The most useful thinking about the media starts with not thinking like the media. This is not easy to do, because corporate-controlled communications systems tend to lead their audience and, for the most part, their critics into accepting assumptions that confine their reactions within a conceptual cocoon.
Consider television. Try asking your friends, for example, how they would redesign the mix of news, features, entertainment and advertising, or whether they have ever thought of why television doesn’t have an electronic equivalent of a daily “letters to the editor” column. Ask them whether they know that the television (and radio) companies pay nothing to the Federal Communications Commission for their lucrative licenses. Inquire whether they have thought about what it means to have private broadcasters decide who says what twenty-four hours a day on property that is legally owned by the public.
Although they may watch television from ten to forty hours a week, your friends would probably draw a blank. Like most people, their responses to television have been determined by what television is instead of by what television could become. They do not stop to imagine a different future, and they have little information on alternative programming models or forums for critical discussion. If we grew up in a society that was civic instead of corporate, we would more often question how the broadcasters are using the airwaves we own. And as landlords of this precious commonwealth, we would reject the rejoinder of the freeloading tenants—”If you don’t like the programs, just switch off!”—as being unworthy of any serious definition of viewer freedom.
It is not as if people oppose the idea of unconventional programming; in polls that broach the subject the response is overwhelmingly affirmative. Rather, their seeming indifference is a sign of low expectations and insufficient organization. For example, it does not occur to 14 million college students that there is no thirty-minute weekly national television program focusing on significant campus activities outside the athletic arena. Few workers critical of the powers-that-be seem to think there should be television and radio programs devoted to labor as there are to business.
The media Pavlovs, of course, prefer a conditioned accommodation to tasteless, lowest-common-denominator programming. Meanwhile, the audience has no structural capacity to build a different communications future—one that translates articulate public demand into more constructive ends. Although media tycoons argue that they are giving the public what it wants, in fact they are simply giving the public what it has to take, cum gobs of advertising, since that public has no institutional power to change the current media system.
For years a small group of reformers has been recommending two kinds of democratic innovations. One is called Audience Network (AN); the other is an association of cable viewers organized on a statewide basis. Audience Network, which any viewer or listener could join, would be guaranteed by Congress a one-hour daily slot on prime-time TV and drive-time radio. It would be funded by modest voluntary membership dues and by other income the network could generate from that daily one-hour asset on all licensed stations. Budgets for studios, producers and reporters—local and national—would be realistic, unlike those of the starved Public Broadcasting System, now ever-more reliant on corporate donations. The network, owned by the audience, would attract the talents of thousands of people now excluded from the commercialized and trivialized programming system. Democratically controlled by its members, AN would not determine the content of the other twenty-three hours that the stations run.
In May of 1991, House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Ed Markey held hearings on the “Public Interest in Broadcasting” and invited supporters and critics of the AN proposal. The opponents, representing the broadcasting industry, misdescribed the network as an attempt to regulate the content of commercial radio and television and as a violation of the First Amendment. They also argued that there is plenty of choice now, since cable and other technologies (owned by the same media interests) have replaced scarcity with abundance.
The opponents at Markey’s two days of hearings (which no television station or network covered) did not want the discussion to extend beyond their traditional conceptual cocoon. While they cried “censorship,” proponents declared the rights of “ownership” of the airwaves—and limited their demands to one hour a day.
A comparable reciprocity could transform the moribund franchise agreements by which local governments grant monopolies to cable companies. Through viewer-driven negotiations, the public could demand that as a quid pro quo these monopolies broadcast notices several times a day inviting the audience to join a cable viewers association, run by its members with a full-time staff. Given that a 500-channel capacity is looming on the horizon, these associations could develop the critical community intelligence to promote channels that reflect the serious and hopeful side of American society.
After all, why should most television simply urge you either to buy or to be entertained? Imagine two-way channels specializing in consumer, labor, taxpayer, environmental, civil rights or student matters. Imagine the effect of a twenty-four-hour channel devoted to telling the stories of citizens, acting in concert throughout the nation and world, in all their political and human drama. If information was offered so that viewers could contact various groups or individuals to learn how they solved problems or curbed abuses of power that exist elsewhere, democracy could advance justice.
Contemplating the growth of such community intelligence vis-à-vis the public airwaves and the cable monopolies would be an important step toward developing the communications facilities and audience that would make it possible to stop thinking like the media and start thinking like citizens.