Jeremy Harris Lipschultz

Jeremy Harris Lipschultz (Ph.D., Southern Illinois University, 1990) is professor and director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Communication. He is the author of Broadcast and Internet Indecency: Defining Free Speech, New York: Routledge, 2008). His earlier books include Free Expression in the Age of the Internet -- one of the first to recognize the transformational power of the web. He is frequently called upon to provide commentary on mass media.

Talking points, 12/1/2008
FCC v. Fox, 07-582 Supreme Court Oral Arguments
"The government is trying to convince the Court that it may change to a policy that does not allow fleeting uses of the F-word in broadcasts," Lipschultz said. "The FCC continues to make a weak case based upon context of the fleeeting expletive."

"The Court will need to determine whether or not the FCC has been arbitrary and capricous in its rulings against Fox award shows," Lipschultz said. "The Saving Private Ryan movie ultimately protected broadcasters because the FCC found even repeated uses may not be 'explicit, graphic, shocking or pandering in the context.'"

"The FCC has a vagueness problem in this enforcement, and this was demonstrated in the November 4 Election Day oral arguments," Lipschultz said. "The government again made the argument that the FCC uses 'greater restraint' in news programs, but there is no clear definition what is or is not news."

"It remains disappointing that the Supreme Court is likely to avoid the First Amendment issues and decide the case based upon the Administrative Procedures Act," Lipschultz said. "However, the Janet Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction' Super Bowl case is now under consideration by the Court, so there may be more to come."

Recent commentary
Omaha World-Herald,
10/14/2008, Page B07

Digital TV switch may be turnoff

The writer, of Omaha, is a professor at and director of the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The federal government’s TV Converter Box Coupon Program (www.DTV2009.gov), which provides $40 subsidies to television viewers to upgrade existing analog sets to receive digital signals, is only part of an emerging story.

The coupon cards, which take several weeks to receive, will get you some of the way toward the purchase of a decent set-top box. I found one on sale this summer for $49.95. There were two antenna options, and I selected the more expensive $19.95 unit, based on the suggestion of a sales clerk that the cheaper one did not work well in his tests.

At home, the connections seemed not that simple to me, even though I once held a Federal Communications Commission professional broadcast operator’s license. In operation at our midtown Omaha home, the digital signal has been much less robust than the analog counterpart in the same location.

Antenna fine-tuning is required to adjust for the locations of each broadcast antenna, and it remains a daily occurrence for the signal to freeze or become too weak to see or hear anything.

In Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 8, a test pilot program ended analog signals early, as the government tries to prepare broadcasters in other communities. The result was at least some confusion and public anger, despite a massive information campaign. Some viewers had purchased converter boxes but had not taken them out of their packaging.

The FCC has slated Feb. 17 as the ending date for analog signals in Omaha and across the country. The FCC claims that “digital broadcasting will allow stations to offer improved picture and sound quality and additional channels.”

While additional channels are already on the air, picture and sound quality are not synonymous with signal strength.

There is another problem. Hand-held and battery-powered analog TVs, which were so beneficial during Omaha’s wind and hail storm in June and the October 1997 ice storm, are likely to be rendered useless next year.

Replacement digital sets or converters currently are expensive and, based upon my experiences, probably not worth the money. It is hard to believe that portable sets will work reliably in the current digital environment.

Part of the FCC reasoning to switch to digital is efficiency: Digital signals use less valuable spectrum space. However, the trade-off is less solid broadcast signals.

The Nebraska Broadcasters Association noted on its Web site recently that there are consumer concerns. Manufacturer Wineguard introduced a battery pack for DTV converter boxes, but you have to buy the more expensive box made by this company.

It uses six D batteries and is said to last for up to 18 hours, which is much less efficient than my current analog hand-held set. I used only one set of four AA batteries during the four days we were without power in June.

The result may be that full-service radio stations, such as KFAB in Omaha, remain in the driver’s seat when storms knock out Omaha power for days. The Clear Channel operation has carved out its position as the “go to” source for timely information on conditions during extended power outages. Thank goodness there will be this option next year.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to retain electrical power after a storm in 2009 and beyond, you will be able to use your digital sets or those connected to cable or satellite. And I suppose rooftop antennas might yield better reception, but who really wants to exercise this option?

All of this has me questioning the wisdom of the government plan to recapture valuable spectrum space and auction it for other uses.

Over 60 years, local television viewers grew to trust reliable access to their favorite TV weathercasters. The ability to see current weather radar may be a matter of life and death.

Where there was once an FCC mandate for local broadcasters to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity have now fallen victim to pressure from interests as varied as set manufacturers and spectrum users.

The resource that is the public airwaves may never be the same.