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Much Ado About Waivers

OK, everybody take a deep breath. The FCC has not declared Howard Stern the heir abhorrent to Edward R. Murrow. You would have thought so, though, given the outrage that followed the commission's decision last week, really more like an announcement, that a candidate interview on the shock jock's show could qualify for a waiver of the equal-time clause. What that means is that, if Stern interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger on his show, he is not obliged to carry a stopwatch and offer the same time to the hundred-plus other California gubernatorial candidates, so long as the interview meets certain criteria already spelled out in the rules.

So, basically what the FCC was saying was that, if the Stern segments qualified for the waiver, they would get it. To qualify, the appearance has to be regularly scheduled (you could not, for instance, insert an interview into the middle of Will & Grace), be under the broadcaster's control and not be an obvious plug for a candidate. If it failed any of those, it would not qualify whether it was Stern's show or Stephanopoulos's.

This is not some shocking new policy. The FCC has been broadening the definition of a qualified news program over the past 20 years from the narrow Meet the Press model of serious talking-head shows to nontraditional forms like Politically Incorrect or news within non-news shows, like Donahue and even Springer. Last week's expressions of alarm were primarily from alarmists ready to create their own smoke and then shout fire!

The FCC also said that it was putting other programs on notice that they did not have to seek prior approval, so long as the interviews met those criteria. Just as well. The FCC has enough paper to deal with as it is. Besides, it is not in the business of pre-approving content, nor, said one high-level staffer last week, does it wish to be.

Setting Aside Set-Tops

The broadcast, cable and consumer-electronics industries may disagree on a lot of things about the DTV transition: dual must-carry, cable's channel capacity, tuner mandates and, of course, whether the programming, the carriage, the signal or the sets is the missing link between the analog and digital worlds, to name only a few. But one thing they could all agree on last week: The FCC's plug-and-play decision is "huge."

That decision means that 70 million cable subscribers will be able to buy DTV sets knowing the things will work with cable or over-the-air digital signals and without having to add the cost or, for some, inconvenience of a set-top box. To date, a lot of DTV-set sales have been tuner-less DTV monitors for DVD players.

But the work is not yet done. The FCC and industry need to hammer out a similar deal to make two-way TV—VOD, gaming—set-top–free as well in order to attract next-generation viewers. In addition, the FCC needs to make a decision about the broadcast flag, which broadcasters say is key to protecting their signals from unauthorized transmission over the Internet. Plug-and-play may be done, with the FCC getting appropriate kudos from all sides last week, but there is still much plugging away to do on those and other key issues.