Gustavo Gómez. Director General de OBSERVACOM y docente de la Universidad Católica de Uruguay.
With a few exceptions, the analysis of the Latin American situation shows that the digitalization of open television signals is not changing the media system property map.
Latin American countries are going through different stages of the transition process to digital television, though none has made the analog switch off, like the United States and some European countries did. Mexico and Brazil were the first countries in the region to start the digital switch over, followed by Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay. There are others that have not made decisions yet on the technical standard they will use.
Most of the region’s countries have chosen the Japanese-Brazilian ISDB-T standard (that is the case of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua). Colombia and Panama chose the European DVB-T standard. Mexico and Guatemala adopted the North American ATSC.
The ultimate deadline for a full implementation of digital TV is different depending on the particular conditions of each country and on the priority they have given to the entry of new technology. Usually it varies between 5 to 10 years from now, or even more. So it is estimated that some countries will achieve the analog switch off by the end of 2015 or throughout 2016, meanwhile others will make it by 2022 or later.
Some key regulatory decisions establish if this process will have a meaningful impact on the achievement of a more plural, democratic, and diverse media system. Some of them are the inclusion of mechanisms to prevent undue concentration of media, the entrance of new business competitors to television signals, and the recognition and promotion of public and community media.
Concentration of audiovisual media ownership and control is an uncontested fact in Latin America. According to the international community, it is an undemocratic factor that tramples upon freedom of expression and the right to information. Yet, an analysis on the region’s situation shows that the digitalization of open TV signals is not having the desired results on the media system property map.
There are cases in which the arrival of digital TV has extended and consolidated the existing concentration. There is also a paradox regarding the fact that multiplexing or multicasting of channels increases the number of TV signals but not necessarily the amount of diversity and pluralism. This will continue happening as long as this is an option only for dominant players, instead of allowing the entry of new competitors.
The opening of the market to new commercial broadcasting stations and new community media is an essential measure in order to reduce concentration and allow more access to wider sources of entertainment, information, and opinion. Thus, the entry of newcomers becomes a clear indicator of the course of new technology implementation plans.
However, not all the countries in the region appear to be aware of this opportunity. So, when the analog switch off is finally made, the television map will be the same or even worse than today, since some of the decisions made until now strengthen the concentration that exists already, like in Brazil, or make it wider, like in Peru, due to the pressure of current players to prevent or limit the entry of new competitors. Meanwhile, Argentina and Uruguay have begun the path towards the presence of new open TV signals and stations.
To achieve a more democratic media scenario, international recommendations insist on the need to recognize and promote public and community media in a complimentary manner to the development of commercial media.
The circumstances of community media in the digital environment are conditioned by the situation prior to current regulations. There are countries in which their right to exist is not even recognized and other where it is limited to radio broadcasting.
Several countries, like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, have included in their regulations the access of communities and non-profit organizations to frequencies. In Brazil, some community initiatives will be able to use public TV channels.
In other cases, spectrum reserves have been determined for this sector. In Chile, the Digital TV Law established a reserve of 40% of the available spectrum after the analogue switch off for regional, local and community media. Meanwhile, Uruguay decreed that at least one third of the digital TV frequencies must be reserved for community and non-profit media (7 of 20 available channels). Argentina has decided to include in its technical plan a reserve of 33% of the sector in the entire country.
In most of the countries analyzed the digital deployment of public television signals is considered of great importance. Its role is that of the locomotive for the transition process. It has opened more options for the entry of new public media in the local, regional and national levels. That is the case in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, and Brazil.
New public frequencies are usually awarded directly and, in fact, they have been the first media to broadcast digital signals. In return, they are obliged to deploy their services throughout the national territory to ensure universal access to open TV services to the entire population.
In several countries, public stations are willing to make the most of the technological leap and to make better use of the radio spectrum to broaden and diversify the signals broadcast, even when state funds allocated for this are not enough to invest in the necessary infrastructure for digital transmission, the improvement of quality, and the resulting extension of television offerings.
All the outlined opening measures will be insufficient if, at the same time, specific anti-monopoly decisions are not made in order to prevent the expansion of existing monopolies and oligopolies.
The procedures and conditions in which current analogue operators will make the digital transition are a key element in these measures. The same is true for the possibility of obtaining new licenses and frequencies, particularly when there is concentration prior to digital broadcasting.
Most countries will grant current operators automatic licenses and access to whole capacity of the channels for their exclusive use on the same terms as their analogue television services. Uruguay has taken another path, granting automatically only one digital signal (the fourth part of a multiplex) to broadcast the current analogue programming. But if operators want to obtain whole capacity of a channel for their exclusive use, they will have to compete and sign a new contract with new conditions.
In several countries, trying to prevent the expansion of existing concentration, current operators will not be able to obtain new spectrum concessions for TV services. That is the case of Uruguay and Mexico, where Televisa and TV Azteca are not allowed to participate in the bidding process for two new digital TV channels. This according to the Constitution, although a secondary law that confirms this regulation is still missing. On the contrary, Peru granted new concessions to dominant players, which derived in a greater concentration of ownership by one of the major media groups in the country.