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Commerce Wants Public-Interest 'Guidelines'

Not everything went right for broadcasters during the Senate Commerce Committee’s vote on digital-television legislation Wednesday.

In a surprise, the panel voted 13-8 to order the FCC to recommend specific amounts of public interest programming, including election coverage.

The measure was sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg and attached to the DTV bill as an amendment.

Lautenberg said the FCC should set guidelines for locally originated, public affairs and independently produced programming that TV stations should air, guidelines it could refer to when deciding whether to renew licenses.

Broadcasters have long argued against specific obligations as an infringement on their free-speech rights and insist most already meet their obligations without government quotas.

Democrats at the FCC, however, have been fighting to make public interest obligations a condition of granting broadcasters full cable carriage rights for the digital multicast channels and a factor in license renewals.

“It's time for the FCC to get the message,” said Commissioner Michael Copps. “People want more locally-originated programs, better campaign and public affairs coverage, and more independently-created programming instead of the nationalized, one-size-fits-all diet that big media foists upon us.”

Lautenberg did not elaborate on how the guidelines could be considered voluntary if compliance becomes an issue during renewals.

Pro-broadcaster lawmaker Conrad Burns, however, pointed out the inconsistency.
“Guidelines will become mandates pretty quickly,” he said.

However, Democrat Byron Dorgan captured the mood of most committee members, who had just voted to give stations a big break on their deadline for completing the DTV transition and feel the industry should give something back.

“Public interest obligations go back to the 1930s, what Sen. Lautenberg is requiring is minimal.” Another provision of the DTV bill would require the FCC to wrap up its own review of the need for public interest obligations by Jan. 1.

The bill also orders the FCC to decide digital broadcasters cable and satellite carriage rights by Jan. 1.