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Barbara Cochran: Public Broadcasters Need Broadband Makeover

Former RTNDA President Barbara Cochran is advising public TV and radio stations to morph from a broadcast to a broadband model, and says one way to do that would be to seek government reserved capacity on those cable and telco broadband networks similar to their broadcast spectrum set-asides.

While she says spectrum auction proceeds could be used to support that remake, fees on broadcasters or advertising are not a fair funding model.

In a new report released Wednesday (Dec. 8), she recommends that public media should seek a government set-aside of broadband capacity similar to their broadcast spectrum "reservation," that public TV stations should start producing more local news and information, expand on programs to share more digital content, that the Public Broadcasting Act should be overhauled and funds redirected from "outmoded broadcasting infrastructure" to broadband," and that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CBP) should become the Corporation for Public Media (CPM). CPB is the congressionally created entity that administers the approximately 15% of noncom budgets that comes from federal funding.

Those are just some of the potential action items in the third in a series of reports from The Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation on implementing the recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, one of which was to "increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs."

Those changes, suggests Cochran, are all aimed at creating a new definition of public media that is "more local, more inclusive and more interactive," which was also the Knight Commission's recommendation.

Cochran says public broadcastings marquee brands are being challenged "by cable channels that offer children’s, educational, cultural and documentary programming and by websites that offer news and information instantly, globally, on demand." But she sees an opportunity for new technology and more organized planning to remake the system from the "one-to-many broadcast model" to a distributed network model where stations become hubs that "bring communities together, facilitate dialogue and curate vital information."

"The Federal Communications Commission should adopt broadband policies that recognize public media’s unique place in our democracy," said Cochran.

"Those policies could include a guarantee of public media access to broadband delivery systems and advantageous rates for streaming video and audio."

She says the FCC should also make it easier for stations to merge and operate jointly, as well as allow them to lease excess digital capacity. She also suggests that if the FCC decides to use any spectrum auction proceeds to support community information needs, it should think about establishing a station-acquisition fund. Also in service to its broadband future, she says public stations should be considered "anchor institutions"--like schools and libraries--that qualify for federal broadband infrastructure grants.

In addition to the spectrum auction proceed proposal in the FCC's National Broadband Plan, the commission also raised the possibility of using a spectrum fee on commercial broadcasters to fund noncoms, which would both support public media and provide an additional economic incentive to give up spectrum for wireless broadband. But Cochran says that would not be equitable.

"Some have suggested other sources for federal revenue, such as a tax on commercial broadcasters for spectrum use, a tax on advertising or a tax on the sale of digital devices. Any of these would place a burden on one sector for a service meant to be utilized by all," she writes. "Just as funds for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities come from general tax revenues, it is fairest for public media to be funded by general revenues."

Among her other recommendations are a $100 million fund to hire a thousand new reporters. "Journalism requires boots on the ground," she said.  Cochran is speaking from experience. Her resume includes commercial and noncommercial news experience in radio, TV and newspapers as, among other things, managing editor of the Washington Star, VP of news at NPR, Washington bureau chief for CBS and executive producer of Meet the Press.

And while the recent talk in Washington among the soon-to-be new Republican House majority and a bipartisan presidential fiscal commission has been all about cutting back or phasing out CPB, Cochran says Congress needs to appropriate more money so noncoms can remake themselves for a broadband future. "Public broadcasters should ask [Congress] for a special appropriation to begin offering content more broadly on digital platforms as part of the national broadband plan," she said, recognizing that is a "tall order" considering the political climate.

Cochran is currently the Curtis B. Hurley Chair of Public Service Journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Although the paper was issued by Aspen and Knight, it is not endorsed by either and represents her views, and those of the people she interviewed.

The paper was released at an Aspen Institute roundtable in Washington Wednesday.