Copps: DTV Not Done

He may have only served as acting FCC chairman for five months, but Michael Copps had a full plate to deal with. Among other things, he presided over the DTV transition and launched the commission's—and the country's—national broadband plan.

In the wake of Julius Genachowski's confirmation to head the FCC, Copps talks with B&C about some highlights of his tenure. These include a notice of inquiry into the state of broadcast journalism currently circulating among the commissioners, and how the still-unfinished transition served as a model of eleventh-hour cooperation among industry and government.

Copps also covers the need to launch a blue-ribbon panel to mull content regulation on mobile and other new broadcast outlets. And he attempts once again to put to rest talk of a revived Fairness Doctrine, drawing a distinction in no uncertain terms between that and his support of localism and diversity initiatives.

How would you sum up the DTV transition as a whole?

A huge transition with significant impact on consumers that was not until the last moment adequately planned for or coordinated. [It was] a transition that led to problems that were largely predictable and one that we moved measurably forward from January to June to the benefit of many, many consumers. But it's not a closed book. It is ongoing. There are still problems out there, lessons to be learned and a document to write.

A spectrum inventory bill is being marked up this week. Do you ever see a time when broadcasters are asked either to give back their spectrum or pay a user fee?

I think the first thing to do is to get that inventory—I think that is highly important—and find out what spectrum in the United States is actually being utilized. I don't have a very good idea of that, and I don't know that anybody does.

So, I think it is very difficult to envision what the future is going to be. I have said that over the course of time, a lot of broadcasters will migrate to the Internet. It might be a very different world. I don't think that is just around the corner, but if you take the long view of things, that will present all sorts of new challenges.

Is one of those how you regulate TV content as it moves to mobile and the Web?

It is a huge [issue], and we need to start a serious national dialog on it. I know some of the questions; I don't know a lot of the answers. There has to be in any society a keen interest in making sure the media serve the public interest. We have regulation that gives us different regulatory authority over different kinds of communications—radio and TV or cable and satellite—so you have different policies that pertain. I guess somewhere down the line you have to look there legislatively, but before we do that we really need to tee up the issue.

I have worried a lot about what the nature of our civic dialogue is and is it being adequately served. Now, if we are going to look further ahead on broadcasting from the world it is in to a different world that basically has been unregulated, and we prize that openness and dynamism of the Internet, at the end of the day you still have the interest of the people and the need for a civic dialogue to gird your system of government. I would like to see a blue-ribbon commission, or some kind of forum or dialogue.

Is the report on content-control technologies due to Congress next month a way to tee that up?

No, I am talking about something that is going to take some time. We have been working on a Notice of Inquiry on the future of broadcast journalism. Maybe that would be one venue for it.

Do you expect the August report will be more of a status report?

Yes, I think so. With a changing commission right now and the new commissioners coming in and all, I think we have to get our bearings on something like this and get the dialogue going.

Talk a little more about the Notice of Inquiry. Will that include looking at the tanking economic fortunes of broadcasting in general?

I think the purpose of [the Notice of Inquiry] is just to start off saying: “What is the reality, or what is the marketplace, of news right now?” The folks who produce the news, and the world that you are in, have changed so dramatically. There are so much fewer of you.

The way people receive the news has also changed so dramatically. It is not just through the radio or TV or newspaper. The Internet is starting to come into its own. There has been reallocation of resources in many of these companies. And we really need to understand what the reality of the situation is.

Is there a way for you to separate the Fairness Doctrine from localism proposals that will assuage your critics?

It is sure as hell separated in my mind. I think everyone is on record, from the president to the new chairman here, to the leaders in Congress that we are not about to have the Fairness Doctrine reinstituted.

But that doesn't mean you are suddenly running away from the underpinnings of the public-interest standards of the Communications Act, which are localism, competition and diversity.

I think there has to be more forthright dialogue than there has been on that, rather than just cede the field to those who are saying, “Fairness Doctrine means localism means public interest, and it's all bad.”

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For much more from Commissioner Copps on the Fairness Doctrine, as well as attempts to help broadcasters, boosting broadband and what surprised him about being chairman, go to

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.