Jeff Chester Gets On Cable’s Case

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Cable adversaries come in many colors, but few are as outlandishly psychedelic as Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Chester is a critic of big media, and over the years one of his favorite targets has been the cable industry, which he routinely skewers as an avaricious monopoly that presses every advantage for that extra nickel. He’s even willing to take on a few taboos, such as his suggestion that C-SPAN is a tool of cable’s lobbying effort in Washington, D.C. In an interview with Multichannel News Washington news editor Ted Hearn, Chester explains his obsession with cable and his plans to keep the heat on the industry. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: When people ask you your occupation, what do you say?

Jeff Chester: I always have a hard time [answering] that. I say consumer advocate; I run a public-interest organization, or that I act out in the public interest.

MCN: How long have you been doing what you do?

Chester: I have been a political activist on media issues since the early 1980s. But it’s only been since 1991 that I actually have received a salary for the work.

MCN: What is it about the media that gets you stirred up?

Chester: Television is just under the control of just the tiny few, giant companies, whose principal focus is advertising and marketing and the entertainment that promotes it. What motivates me is to have a system that can be more a thriving, vibrant media marketplace of ideas. Imagine more serious news, long-form documentaries, and the best of local and national arts. That’s missing today on television, including cable.

MCN: What about the explosion in media voices over the last thirty years?

Chester: For the most part, almost all the promises made by the cable industry in the ’70s and ’80s have been broken.

MCN: Such as?

Chester: Those promises were that there was going to be a noncommercial channel for children. There are no serious news channels. There’s no serious long-form documentaries on cable television.

MCN: You would like to see a Bill Moyers channel, right?

Chester: I think that cable has not lived up to its promise. There’s too much power that these few MSOs have over what the public ultimately sees, with the exception of the broadcast lobby.

I think cable has largely failed to live up to its potential. It’s a great consumer medium. Certainly the addition of a CNN, the addition of a C-SPAN, although C-SPAN has a political role for the cable industry that they continually deny, are pluses.

But the cable industry maintains a tight hold over what programming the public can see and not see, and that’s a problem.

MCN: You think C-SPAN is a de facto extension of cable’s lobbying arm?

Chester: Brian Lamb can deny it, [but] C-SPAN is designed to aid cable’s lobbying strategy. It’s a not-so-silent campaign contribution on both parties, who appreciate being invited in here. Also, C-SPAN has never really cast a negative eye for any kind of sustained basis on its own industry. It’s a political operation for the cable industry.

MCN: You’ve been in a lot of fights. Do you ever win?

Chester: Right now, we are winning on open access. Right now, we’re winning on media ownership.

We spent two years working to mobilize the public against what the broadcast industry and Michael Powell intended to do, effectively derailing what was going to be a massive deregulatory policy, including further cable deregulation. One reason it’s failed to move is because of the controversy we generated.

When Comcast [Corp.] announced its intention to move to buy [The Walt] Disney [Co.], we immediately mobilized to increase the pressure.

Although I don’t think it has anything to do with what we did, ultimately, because that has more to do with stock price, the fact that it appears that Comcast is now withdrawing is a sign for us that our strategy was sound, because the longer we were able to delay a deal, Comcast understood that this decision would likely be decided by a new administration.

When the Bush administration developed a secret deal to remove the FTC from media ownership, not only did I leak it to the major papers and create a controversy, but helped lead a campaign that ultimately forced the Bush administration to withdraw its position, which is why the FTC is still in business on media mergers.

MCN: So people are not correct when they say the media are too rich and too powerful for public interest organizations that are trying to check their lobbying moves in Washington?

Chester: I think that they’re incredibly powerful.

MCN: What’s CDD’s annual budget?

Chester: CDD’s annual budget is $350,000.

MCN: How many people work there?

Chester: There’s two full-time and two part-time people.

MCN: Is your office in Washington, D.C.?

Chester: There’s an office in Washington, D.C., and one in Oakland, California.

MCN: Does any of your money come from billionaire George Soros?

Chester: No, no. I wish it did.

MCN: Didn’t The Wall Street Journal indicate Soros was a backer?

Chester: I wrote them a letter, which is on our Web site, saying they were wrong.

The fact of the matter is Soros did give us a grant in the past, maybe about six years ago. But he has not funded us for four or five years. He has not funded any of our work on media ownership or cable. But, we are currently seeking support from the Open Society Institute. We hope that they will give us some money.

MCN: Does it trouble you that a wealthy individual like George Soros is trying to take down the Bush Administration?

Chester: There are billionaires on both sides. One of the things that we’ve said all along is that both parties are corrupt.

It just so happens there are two good Democrats in the FCC for the first time in decades. But, for the most part, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been equally beholden to the big media lobby.

After all, it was Clinton and Gore that gave us the '96 Telecommunications Act. The revolving door — I mean, if you look at where [former FCC chairman] Bill Kennard went [now with The Carlyle Group], the revolving door is a powerful seducer to both Republicans and Democrats. We were one of the biggest critics of Bill Kennard, as we are of the critics of Michael Powell. The problem is that, indeed, the public interest groups have only a limited landscape in terms of financial support.

We are dependent, for the most part, on philanthropic foundations that want to see the public better represented in these policy debates.

MCN: Where, specifically, does your funding come from?

Chester: I get money from the Ford Foundation, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, from the Rockefeller Family Fund.

In 2004, we intend to organize efforts across the country on cable franchising that will, hopefully, spark a new local revolt against the cable monopoly in communities across the country. You saw what we did in L.A. a few weeks ago, and that’s just the beginning.

MCN: The courts might force cable to open to competing ISPs. That would be a huge win, wouldn’t it?

Chester: The fact that we’ve been able to keep this issue alive, despite cable’s lobbying, is proof of the importance of our collective work. If cable had its way, it would extend its monopoly tentacles on broadband. It’s likely to do this anyway. We’ve kept open access on life support.

MCN: What about cable’s argument that the regulations you want would not have led to massive broadband investment?

Chester: That is B.S. Listen, the cable industry lies all the time. By the way, all media companies lie all the time to the public, so it’s not just cable. The broadcasters lie all the time. That’s the history of media policy in this country.

Big media companies and conglomerates promise one thing and immediately break their word. Look, it’s very clear that cable wants to maintain its monopoly in a digital, open-channel context. The fact of the matter is, yes, they invested in a broadband pipe, and they would have been able to have a significant market share as ISPs and also reap significant rents from competing ISPs. But, the problem is cable wants it all. This monopoly of yours is a spoiled child.

MCN: Is it true you personally stopped the FCC last fall from awarding TV stations digital multicast must-carry rights. Have you been moonlighting for NCTA?

Chester: I never heard that I single-handedly did.

We certainly sounded the alarm to our public-interest allies and to sympathetic commissioners at the FCC that multicasting must-carry was an ill-conceived policy, in the absence of a broader examination of the future of the public interest in broadcasting. I’m being opaque, but I have to be.

MCN: Are kids seeing too much indecent content on TV, in your opinion?

Chester: I think it’s a tragedy about what has happened with this decency debate. Look, the Congress and the FCC have gone too far. What is being proposed, ultimately, is censorious. What kids and adults, frankly, need, are more options.

As long as the broadcast and cable industries have a lock on America’s programming choices, then we can’t provide the public with a wider range of alternatives.

It’s not a question of suppressing one’s type of speech. The real issue is making sure that the public, including kids, have many options.

Right now, because of media consolidation, they can’t. If you or I want to create a quality kids channel, we can’t get on the cable today, because Nickelodeon and its partners will stop us. If we want to create a quality news channel, we cannot get on the cable today.

If we want to create an African-American channel, for example, sorry, Comcast already has that.

I think that it’s frightening that only 20 members of Congress in the House voted against the indecency legislation.

MCN: Do you want to see Congress regulate cable for violence and decency?

Chester: No. I think it’s important to have the ratings to warn parents about whether or not there’s problematic content.