Digital Beat -- Arguing Over the Future of TV

Gary Handman (
Wed, 26 Apr 2000 08:46:02 -0700 (PDT)

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>Subject: Digital Beat -- Arguing Over the Future of TV
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>The Digital Beat Vol. 2, No. 28-- 4/13/2000
>Arguing Over the Future of TV
> Introduction
> The Broadcasters' Perspective
> The Public Perspective
> Your Perspective
> Add Your Voice (
>I. Introduction
>In comments filed at the Federal Communications Commission late last month,
>a long-standing disagreement between television station owners and public
>interest advocates again surfaced. Recognizing the increased capacity
>offered to broadcasters through their requested transfer to digital
>technology, the FCC has asked for public comment on whether or not now is
>the time for the agency to review its rules that define the role of
>broadcasters as trustees of publicly-owned spectrum.
>The industry, led by its lobbying organization, the National Association of
>Broadcasters (NAB), is arguing that this is not the time to define the
>public interest obligations of digital broadcasters. Public interest
>advocates -- including the Alliance for Better Campaigns, the Benton
>Foundation, the Center for Media Education, the Media Access Project and
>People for Better Television among others -- provided the FCC with strong
>arguments that this is the appropriate time to define the basic agreement
>between local television stations and the communities they are licensed to
>serve: in exchange for free use of the public airwaves, broadcasters agree
>to provide programming that serves the public interest, convenience and
>II. The Broadcasters' Perspective
>Representing the perspective of the broadcast industry, a number of themes
>arise in the comments of the NAB. The powerful Washington lobbying group
>* The FCC should not impose public interest obligations prematurely on
>digital television services
>* The transition to digital television does not warrant the adoption of new
>or expanded public interest obligations
>* Additional obligations on broadcasters must be justified by evidence that
>existing standards are inadequate
>* Since there has been an explosion in the number and variety of media
>outlets, the FCC should avoid inflexible regulation and rely on the
>State broadcasters associations of 21 states filed similar comments
>collectively. They write: "the [FCC] should allow broadcasters to explore
>new and innovative ways of serving their communities, itself a public
>interest benefit, and should refrain from rushing in to immediately saddle
>the industry with cumbersome new requirements with few demonstrated benefits
>and high costs."
>The Association of Local Television Stations, an association of stations not
>affiliated with the ABC, CBS, or NBC television networks, argues that the
>FCC ought to do no more than clarify current public interest obligations as
>they will apply to stations' digital service. "No reason exists," ALTV
>insists, "to tamper with the success of the current regulatory regime." For
>stations that broadcast multiple channels of programming -- called
>multicasting -- ALTV suggests that the FCC apply restrictions on obscene and
>indecent content and children's advertising to all free channels, political
>broadcasting requirements to all channels, but compliance with many public
>interest obligations should be determined on an evaluation of a station's
>overall programming performance across all free services. For example, a
>station would not be required to provide educational and informational
>programming for children on _each_ channel since such requirements would
>pre-empt a licensee's decision to provide specialized channels such as a
>children's channel or a news channel.(1)
>Leslie Moonves, the chief programming officer at CBS, served as co-chair on
>the President's Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital
>Television Broadcasters (Advisory Committee). The ten recommendations of the
>Advisory Committee are part of the FCC's record in this proceeding and
>include suggestions that broadcasters disclose their public interest
>activity more broadly, make programming more accessible to the sight and
>hearing impaired, and help improve the quality of on-air political discourse
>by providing more candidate-centered discourse. The Advisory Committee also
>suggests that the FCC should adopt a clear set of minimum public interest
>obligations and should specifically address the public interest potential of
>multiplexing. In a March 30 interview on PBS' The News Hour, Mr. Moonves
>indicated that CBS and its own and operated local stations had not yet
>decided whether to adopt the Advisory Committee's recommendation for five
>minutes of candidate-centered discourse in the weeks leading up to
>elections. The Advisory Committee published its recommendations in December
>1998. In comments filed with the FCC, CBS argues against the Government's
>right to regulate broadcasters in general and specifically challenges, based
>on constitutional grounds, arguments for broadcasters to provide "free time"
>to candidates.
>The company of another Advisory Committee member, Belo station group's
>Robert Decherd, argues that the broadcast industry should encourage
>broadcasters to 1) disseminate more broadly their public interest activity,
>2) improve disaster warnings, 3) increase access for the disabled, and 4)
>improve diversity in the industry, and 5) provide political coverage and to
>"elevate political discourse." Unfortunately, Belo does not provide in all
>cases _how_ the industry will encourage this public service or _why_ the
>industry has not done so since urged by the Advisory Committee to do so in
>Surprisingly, Paxson Communications, the owner of the largest broadcast
>television group in the US and the creator of the seventh broadcast network
>(PAXTV), supports the FCC's initiative to examine broadcast public interest
>standards. Paxson suggests that the FCC should adopt a voluntary Public
>Interest Code of Conduct for television licensees which would be written by
>the industry. The Code would include five minutes of candidate-centered
>discourse per day in the 30 days prior to an election, programming
>addressing civic responsibilities and the political process, programming
>reflecting and addressing the diverse interests of viewers, involvement in
>community activities including fundraisers, and public service
>III. The Public Perspective
>Since before passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, advocates from
>around the country have been calling on the FCC to define the public
>interest obligations of digital broadcasters. Although a split, four-member
>FCC "punted" on public interest obligations when it approved broadcasters'
>plans for digital television in April 1997 (saying it would revisit the
>issue later), the work of advocates to raise the issues of access, equity,
>diversity and democracy in the debate over digital TV led to the creation of
>the Presidential Advisory Committee mentioned above. After the work of the
>Advisory Committee was completed in 1998, these same advocates have worked
>to convince the FCC that a formal rulemaking is needed -- and needed now as
>broadcasters begin providing digital services around the country.
>Last year, People for Better TV, a broad-based national coalition (2), filed
>a formal petition asking the FCC to begin a rulemaking on digital
>broadcasters' public interest obligations. In the current proceeding, People
>for Better TV reiterates its concern that television become a place not only
>for entertainment, but a trusted source for education for children and civic
>discussion for communities. The coalition asks for clear rules so that both
>broadcasters and the public can know what it means to operate in the public
>interest. These flexible rules, PBTV says, should apply to all channels
>provided by broadcasters and should address ascertainment of local needs and
>concerns and public affairs programming that addresses these issues,
>accessibility to programming for the disabled, diversity in the industry,
>educational programming for children, privacy protections for consumers, and
>public service announcements.
>As reported here earlier, the Benton Foundation supplied the FCC with new
>research indicating that commercial broadcasters are forsaking local public
>affairs programming. Despite promises from broadcasters that market
>competition and deregulation will lead to a diversity of voices and an
>allegiance to localism, the report, _Market Conditions and Public Affairs
>Programming_, highlights that during a typical fortnight, only 0.3 percent
>of the total commercial broadcast time is devoted to local public affairs
>programming. Benton suggests that the FCC should adopt a set of principles
>-- the Viewers' Bill of Rights -- on which to base the proceeding. The
>Viewers' Bill of Rights recognizes that, per a 1969 Supreme Court ruling,
>the rights of viewers are paramount in American broadcast regulation and
>that our traditional commitment to localism must be respected. Programming
>must be accessible to all Americans and should serve the needs of children,
>education, democracy, and diversity. Broadcasters should adhere to
>guidelines on the treatment of news, public events, emergencies, and
>controversial issues. Broadcasters should be required to disclose their
>public interest activity to their communities and to regulators. And, when
>broadcasters do not provide programming in the public interest, they should
>be required to pay spectrum fees as other users of the airwaves do. This
>"play or pay" model has already been embraced by Congress and the FCC
>concerning ancillary services offered by digital broadcasters.
>Another coalition of advocates -- including the United Church of Christ, the
>Alliance for Community Media, the Center for Media Education, the Consumers
>Union and others (3) -- urge the FCC to begin a rulemaking no later than
>August 2000. The enhanced capacity of digital technology, the coalition
>argues, demands that broadcasters better serve the public interest. Far from
>stifling innovation, a rulemaking that clearly defines obligations for
>broadcasters will give broadcasters the regulatory certainty they need to
>move forward in developing digital services.
>"With the knowledge of what is expected from them up front," the coalition
>writes, "DTV licensees can tailor their use of the spectrum accordingly.
>This is preferable to having to impose public interest obligations after DTV
>broadcasters have become entrenched."
>The coalition urges the FCC to adopt programming guidelines for local news
>and public affairs, candidate centered discourse and children's educational
>shows. In addition, in regards to broadcasters who choose to multicast, the
>coalition suggests that television station owners be given three options: 1)
>provide additional public interest programming; 2) lease a portion of the
>spectrum to a small disadvantaged business or noncommercial educational
>producer; or 3) pay a fee to support local noncommercial educational
>With 30-second ads and 8-second sound bites dominating political campaigns
>as they appear on broadcast television creating a deficiency in the quality
>of our democratic discourse and limiting access to the most important medium
>for electorial communication to those candidates who can buy their way onto
>the air, the Alliance for Better Campaigns urges the FCC to require
>television broadcasters to set aside a reasonable amount of time for
>candidates to appear on TV free of charge during election season. The
>requirement, ABC argues, would ensure that citizens have access to the
>information they need to choose their representatives.
>A coalition of child advocacy, health, and education groups call on the FCC
>to develop rules designed to ensure that digital broadcasters serve the
>needs of children. The Center for Media Education, the National PTA, the
>National Education Association, Peggy Charren (founder of Action for
>Children's Television), and six other organizations ask the FCC to develop
>clear, quantifiable guidelines on how digital TV broadcasters can meet the
>educational and informational needs of children, as well as new rules on
>digital advertising, marketing, and data collection directed at children.
>Specifically, this coalition asks the FCC to adopt rules that require
>broadcasters to:
>* Air additional "core" educational and informational (E/I) programming for
>* Provide broadband or datacasting services to local schools, libraries or
>community centers that serve children.
>The coalition also asked the FCC to:
>* Update the current rules and policies regarding advertising to children to
>ensure they are applied on all DTV program services.
>* Prohibit links to advertising or sales on Web sites or online services
>that are accessible during children's programming.
>* Apply the principles of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
>(COPPA) to DTV broadcasters collecting information from children.
>* Examine how DTV can be used to improve the current programming rating
>system used with the V-chip.
>IV. Your Perspective
>Although the above summaries of comments may seem to represent a wide
>variety of voices, it is still not enough. Local broadcasters are licensed
>to serve their communities and a commitment to localism is something no
>regulator, broadcaster or public interest advocate disputes. So, what's
>missing is your voice. Is the programming offered by your local broadcasters
>serving your communities civic, cultural and educational needs? Can and
>should broadcasters do more with the increased capacity of digital
>Although broadcasters claims that marketplace forces will regulate the
>industry, evidence is mounting that many broadcasters do _not_ provide
>sufficient programming that addresses community needs. This market failure
>can be corrected through regulation: clearly defining what the public is to
>expect from broadcasters in exchange for their television licenses.
>To facilitate easier participation by our readers, Benton has set up a Web
>form at ( that will allow visitors to
>easily send email to all five FCC commissioners and to let them know you'd
>like them to move to a formal rulemaking. By acting before April 25, your
>comments will be included in the FCC's official record.
>If advanced television is to serve America as a people and not just as a
>then we must seize this critical time to harness television's full potential
>to serve the public good.
>1.) There is no discussion in the comments on why an all news channel could
>not devote three hours/week to news programming aimed at children and/or
>2.) The People for Better Television steering committee includes Children
>NOW, the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, Communications Workers
>of America, Consumer Federation of America, the League of United Latin
>American Citizens, the National Association of the Deaf, the National
>Organization for Women, the National Urban League, the Project on Media
>Ownership (PROMO), and the U.S. Catholic Conference. Other coalition members
>are listed at (
>3.) The full list is the Office of Communication of the United Church of
>Christ, the Alliance for Community Media, the Association of Independent
>Video and Filmmakers, the Benton Foundation, Black Citizens for a Fair
>Media, the Center for Media Education, Consumers Union, Minority Media
>Telecommunications Council, the National Association of the Deaf and the
>Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press. The comments were written by the
>Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center and
>by the Media Access Project.
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Gary Handman
Media Resources Center
Moffitt Library
UC Berkeley 94720-6000

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