Third meeting, Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters
Tauzin-like options arise in DTV obligations committee
Originally published in Current, Feb. 2, 1998
Two commercial broadcasters on the so-called Gore Commission opened its most extensive discussion about a possible historic trade of public-interest obligations between commercial and public broadcasters.
The remarks came during the third meeting of the President's Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, Jan. 16. The committee aims to recommend what public-interest obligations Congress or the FCC should impose on stations in exchange for the channels they're being given for digital broadcasting.
Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment and co-chairman of the advisory committee, observed that his network's Saturday-morning children's programs--overhauled to meet the FCC's educational objective--had lost millions for CBS. (A new version of Ghostwriter was among CBS's cancelations.)
"This money would have been so much better spent going to a place where [children] were watching it, and we would have supported that--going to PBS and saying: 'Here, here's X millions of dollars; use it for children who are really watching'."
Robert W. Decherd, chairman and president of A.H. Belo Corp., a Dallas-based media firm, went a step further, imagining that public TV could be funded through some such trade and that Congress could also let it keep its original channels as well as the new digital ones--doubling its present channel capacity for public-service programs.
"Now, who's best able to do that?" he asked. "The people who are genuinely interested in it, or people who are being compelled to do it?"
The idea of commercial broadcasters fulfilling their obligations by paying for the job to be done by public TV has been floated repeatedly during the past year by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecom subcommittee. Before Tauzin, Vice President Gore, Newton Minow and policy gadfly Henry Geller made similar noises.
CPB Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, an advisory committee member, raised the idea at the committee's Dec. 5 meeting, but "everyone looked askance at me," he told Current. In January, he detected more interest in Tauzin-like proposals, especially if the rules are applied flexibly from city to city.
Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor on the panel, listed obligation trading as an option when he reviewed four different approaches the committee can take: (1) deregulating commercial TV, (2) maintaining the regulatory status quo, (3) adding new obligations to the status quo, and (4) developing rules that would allow broadcasters to fulfill their obligations themselves or pay public TV or other broadcasters to fulfill them.
The strongest complaints and ambivalence about the notion so far have come from the public-interest side of the table.
Children's TV advocate Peggy Charren said she loves public TV, but doesn't want to put all public-interest programming in the hands of a single institution. The idea would be more acceptable if an independent mechanism were created to allocate channel capacity, she indicated. Charren also warned that any such arrangement must provide funds adequate for program production, not just channel operation.
Another committee member, Gigi Sohn, executive director of the Media Access Project, told Current last week that she'd like to see commercial broadcasters supporting the creation of "some kind of civic space" for noncommercial programs. "I don't have problems with [pubcasters] administering the space, but I don't want them having editorial control," she said.
A PBS Board member who was giving a briefing to the committee also opposed a full trade of obligations. "Speaking as a citizen ... it seems to me it would be a terrible misfortune if this opportunity were missed to have at least some portion of what the commercial broadcasters are doing to be for public service and education," said Fred Esplin, g.m. of KUED in Salt Lake City.
Though the advisory committee hasn't begun intense discussions of what it will recommend this summer, much of its talk has been about specific public-interest objectives--free airtime for political candidates, for instance.
President Clinton, who spoke up for the free candidate airtime proposal when he created the advisory committee, added a campaign-reform angle Jan. 27 in his State of the Union message. He said he would ask the FCC to "provide free or reduced-cost television time--for candidates who observe [campaign] spending limits voluntarily."
In its fact-gathering last month, the advisory committee heard from experts on expected DTV trends, on services for the blind and deaf, on disaster communications, on school, college and library uses of DTV, and on pubcasting. Among the speakers were Esplin, Larry Goldberg of WGBH's media access center, and Gary Poon, head of DTV planning at PBS.
Further committee meetings are set March 2 at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; April 14 in Washington; and June 8 in Minneapolis. Audio feeds of the meetings will be carried in RealAudio at committee membert Rob Glaser's RealNetworks site, www.real.com/corporate/digitaltv/.
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