Headlines Extra: FCC Starts Proceeding on Digital TV

Gary Handman (ghandman@library.berkeley.edu)
Fri, 7 Jan 2000 16:32:53 -0800 (PST)

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>Subject: Headlines Extra: FCC Starts Proceeding on Digital TV
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> Digital Beat Extra -- Broadcasting 1/4/2000
> The FCC Asks for Public Comment on the
> Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters
>"Television has been the most important medium of the 20th century," said
>Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard, "and has
>transformed the way we live and see the world. It's part of our social
>fabric. As we move into the 21st century television is undergoing a
>technological transformation. We must make sure that as television changes,
>broadcasters continue to serve the public in a variety of ways."
>On December 15, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened an
>inquiry into the public interest obligations of digital television
>broadcasters. The adoption of a notice of inquiry (NOI) allows the public
>the opportunity to comment on the public interest performance of current
>television stations and the public interest potential of digital television
>In adopting a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), the (FCC) said it was creating a
>forum for public debate on how broadcasters can best serve the public
>interest during and after this transition to digital TV. [For more on the
>transition, see Picture This: Digital TV and the Future of Television
>(www.benton.org/Policy/TV/digital.html)]. The FCC said it is not proposing
>new rules or policies in this NOI, but rather is seeking ideas and public
>comment to determine what, if any, further steps should be taken in this
>area. Interested parties must file comments on or before March 27, 2000, and
>reply comments on or before April 25, 2000.
>The FCC asked for comment on four general categories of issues:
>1) the application of television stations' public interest obligations to
>the new flexibility and capabilities of digital television, such as multiple
>channel transmission;
>2) how television stations could best serve their communities in terms of
>providing their viewers information on their public interest activities, and
>using digital technology to provide emergency information in new ways;
>3) how DTV broadcasters could increase access to television programming by
>people with disabilities, and further the longstanding legislative and
>regulatory goals of diversity; and
>4) whether broadcasters could enhance the quality of political discourse
>through uses of the airwaves for political issues and debate.
>Digital: In the area of challenges unique to the digital era, the FCC asked
>for comment on how broadcasters' existing public interest obligations should
>be applied in a digital television environment. It cited the existing
>obligation to air children's informational and educational programming, and
>asked for comment on how to apply this guideline when broadcasters offer
>more than one programming stream through DTV multiplexing. It asked for
>comment on what, if any, public interest obligations should apply to the use
>of a DTV broadcaster's channel to provide ancillary and supplementary
>services, such as datacasting.
>Disaster: In the area of broadcasters responding to their communities, the
>FCC asked for comment on the opportunity created by digital technology to
>allow more pinpointing of emergency warnings, such as targeting specific
>households or neighborhoods at risk, and thus to provide improved disaster
>warnings. The NOI also asked for comment on ideas for requiring enhanced
>disclosures of stations' public interest programming and activities, and on
>suggestions that broadcasters use Internet postings and electronic mail in
>making available their public files.
>Disability & Diversity: In the area of enhancing access to the media, the
>FCC asked for comment on how broadcasters might make their programming more
>accessible to persons with disabilities, such as enabling viewers to change
>the size of captions or to make video description more widely available. The
>FCC also asked for comment and suggestions on innovative ways unique to DTV
>to encourage diversity in the digital era.
>Discourse: In the area of enhancing political discourse, the FCC asked for
>comment on ways that candidate access to television could be improved, and
>on whether the FCC can take steps to promote voluntary efforts by
>broadcasters. The NOI also asked for comment on the Advisory Committee
>recommendations that broadcasters voluntarily provide five minutes of time
>each night for thirty days before an election for candidate-centered
>discourse. It also asked for comment on proposals by individual members of
>the Advisory Committee and others to require broadcasters to provide
>designated amounts of airtime for national and local candidates, and to
>prohibit broadcasters from adopting blanket bans on the sale of airtime to
>state and local candidates.
>The FCC said it welcomed other suggestions and ideas about broadcaster
>public interest responsibilities not contained in the NOI and requested that
>parties articulate legal theories for their proposals.
>The NOI follows up on the FCC's April 1997 digital television (DTV) order in
>which it indicated it would issue a Notice at a later date on the public
>interest obligations of DTV broadcasters. The NOI also seeks comment on
>some recommendations of the President's Advisory Committee on the Public
>Interest Obligations of Digital Broadcasters (www.benton.org/PIAC) and on
>some ideas contained in petitions filed by outside parties, including People
>for Better TV (PBTV), asking for the FCC to commence a proceeding on this
>"Our efforts, particularly the letters sent and the meetings with
>Commissioners, have had an impact at the FCC," said PBTV National
>Coordinator Mark Lloyd, "however a Notice of Inquiry is
>insufficient. An inquiry will not necessarily result in guidelines for
>digital broadcasters. And with over 100 licenses already given out, the
>public deserves to know what it is getting in exchange for the $70 billion
>giveaway of public property. We will continue to push for a proceeding to
>set clear guidelines."
>Other public interest advocates had similar mixed reactions to the FCC
>action. "This is a good beginning in requiring broadcasters to give the
>public the service it deserves under the law," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman,
>President and CEO of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm.
>For over sixty years, broadcasters have received free use of the airwaves in
>exchange for providing services to the public. "The Commission must have the
>political will to carry forward in the face of stiff resistance," warned
>Schwartzman. "This NOI represents a promise to the American people, a
>promise we expect the Commission will fulfill in the months ahead."
>Center for Media Education Executive Director Jeffery Chester said CME would
>call for "new policies designed to benefit the community, especially
>children." Children's needs must be safeguarded, adds Kathryn Montgomery,
>Ph.D., president of CME. "We'll be taking a hard look at digital
>broadcasting to make sure that children are protected from manipulative and
>exploitative advertising in the digital age. We have a civic responsibility
>to harness the power of this new interactive medium for the benefit of
>Commissioner Gloria Tristani supported the NOI saying, "This proceeding is
>long overdue. The public interest standard -- the bedrock obligation of
>those who broadcast over the public airwaves -- has fallen into an
>unfortunate state of disrepair over the years....The difficulty, of course,
>is in defining the public interest. On its face, the standard is broad and
>requires the Commission to exercise a great deal of discretion."
>Commissioner Tristani believes that the public interest requirements should
>be specific as "vagueness gives too much power to the Commission to impose
>wide-ranging requirements on licensees."
>"[T]he public interest standard should be a "safety net" to protect the
>public against those broadcasters who might be tempted to avoid their
>obligations in the absence of a rule." Commissioner Tristani said, "Children
>spend far more time with television than any other medium, and the vast
>majority of that time is unsupervised. There is no doubt that television
>exerts a great influence on their development and well-being. We must do
>what we can to protect our children from material that may harm them and to
>ensure that they have access to
>programming that meets their particular needs." (See
>Commissioner Michael K. Powell concurred with the NOI, but said he had
>concerns and reservations. He believes we are in the early stages of digital
>transmission and we do not yet know what will become of public interest.
>"While I applaud the uncustomary effort to get far in front of the curve, it
>seems to me premature to attempt to fix public interest obligations to a
>service that has yet to blossom." He continued, "I question why the mere use
>of a digital medium rather than an analog one justifies new public interest
>obligations, particularly ones of the breadth and scope envisioned in this
>NOI. Another problem Powell saw was First Amendment rights being challenged.
>"It is ironic to me that as we enter the digital age of abundance and tout
>its myriad opportunities for more information through more outlets, we
>simultaneously propose greater public interest obligations that infringe
>upon speech, justified on the crumbling foundation of scarcity."
>Powell's final comment addressed the issue of political discourse: "I have
>made no secret of my views concerning the appropriateness of the Commission
>initiating an inquiry into free air time for political candidates, without
>specific direction from Congress -- I feel strongly that a federal agency of
>un-elected officials should not on its own initiative tread in an area that
>may fundamentally affect the electoral process. Such modification or reform
>should come from the people through their duly elected representatives in
>Congress. It is even more troubling that an agency would pursue such
>questions, when the issue has been raised and debated by the Congress, but
>has to date been rejected, as is the case with this bevy of issues."
>[SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission]
>Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth concurred with part of the FCC's Notice
>of Inquiry and dissented in part saying, "broadcasters fund[ing] solutions
>to such diverse problems as minority access to capital and the quality of
>our political discourse. I believe even suggesting such broad policies in
>this deregulatory and competitive age is pure folly." Commissioner
>Furchtgott-Roth continued, "The Commission's rules should be moving towards
>deregulation, not further burdening the emergence of one nascent mass media
>competitor: digital television (DTV)." He explained that he is uncomfortable
>with the FCC, an independent agency, taking "guidance" and "focus" from the
>executive branch through PIAC and the Vice President. Commissioner
>Furchtgott-Roth also questioned the timing of the NOI which comes only weeks
>after the arrival of a letter requesting such action by the Vice President,
>casting unfortunate doubt on the FCC's independence as an agency.
>Commissioner Furchtgott-Roth said he was curious as to why this "has become
>the vehicle for so many big government causes designed to cure virtually
>every social ill through the mandated largesse of broadcasters." He believes
>Congress must debate and pass any policy with respect to free air time for
>political candidates as it is highly political and "it is not at all clear
>that free airtime would advance the majority's apparent goals of 'promoting
>democracy' and 'better educating the voting public.'" He concluded by
>saying, "I also believe that it is simply better policy to leave
>broadcasters with discretion to define and implement their public interest
>programming, especially local programming. Broadcasters have every reason to
>serve their local communities and, if they do not meet that challenge, they
>will go out of business."
>(See www.fcc.gov/Speeches/Furchtgott_Roth/Statements/sthfr962.html)
>The NOI (FCC 99390/Mass Media Docket No. 99-360) is now available online
>(www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Mass_Media/Notices/1999/fcc99390.txt or
>www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Mass_Media/Notices/1999/fcc99390.doc for a formatted
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Gary Handman
Media Resources Center
Moffitt Library
UC Berkeley 94720-6000

"Everything wants to become television" (James Ulmer -- Teletheory)