Saturday, June 02, 2007

If only the FCC could be more like Conatel 

In all countries the government has regulalatory agencies that allocate and control the radio spectrum that broadcasters use. In Venezuela that agency is called Conatel and they recently created an uproar by not renewing the broadcast license of the RCTV television network.

In the United States the agency in charge of such matters is the FCC, or Federal Communications Commission. In today’s New York Times one of the commissioners of the FCC, Michael Copps, wrote an Op-Ed piece essentially wishing that the FCC would exercise more control and oversight over television broadcasters to push them to improve the quality of their programming – in other words, he wants the FCC to be more like Conatel. It is quite informative (and more than a little ironic) so even though it never mentions what recently happened in Venezuela lets have a look:

The Price of Free Airwaves

AS a member of the Federal Communications Commission, I often hear how fed up Americans are with the news media. Too much “if it bleeds it leads” on the evening news and not enough real coverage of local issues. Too little high-quality entertainment and too many people eating bugs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. America lets radio and TV broadcasters use public airwaves worth more than half a trillion dollars for free. In return, we require that broadcasters serve the public interest: devoting at least some airtime for worthy programs that inform voters, support local arts and culture and educate our children — in other words, that aspire to something beyond just minimizing costs and maximizing revenue.

Wow, talk about “handouts” – a half a trillion dollars worth of prime “real estate” just given away for free. And to very rich companies and individuals no less. How can this be? Why would something of so much value just be given away for free to private companies and people? What is the government getting in return? And can television broadcasters and the government really be said to be free of each other when one depends on the other for so much in giveaways? Its interesting how none of this ever seems to be questioned.

Using the public airwaves is a privilege — a lucrative one — not a right, and I fear the F.C.C. has not done enough to stand up for the public interest. Our policies should reward broadcasters that honor their pledge to serve that interest and penalize those that don’t.

“Using the public airwaves is a privilege… not a right” – try telling that to Marcel Granier. He and his supporters seems to think that it is his “right” to have his broadcast license automatically renewed and that unless he or the station is convicted of some crime he cannot lose it. Kudos to the F.C.C. which at least gets it that the license had to be earned through serving the public interest. And can any honest person say RCTV has worked in the public interest and is deserving of the privilege of having a lucrative broadcast license?

The F.C.C. already has powerful leverage to hold broadcasters to their end of the bargain. Every eight years, broadcasters must prove that they have served the public interest in order to get license renewal. If they can’t, the license goes to someone else who will. It’s a tough but fair system — if the commission does its job.

Hmm. So in the U.S. broadcasters only get their licenses for 8 years – not the 20 years Venezuelans got until recently. More on this in a minute.

The problem is that, under pressure from media conglomerates, previous commissions have eviscerated the renewal process. Now we have what big broadcasters lovingly call “postcard renewal” — the agency typically rubber-stamps an application without any substantive review. Denials on public interest grounds are extraordinarily rare.

Yup, that is what RCTV wanted too – “postcard renewal”. And when they didn’t get it Venezuela got their rock throwing hissy fit.

Just recently, the F.C.C. made news because it fined Univision, the Spanish-language broadcaster, a record-breaking $24 million. Univision claimed that its stations offered three hours of children’s educational programming per week — one of the few public interest rules still on the books — in part by showing a soap opera involving 11-year-old twins.

That was the right decision. But, viewed closely, it also illustrates just how slipshod our renewal process has become.

The fine was not levied at the ordinary time. In fact, the license term for one of the two stations initially at issue had expired 18 months earlier. This is typical — applications opposed by watchdog groups often languish for years while the broadcaster is permitted to continue business as usual. Then infractions are commonly disposed of with a small fine.

The commission paid attention to the Univision complaint because the station was part of a chain of 114 TV and radio stations being transferred from a public corporation to private equity firms. Without that, it is unclear when, if ever, the violations would have been acted upon. This even though scholars believe that one-fifth of what is billed as children’s programming has “little or no educational value” and only one-third can be called “highly educational.” Our children deserve better.

The FCC wants to promote better and more appropriate programming? Good luck. Just be careful. When Venezuela did the exact same thing a few years ago the screams of censorship came fast and furious. Sadly though, it does seem as if the broadcasters in the U.S. have the run of the place as they are sometimes allowed to keep broadcasting even with expired licenses. But don’t you try driving your car with an expired license!

It wasn’t always like this. Before the deregulatory mania in the 1980s — when an F.C.C. chairman described television as a “toaster with pictures” — the commission gave license renewals a hard look every three years, with specific criteria for making a public interest finding. Indeed, broadcasters’ respect for the renewal process encouraged them to pay for hard-hitting news operations. That was then.

Here things get interesting. Venezuela used to give its broadcast licenses for the absurdly long 20 years. They have now reduced the terms of the licenses to 5 years. Some opposition supporters see this as a sinister plot to exert political control over broadcasters.

Yet in the U.S. licenses are renewed every 8 years – that is sure a lot closer to 5 years than 20. Further, they used to review them every 3 years and as we’ll see in a few paragraphs this commissioner wants them to go back to that. Sounds good to me. And it shows that rather than having anything to do with politics Conatel reducing its licensing terms to 5 years is simply the government making sure it exercises appropriate oversight of its valuable broadcast spectrum.

Nowadays, a lot of people claim that because of the Internet, traditional broadcast outlets are an endangered species and there’s no point in worrying about them. That’s a mistake.

First, broadcast licenses continue to be very valuable. Univision’s assets — many in small markets — were sold for more than $12 billion. A single station in Sacramento, owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, went for $285 million in 2004. A station in a megamarket like New York or Los Angeles could easily fetch half a billion dollars or more.

Second, broadcast outlets are still primary, critical sources of information for the American public. Nearly 60 percent of adults watch local TV news each day — it remains the nation’s most popular information source. And so it’s imperative that broadcasters continue to provide high-quality coverage of local and national issues.
But ensuring they do so means putting teeth back into the renewal process. To begin with, shorten the license term. Eight years is too long to go without an accounting — we ought to return to the three-year model.

It sure is imperative that broadcasters “provide high-quality coverage of local and national issues”. No one ever accused RCTV of doing that. Too bad the Venezuelan government had to wait so long to be able to do anything about it. Fortunately, in the future they won’t.

Let’s also actually review a station’s record before renewing its license.

Whoa, you mean it shouldn’t just be automatic?!?! You mean the government should look at what is broadcast and possibly not renew a license if it doesn’t think it is appropriate? If so, they better watch themselves around Jose Vivanco of Human Rights Watch who seems to think it is a crime to “investigate” TV stations or to even to have standards for what types of things are appropriate to broadcast to little kids.

Here are just some of the criteria for renewal the F.C.C. considered in the 1990s but never put into place:

Did the station show programs on local civic affairs (apart from the nightly news), or set aside airtime for local community groups?

Did it broadcast political conventions, and local as well as national candidate debates? Did it devote at least five minutes each night to covering politics in the month before an election?

In an era when owners may live thousands of miles from their stations, have they met with local community leaders and the public to receive feedback?

Is the station’s so-called children’s programming actually, in the view of experts, educational?

All of this information ought to be available on the Web so people can see how their airwaves are being used.

These issues are even more pressing today: broadcasters are making the transition to digital technology that permits them to send several television and radio channels into our homes instead of the single channel they’ve had up to now. The F.C.C.’s next step after reforming the licensing process should be to address how this new digital capacity can increase local programs and also improve the generally shoddy coverage of minority and other underserved communities. New benefits for broadcasters should translate into public benefits, too.

If you need convincing that something needs to be done, consider that only about 8 percent of local TV newscasts in the month before the last presidential election contained any coverage whatsoever of local races, including those for the House of Representatives.

This low number is just one example of how poorly stations are serving their viewers. Do stations that make so much money using the public airwaves, but so plainly fail to educate viewers on the issues facing them, really deserve to have their renewals rubber-stamped?

Nope, no broadcaster should have their renewals rubber stamped. Venezuela has the good fortune to have a government that has already put a stop to that. If this editorial is any indication maybe there is hope for the U.S. on this issue too.

And though it is a little off topic it should be noted Chavez is a trend setter. He ramps up royalties and taxes on big oil and soon after even the U.S. did the same for oil pumped from federally owned lands. Chavez started putting in energy saving bulbs and now governments from Australia to California are falling over themselves to mandate them too. And now after the Chavez administration re-asserts government oversight the airwaves the FCC pines for the same. What can you say, Chavez is the ultimate trend-setter.


Pro-government protests getting under way 

In Venezuela there are two types of marches: the mega and the mundane. Today the first Mega march of the RCTV case is under way and the government fired the first salvo. They will all converge on the Avenida Bolivar. As of right now only VTV is covering it and needless to say Globovision, Televen, Venevision, RCTV or even TVes is nowhere to be found... Granted it only started an hour ago but we can expect more of the same ignoring it until the evening news.

Globovision is only reporting the chavistas protesting outside their headquarters.

Will keep updated




3:00 They filled the Bolivar Avenue (well not all the way ;))

4:30 Interesting, from Globvision shows the particular bias of both networks, Globo on the left sider shows more empty than full, VTV on the right shows a more flattering angle, there are still other people at Plaza Venezuela so it might fill up eventually


Friday, June 01, 2007

Never leave home without it. 

As expected, the "peaceful" student protests have died down. There are supposed to be some more rallies this weekend and that will probably do it.

While the protests haven't amounted to much they certainly have had their humorous side. For example, it turns out the opposition has an interesting definition of "peaceful". It would appear that as long they aren't shooting off howitzers or blowing up police vehicles with IEDs they consider their rallies "peaceful". Most ordinary people though probably wouldn't consider this peaceful:

Kind of reminds me of these "peacefull" opposition protests of years gone by:

I don't know about you, but I never go to a peaceful rally without bringing along my gas mask and slingshot. You know, just in case.

I must admit though, it appears that the Venezuelan police have overreacted in some cases. For example, in the middle of Caracas some hapless students were arrested by the police just for standing by a fire. The heavy handed police automatically assumed they were protesting. As it turns out they had just started a campfire to roast some marshmellows. The police really need to stop being so paranoid.

BTW, later in the video we see some self-less and brave leaders of NGOs making sure rock throwers don't have their rights violated (you know, like arbitary confiscation of their rocks by the police - due process must be respected!). As is pointed out, it's really a shame these same NGOs didn't seem to exist on April 12, 2002.

Finally from the video, should people really be judged by how they dress. Just because a bunch of Catholic school girls show up in jeans rather than their traditional uniforms doesn't mean they're hooligans. I mean really, would you wear $200 designer jeans to a riot?

Well, ok, this being Venezuela, maybe people do.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

They work hard for their money 

Yesterday while the restless and bored threw rocks and burned cars the rest of Venezuela went about its business. That included Chavez himself who kept doing what he does best – making life better for the poor and working class who had been ignored for decades by previous governments. Yesterday it was the turn of some long neglected senior citizens to see Chavez make their lives a whole lot better.

First, a little background is in order. In the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution Article 88 reads:

The State guarantees equality and equity between men and women in the exercise of their right to work. The State recognizes work in the home as an economic activity that creates value added and produces social welfare and wealth. Housewives will be eligible for Social Security in conformity with the law.

Good words and a great concept. But as we all know beautiful concepts such as this often simply remain on paper. Not in Chavez’s Venezuela though. Last year this Article was implemented with the government starting to pay hundreds of thousands of housewives a stipend equivelant to 80% of Venezuela’s minimum wage.

This represented a huge boost to the income and quality of life for a large segment of the population which previously had been neglected.

However, even that did not fully implement Article 88 of the Constitution. That had to wait for yesterday when Chavez incorporated 50,000 elderly housewives into the Venezuelan social security. These women, who would otherwise have no pension and no other means of support, often lived in indigence. By Chavez fully implementing Article 88 of the Constitution these women will have their needs met and will live in dignity – dignity to which they are entitled by a lifetime of hard work. With this move there is one less marginalized group in Venezuela and Venezuela is a better society for it.

And that was not all. Historically a very large percentage of the Venezuelan workforce has labored in the “informal” sector of the economy. Although the Chavez government has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs and most Venezuelans now work in the formal sector there are still millions laboring in "informality". Besides having an often low and unsteady income these workers are generally excluded from the Social Security System.

Chavez has worked hard to remedy that too. He has promulgated a law of Social Services which is for senior citizens who were formerly not eligible for Social Security. Under this new program they get a monthly payment equal to 60% of the minimum wage. Again, this will not have them living lives of luxury. But it does provide an important safety net for those who had not had one before. Last year 105,000 senior citizens were incorporated into this program. Yesterday, 100,000 more were made eligible.

In one fell swoop 150,000 needy senior citizens got a huge boost in their standard of living. Hundreds of thousands more were helped by his having the Social Security system catch up on back payments owed.

Recently we’ve seen how almost all important macro-economic indicators are better under this government. But if this government didn’t care so much about the welfare of average Venezuelans that would matter little – much of all the new wealth that has been created would simply end up in banks abroad as it often did under previous governments.

Fortunately Venezuela now has a government that makes sure the money winds up in the hands of average Venezuelans and of Venezuelans who have worked so hard, for so little, for far too long.

Of course, I’m sure the same people who are cheering on the rock throwers today will find fault with all this: “these are handouts”, “they are wasteful and corrupting”, or simply “it is unsustainable”. Maybe. But I think all of that carping was very elequently answered many years ago by a famous leader who when the same criticisms were leveled at his attempts to get a country back on its feet and create more social justice said:

Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omission of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

The ice has long since melted in Venezuela thanks to President Chavez.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Much ado about nothing 

I suppose given that I blog about Venezuela I’m supposed to have something to say about the current events there – you know the name calling and the rock and bottle throwing.

Truthfully, I can’t get too worked up about it. Thing is, the RCTV case has already been discussed and I think all the readers of this blog already have their own opinions formed on that subject

Yet some might expect something to be said about the all the supposed tumult and upheaval going on right now. After all the opposition media, blogs, and even to some extent the pro-Chavez media seem to be making a big deal out of it. Thing is, I’ve seen Venezuela go down this road so many times over the past years that I just can’t jump on the bandwagon of blowing this out of proportion.

Seriously, what is going on here? The opposition media is all in a tizzy? Nothing new there, they always are. The people on radical opposition internet sites seem to think the government might fall any minute. Yawn. And even the more staid opposition observers think this is a big deal. Please.

Ten, or fifteen or twenty thousand students are going out and raising little ruckus. I’m supposed to be impressed by that? Chavez is supposed to be losing sleep over it? Lets get real. Four years ago the Venezuelan opposition virtually shut down the Venezuelan oil industry for a few months and a good part of the rest of the economy too. The government and Venezuela as a whole survived. If thety could survive THAT I’m sure they’ll survive this little adolescent mischief making too.

And even as riots go they aren’t very impressive. They don’t compare even to what the anarchists do at the W.T.O. conferences. And forget about comparing them to the student demonstrations at the ’68 Democratic convention.

So sorry – no pictures, no YouTube videos of who threw the first rock, no dissecting the supposed Globovision subliminal messages. I just don’t see that any of that will have any significance past this coming Friday when the same people throwing rocks today will be back in Las Mercedes shooting pool and drinking their Polar.

Now,you want the most significant piece of news out of Venezuela today? Here it is.

BTW, if an when the numbers in that article get reversed THEN Chavez will have cause to lose sleep. Of course, at the rate the Venezuelan opposition is destroying itself don't count on them being around to capitalize on it.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Countdown to RCTV going cable only 

T - 2:06 for RCTV to stop broadcasting over public property, frankly the situation is a bit more tense than what I thought, so much so that I hope the cadena starts soon so that some order can be restored.

A few hours ago an initially peaceful demonstration turned violent when the opposition started throwing bricks and bottles at police, they answered back with water cannons and the opposition countered with live bullets. 4 policemen are in the hospital. What was shocking is that they allowed the opposition to regroup in the same place only for them to start shooting again (I saw live footage of them shooting). The march was then finally dispersed for the day.

Sure a violent protest is not something that uncommon, but what happened next just reinforced what I despise about right-wing propaganda:

A Brigadier General from the National Guard was briefing the media he showed them a lampost with bullet hits comming from the general direction of the opposition. The media then stated that they heard no gunshots. To which the General astonishingly asked if they were deaf. The camera then proceded to pan the bullet hits which it zoomed and it was painfully obvious to both the camera and the viewer that it was what he claimed. But then near the end they claimed again that they saw nothing. There is no such thing as a "media" in Venezuela (maybe even the world), they are either government run, corporatist run, or frivolously run.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?