hagee, who has derided “tree-hugging neo-pagans” and said homosexuality, like satanism, can be overcome by embracing the gospel; and Benny Hinn, who reportedly thinks God will destroy all homosexuals. Trinity also regularly airs the avidly pro-life Christian World News and Pat Robertson’s right-wing 700 Club. Colby May, an attorney who once worked for the archconservative American Center for Law and Justice and now represents the evangelical Trinity network, says Trinity and the other Christian channels reflect the diversity of faiths in the United States.
But is Trinity, which claims to be the world’s largest Christian network, the kind of channel lawmakers had in mind when they created the public-service set-aside? Trinity is carried on thousands of TV stations, cable outlets and satellites worldwide and is run by the Trinity Christian Center, which itself owns twenty-three TV stations, as well as other Christian channels and a movie production company. With hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, Trinity could afford to pay the regular rate for satellite TV carriage. By contrast, Free Speech TV, which has a $1.7 million budget, can afford to be carried only if it can pay the lower fee reserved for public-interest channels.
The satellite services do not deserve all of the blame for the overall dearth of diversity. The high costs of starting a TV channel leave the satellite services with a limited number of public-service channels from which to choose. That number would probably be much greater if cable also had a set-aside requirement. But unlike satellite and broadcast media–which are disseminated via the public airwaves and therefore are subject to some public-service requirements–cable TV providers are not compelled by federal law to carry public-service programming. (In the case of broadcast TV, the FCC reserves hundreds of channels nationwide for noncommercial, educational use.) Kim Spencer, president of the nonprofit group that operates WorldLink, says the FCC should require cable operators to abide by a public-service set-aside similar to the satellite services’ 4 percent quota. “If this same law applied to cable,” he says, “instead of reaching a maximum of one-fifth of homes, there would be a potential of reaching all homes,” thus making noncommercial channels more financially viable. But as long as an anti-regulation chairman is at the FCC’s helm, that is probably wishful thinking.