The promise -- and pitfalls -- of neighborhood TV
What is now happening in the pell-mell world of television could almost be taken out of a science-fiction novel dramatizing the coming ''broadcasting revolution'' with an appropriate mixture of awe and trepidation over hastily considered political and economic ramifications.
Just consider the choices: in many localities a viewer can already choose between watching one of the ''powerhouses'' on the TV block -- the big VHF stations from channels 2 through 13. Then there are the UHF channels (such as 25 , 28, 56, etc.). With a videorecorder a person can tape a broadcast for later viewing, or even watch a rental movie. By linking up with a cable system or limited access channel a person can watch any number of stations from around the US, as well as special programming. And now, in the latest development in broadcasting, the FCC has authorized up to 4,000 new low-power TV stations during the next three years that would each cover a modest radius of anywhere from eight to 15 miles and be tucked between existing VHF and UHF stations. All that would be needed to receive such outlets would be a monthly fee paid to receive the service and lease of a special decoder hooked up to the standard TV set.
What makes the whole issue of low-power broadcasting so fascinating is the enormous potential for information and unique programming represented by the service -- as well as the possibility for great abuse and lost opportunity.
Low-power stations could be beamed directly into a local community, with programming designed to serve neighborhood interests and needs. That means inner cities. Ethnic communities. Isolated rural areas.
But the possibility of abuse is unfortunately also very real, with the danger that there will be a concentration of ownership of stations. Also, even more seriously, if owners turn such stations into merely ''feeder'' units designed to broadcast the same old reruns already shown on VHF and UHF channels, not to mention cable systems, the low-power stations will quickly wither away from lack of viewer interest.
What is worrisome is the way the FCC has gone about its licensing procedure for the new stations. The commission has decided -- unwisely in our view -- that there should be no restriction on the number of stations that could be owned by a licensee; also, that there should be little regulation pertaining to non-entertainment programming, access, or even the amount of advertising that can be carried.
The possibility of multiple-ownership runs counter to the commission's own '' 7-7-7'' rule that limits the number of TV, and AM and FM radio stations that a single broadcast entity can own. Moreover, the existing policy has been not to allow ownership of more than five TV stations by a single broadcaster in the 50 largest urban areas.
While the FCC says that it will give priority to rural and minority concerns (seeking to license outlets in rural areas first), it is perhaps instructive to note that the seekers of low-power outlets already include such established broadcasting and corporate entities as ABC and NBC, Sears (through its Allstate Insurance subsidiary), and Federal Express.
In effect, the FCC has created a sort of minimally regulated ''no-man's land'' in the television spectrum. That seems dubious. The FCC deserves credit for finally giving the green light to the new stations. On the other hand, the commission would seem to have a special responsibility to ensure that the stations turn out to be what they were intended to be -- TV outlets serving genuine local concerns, not just perpetuating more of the same programming and ownership found all over the existing TV spectrum.