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Goin' to North Carolina

The FCC was working feverishly last week to put together a panel for its first localism hearing, in Charlotte, N.C., this Wednesday. As late as last Thursday, only the Democratic commissioners, who have been vocal critics of consolidation, had firmed up plans to attend. Republican Kevin Martin already has a date with the Media Institute, but we hope one of the other commissioners can make it, particularly the chairman, who has been pushing the localism inquiry as an alternative to dismantling his rewritten national media-ownership rules. The timing of this and other hearings to coincide with station license renewals in various cities should be a flashing neon warning sign to broadcasters that they need to show up in force, best wing-tip forward, armed with the public-interest success stories they justly celebrate at the annual Service to America summit. A balance of commissioners and a critical mass of broadcasters is the best defense against the hearings' devolving into the kind of broadcaster-bashing that helped fuel the media-rule meltdown.

Public-interest types, who were all over the FCC for not holding more public hearings during the ownership review, were dissing the new hearings as little more than show trials. At the same time, we're certain they will try to use them to sell the idea that stations owned by big corporations are failing their public-interest responsibilities.

That's why we were somewhat alarmed to learn that marquee broadcasters Cox, Belo and Jefferson-Pilot, which all have stations in Charlotte had not, at least as of last Thursday, been asked to be speak nor had they actively sought out a spot at the table. The FCC should ask, and broadcasters should not wait for a gilt-edged invitation.

You Can Get There

The FCC appears to have hit on a winner with its "admonition" approach to prodding DTV slackers. It was an unusually united commission that denied DTV build-out extensions to seven stations last week while giving the benefit of the doubt to 104 others. They all still have six more months to be up and running, but the seven admonished stations face sanctions and already have a black mark on their records that will follow them into the digital world, whenever they get there. That should be sufficient incentive. It worked last time. Of the 71 stations admonished for missing the initial May 1, 2002, deadline, all managed to get on the air, a point not lost on the commissioners. The commission said broadcasters had made "great progress on all facets of the DTV transition," pointing out that 97% of affiliates in the top 30 markets and more than 80% of all commercial TVs are on the air in digital.

Politically motivated complaints about foot-dragging and massive spectrum giveaways notwithstanding, the initial deadlines always seemed ambitious given the scope of the change. Now that the majority of broadcasters are delivering a digital signal, the FCC needs to keep the momentum going by resolving the broadcast flag issue ASAP. Is that light we see at the end of the DTV tunnel?