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DTV Advisory Committee Meets

The FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee on DTV public interest obligations meets Friday to consider a set of recommendations for the FCC's Congresssionally-mandated quadriennial review of its media ownership rules (it used to be biennial, but that proved too short a window given the speed at which the regulatory wheels turn).

Given that the FCC is supposed to be starting up its court-ordered remand of the same rules soon--it has been almost two years since the court ordered it--the reviews are likely to be combined.

According to a copy of the proposal supplied to B&C, the committee will consider recommending a laundry list of questions that need to be answered.

The advisory panel recommended in November that the FCC explicitly define broadcasters' public-interest obligations in the digital age. Among the key committee members pushing for quantifiable DTV public interest obligations is the Benton Foundation's Charles Benton.

Benton also wrote FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in February last month asking him the explicit definiation and saying the setting of the DTV hard date--Feb. 17, 2009--should be a spur to that effort.

The Benton Foundation advocates for obligations for broadcasters and media-ownership rules that "promote a diversity of media voices and greater civic discourse."

Below are recommendations being considered, taken from a draft.

Procedural Recommendations:

The Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) believes that it would be in the best interest of consumers for the Commission to adopt a process in the 2006 media ownership review that will provide a full record on the potential impact of media ownership concentration and actively engage consumers in the proceeding. CAC believes it is necessary to have a transparent process that ensures consumers understand the full implications of Commission decisions.  Such an open forum is especially critical for public input on issues of this magnitude, especially where the main purveyors of information have historically provided little coverage of this issue. To these ends, the CAC recommends that the Commission:

• begin a comprehensive proceeding to adopt rules that will promote the core values of localism, competition, and diversity, and that will expand the multiplicity of voices and choices that support our marketplace of ideas and that sustain American democracy and creativity,

• schedule a series of hearings across the country to engage the American people on the future of their media and to gain a better understanding of the impact of media concentration on our communities,• gather a far more complete record, including independent research studies on media concentration in a variety of markets, so that we can make a decision that has a more solid foundation than the last failed effort,• in releasing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, provide a full notice and comment period on the specific proposals, as warranted, so that the public knows what new rules the Commission is considering. 

Additionally, CAC believes that it would be in the best interest of consumers for the Commission to answer critical questions before deciding to change media ownership rules.

Key Procedural Questions Not Yet Answered:

• How Will Consumer Interests Be Considered in the Broadcast License Renewal Process?  As more national conglomerates purchase local stations, consumers need a process to ensure that licensees are serving their local communities.  As one part of this effort, will the Commission establish an effective license renewal process that considers how a station has served the public interest when it comes time to renew its license?

• Should Certain Consumers Count Only Half as Much?   On February 19, 2004, the Commission sought comment on one part of the 2003 media ownership decision, the so-called “UHF Discount.”  Under the UHF Discount policy, a UHF station is considered to reach only 50 percent of the households that a VHF station reaches, notwithstanding that the majority of consumers receive identical UHF and VHF signals over cable and satellite facilities. Is there still good reason to count a UHF station as only half a VHF station in terms of audience reach? • What Are the Impacts of Ownership on Minority and Female Participation?  What effect could further consolidation have on providing Hispanics, African Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans, Native Americans, women and other minority interests the opportunity to own media outlets? Moreover, what effect does media ownership have on the programs, access, viewpoint diversity, and career opportunities available for these groups as well as the disabled and low-income communities?

• Can Consumers Be Assured that their Community Is Being Served?  The public interest would profit
immeasurably with some meaningful, but user-friendly, interaction between licensees and their communities.  As media conglomerates grow ever bigger and control moves further away from the local community, does it make sense to require, as a condition of renewal or new acquisition, that the owners come to a community and visit with consumers to learn about the problems, needs, and issues facing the local community? Such a suggestion would promote awareness of what members of local communities really want to see and hear in their programming.• Will Ownership Concentration Increase Indecency and so Impact Consumer Choice?  Has consolidation led to an increase in the amount of indecent programming? When programming decisions are made on Wall Street or Madison Avenue, rather than closer to the community, do indecency and excessive violence grow more pervasive?  A recent study finds that from 2000 to 2003, four of the nation's largest radio companies were responsible for 96% of FCC indecency fines, while their stations accounted for only about half of the country's listening audience. Could meaningful station ownership caps, limits on vertical integration of program ownership, and promotion of localism and diversity in our nation’s media curtail broadcast indecency by providing greater consumer choice? • What Does Concentration Mean for Consumer Access to Small Local Broadcasters? What is the potential impact of loosened media ownership rules on small, local broadcasters?  Media analysts predict that the only option for most local broadcasters would have been to sell their stations if the 2003 rules were implemented.  Would increased consolidation risk sweeping them all away?

• Will Consumer Questions on Localism Be Answered in Time by the FCC? From the earliest days of broadcasting, the Commission has obligated licensees to serve the needs and interests of their local communities, as localism is in the public interest and one of the fundamental goals of our ownership rules .  In response to consumer warnings about the detrimental impact consolidation has had, and will continue to have, on localism and diversity, the Commission launched an inquiry in 2004 to examine localism.  What will the commission conclude from its localism proceeding?  How can the FCC proceed on ownership without the localism conclusions available?

• Does Further Concentration Increase the Chances of Payola?  The Commission has launched an investigation into allegations of pay-for-play that might form the basis for an enforcement action under the current rules.  Does increasing media consolidation make this problem worse?• Do Consumers Deserve More Independent Programming?  Is there a need for independent programming requirements to ensure that consumers do not end up with national, vertically integrated conglomerates that control the distribution of channels and of program content?  Network ownership of the full range of prime time programming risks constraining competition, consigning independent production to oblivion or marginal roles, and crippling the production of diverse programming. It can also cause substantial job losses, including for creative artists, technicians and many others.  • Will Consumer Needs Be Served in the DTV Transition?  With passage of the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act, the transition to digital television is advancing.  Congress made it clear that the public interest obligations of broadcasters would continue in the new digital world, yet the Commission has not followed up on its responsibility to update its rules for broadcasters given the right to use spectrum for digital television.  CAC renews its call, made first in November, 2005, for the Commission to complete presently open proceedings on the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters so that 1) the American people will know how digital TV will serve their interests and 2) broadcasters will know and understand the rules of the road.• Should the Transition to Digital Television Effect how the Media Ownership Rules Are Formulated?  The broadcasters’ primary argument for increased local consolidation is to take advantage of economies of scale derived from programming two channels.  Once the transition to digital television is complete, television broadcast stations will be able to broadcast multiple program streams in the spectrum space that was previously necessary, with an analog signal, to broadcast only one program stream.  With the availability of multiple program streams to each broadcaster without reducing the number of individual broadcast speakers in a local market, does it make any sense to relax any broadcast ownership rules based on economies of scale?