Here’s a question for you: How much do commercial TV stations pay for the privilege of monopolizing the airwaves? The answer’s a grabber. Although television is a highly profitable business and the airwaves are public property in limited supply, a license to operate on them costs nothing. In fact, according to the media watch group Free Press, we’re giving away the use of an asset that’s been valued at $367 billion nationwide, and the major beneficiaries of our largesse are a handful of large station owners including companies like Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, and News Corp. At a conference on the future of public television held by the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center at the MCA last week, this free ride merited a full jowl shake from local broadcast icon John Callaway, who called for the American people to “get outraged” about it and “rise up.”

What’s that got to do with the future of public television, which (never mind those 30-second underwriting spots) is noncommercial? Everything, according to the mavens at the conference. Right now broadcasting’s on the cusp of something big–“the greatest change since the introduction of television,” says Corporation for Public Broadcasting president Kathleen Cox–and as a result your television set is as good as dead. Over-the-air broadcasters are going digital and eventually will turn off the analog transmission most sets were built to receive. The original government deadline for pulling the plug on analog was December 31, 2006. Now the date’s getting nudged farther into the future, but in spite of an apparent lack of public demand (no e-mail campaigns from citizens eager to toss their TVs out the window), it’s going to happen. The FCC says digital broadcast will give those with DTV sets a sharper, interference-free picture along with a bunch more channels. People who don’t have DTV sets will be able to get something like their old picture with a converter, and if they can’t afford a converter, the government may spend a few billion supplying them. But the big bonanza will go to the stations, which will get as many as six digital channels for every analog channel they have now, and of course to the manufacturers and distributors of digital TV sets and converters. Though it’s currently planning to give the digital channels away, the government is hoping to get the analog channels back and sell them to businesses for use in wireless communications.

That’s where public television

sees an opportunity. PBS, created in 1967 as an ad-free educational and cultural resource aimed primarily at the “underserved,” leads a hand-to-mouth existence that has it starting from scratch every year, seeking funding from Congress, donors, and corporate sponsors. Given this arrangement, public TV looks vulnerable to outside influence: in the past conservatives have described it as a bastion of liberals; these days the liberals are crying foul. New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, rehashing one of his pieces in a conference lecture, told of PBS head Pat Mitchell being invited to tea at the vice president’s mansion, where she was pitched on a new children’s program to be hosted by Lynne Cheney. That didn’t happen, but Bill Moyers–long a bete noire of conservatives–is retiring this month, and his weekly show, Now, will be cut from an hour to 30 minutes. Meanwhile conservatives Tucker Carlson (of CNN’s Crossfire) and Paul Gigot (editor of the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page) are hosting new shows. In a keynote speech at the conference, Mitchell announced that she’s working on new sources of income that will make PBS more independent–including a multibillion-dollar trust that might be funded by the government with the proceeds of the analog channel sales. (Mitchell, perhaps wary of the powerful station-owners trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, left it to others like Callaway to suggest that user fees for the airwaves could be an additional source of funding.) She also noted that this fall PBS took a “bold step into the future” by partnering with Comcast to establish a new digital-cable channel for preschoolers that will carry advertising. Exactly how this fulfills PBS’s original mandate was left a little fuzzy.

WTTW president Dan Schmidt was one of many speakers who said the salvation for public broadcasting stations rests in “bonding with the community through local programming.” Very little of such stuff is now done, however–according to Auletta, only 16 of 349 PBS affiliates air nightly local public-affairs programs–probably because it doesn’t travel well. And local media watchers were on hand to dispute the impression that WTTW (aka Winnetka Talks to Wilmette) has been practicing what it preaches. Karen Bond of the grassroots organization Chicago Media Action, which this summer issued a quantitative analysis of Chicago Tonight charging that it “ignores news and perspectives of interest to…communities of color and the working class,” observed that “we don’t feel like we’re part of the process. There’s no mechanism whereby people that are supposed to be served by the station have input that would be binding.”

Chicago Media Action secretary Scott Sanders said that when the group approached WTTW with a coalition of 25 community organizations to request a series of public forums on the invasion of Iraq before it happened, they were put off. When they tried again after Bush’s victory speech from the deck of an aircraft carrier, said Bond, “I was told, ‘Karen, the war is over. It’s no longer in the public consciousness.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.