Gore: the last chance to assure that the public interest is served in the 'wild west' of digital TV
Remarks by Vice President Al Gore to the President's Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligation of Digital Television Broadcasters, Oct. 22, 1997.
Thank you, Secretary Daley, for giving us this critical forum today. I thank the co-chairs of our new Advisory Committee, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Les Moonves of CBS Television, for lending their time and talent to this important enterprise; and I thank each and every member of the committee, whose names were formally announced this morning. You bring to this work not only broad and deep expertise in all the challenges of modern broadcasting, but also a commitment to serving the public -- and I am grateful that you have chosen to serve.
We are here today to begin a serious study of one of the most important questions of our time: how to ensure that one of our most precious public properties continues to serve the public's needs -- a forum not just for entertainment, but for education, enlightenment, and civic debate as well.
Almost sixty years ago, after seeing an early demonstration of television, E.B. White predicted -- and I quote -- we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace, or a saving radiance in the sky.
The truth is, neither has come to pass. But E.B. White was right in one important sense: the broadcast medium is what we make of it. Such saving radiance can shine through -- but only when we provide it. For this reason, America's broadcasters are really the trustees of a critical public resource. When you consider that the average 70-year-old will have spent a full ten years watching television - and that a typical child will watch 25,000 hours of television before his or her 18th birthday -- you begin to realize the magnitude of that obligation.
Fortunately, as far back as the Radio Act of 1912, America has understood and acted on those obligations. It was in 1952 that the FCC set aside a full 12% of all TV channels for educational, non-commercial use. It was in 1967 that President Johnson won passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, making public television a part of our daily lives. Thanks to many of the people in this room, we have expanded children's programming, and made it easier for federal candidates to have equal and affordable access to broadcast time.
We are here today because that tradition of trusteeship must continue, even as television goes through the greatest transformation in its history, one that is truly bigger than the shift from black and white to color -- the move from analog to digital broadcasting. It's like the difference between a one-man band and a symphony.
None of us can predict exactly what this new technology will bring -- whether it will be high-definition or multicast; whether it will broadcast to TV screens, to computers, or to digital TV's; whether it will bring dramatic changes in content and programming, or just a wider range of channels and choices. We do expect that we'll see even more entertainment, even more and better educational and children's programming, and we hope and expect to see free TV time for candidates for public office. We also know that digital broadcasting will be more dynamic and more flexible; more competitive and more interactive -- and potentially much more responsive to the needs and interests of the American people, if we prepare for it in the right way.
But the fact that it is so limitless -- the fact that so many of our present rules and expectations will not apply -- makes digital broadcasting the wild west of the television age. If we don't map out some of that terrain for public purposes -- if we don't carve out meaningful public space on our newest public airwaves -- we could lose the opportunity for good.
At the same time, the digital spectrum is a valuable asset, one that will bring an explosion of opportunities for broadcasters. What we have asked for in return -- what we must get in return -- is a significant commitment to the public interest.
We all know what the critical needs are: the need to educate and inform our children; the need to give parents the tools to protect their children from what they consider to be harmful influences; the need for free and open political debate, driven not by dollars and soundbites, but by issues and ideas. The challenge we now face is meeting those needs, protecting our oldest values, in the face of new and changing technology.
That is why President Clinton and I created this Advisory Committee - and that is why the report you submit to me next June will be such a critical roadmap for the new broadcast media. Of course, your paramount obligation must be to sustain and strengthen the First Amendment freedoms that are so critical to all media. We cannot allow or condone censorship of any kind. We must respect the free-enterprise approach that has always governed our airwaves. But we must also recognize that broadcasting is not a right, but a privilege -- one that confers great responsibilities.
I expect the work of this Committee to be broad, and I do not want to pre-judge or pre-ordain its outcome. But I do want to begin this first meeting with a discussion of first principles -- some of the challenges that the President and I believe must be met if we are to truly harness the new media for the good of all Americans.
The first is children's programming on our airwaves. And there are really two sides to this equation -- helping parents screen what they believe to be bad, and giving them more of what we know to be good.
You all know how hard President Clinton and I have worked with the broadcast industry, with Congress, and with parents' groups to achieve both of these goals. Requiring the V-Chip, so parents have the power to block what they find objectionable. Bringing together the majority of the broadcast industry to launch voluntary TV ratings, so parents have an early-warning system when it comes to content they find objectionable; this is an achievement we are all committed to continuing in the digital age -- and I hope NBC will soon join in this voluntary effort as well. These ratings will serve us well in the digital age.
For too long, parents have been presented with a false choice when it comes to TV -- to unplug it and throw it out if they don't like the programming, or to sit and monitor everything their children watch. We know that neither is practical, and that there is a third and better way. TV ratings and the V-Chip give parents the information they need to make that third way work.
In addition, we fought for and won passage of the three-hour rule, requiring broadcasters to air a minimum of three hours of genuine educational programming each week. It was no accident that President Clinton's letter to the FCC, urging them to pass this rule, was the first such letter ever sent by a President of the United States to the Federal Communications Commission.
Our challenge, with the birth of digital broadcasting, is to translate these rules into the digital age. We must provide families with more quality, educational programming from which to choose. I will never forget the hours I spent with my own children watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood -- or more recently, documentaries on baseball and the Civil War, and new educational shows such as Science Court. We want to create more of those experiences, not fewer, in the digital age.
The other critical issue -- one which is especially important to the President and to me -- is the need for free TV time for candidates for public office, to create a meaningful public forum that does not require an endless steeplechase to raise and spend campaign contributions.
As some of you may recall, I do not come new to this issue; I introduced the very first free TV legislation in the Senate, exactly nine years ago this past Saturday. Sadly, nine years later, little has changed in our system of financing campaigns:
Candidates still raise and spend too much money -- mostly to buy those 30-second slivers of TV time to air their views.
Too many candidates still don't have access to the airwaves, which means they often don't have access to the voters.
As this Committee deliberates and defines the public interest in the digital age, I urge you to pay special attention to the need for free TV time -- to be set aside for the survival of our democracy -- and to come forward with a serious proposal to provide it.
Beyond these two central issues of content -- the needs of our children and the needs of our democracy -- there are other issues I urge you to explore.
In all of your recommendations, you must strive to design rules and principles that are flexible enough for a technology that will change very rapidly -- and is still wildly unpredictable.
At the same time, you will have to struggle with how to establish a clear and meaningful public interest obligation. For this new media, that may mean something different than a number of hours or a percentage of broadcast time; it may be specifying a portion of the mega-bits of information that will flow through tomorrow's digital airwaves. I hope you will consider creative ways to map out such goals, as we strive to make public interest obligations real.
There are, of course, many other issues to consider -- and what we are asking, above all, is that you provide us with your best judgement and assessment. What should a broadcaster's obligations be in areas such as public service announcements, close captioning and video description?
Let me close by saying that we are lucky to have such a talented and diverse membership on this Committee -- including leading broadcasters and producers, academics and executives from a variety of fields, and members of the public interest community. Together, you must be the guardians of the public interest -- and America is counting on your counsel and leadership.
The broadcast spectrum -- worth untold billions of dollars -- is a not a mere commodity. It is a public trust. There is a reason that so many democratic nations have established state-run TV networks, to harness its power to educate and inform. And there is a reason that so many autocratic nations have harnessed it for less noble purposes and propaganda. We in America chose a far different course. We chose a system that is privately-run, but publicly-regulated -- one that grants tremendous freedom to the market, but bestows obligations that are just as great.
It is not a perfect system -- and I doubt that such a system exists. But for more than a half-century, America has had the vision to believe that broadcasting could be better -- that the industry could uphold the public interest, and live up to the obligations of such an enormous trusteeship.
It is that same vision and commitment that must be summoned again today, as we shape and create a new broadcast technology for the electromagnetic spectrum. In some ways, the challenge is the same. But all of us in this room know that the job could be done better. Let's commit ourselves to that simple goal. Let's believe in TV's ability to educate and inspire, to challenge us and chart new terrain. And let's resolve to make the digital age the true golden age of this crucial medium. Thank you -- and I look forward to working closely with you in the months ahead.
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