Skip to main content

FCC gets digital earful

Broadcasters are still trying to figure out how to use their digital spectrum's vast potential, and interest groups seeking greater civic duties for TV stations in the computer age have plenty of suggestions.

After a half decade of congressional debates and inconclusive haggling within a government-appointed advisory panel, the industry and public advocates last week finally made their cases to the regulators who actually will decide what new public interest obligations, if any, will be imposed on digital TV stations.

Public advocacy groups proffered a litany of requirements for the FCC's consideration, including free airtime for political candidates, improved closed captioning and other services for the disabled, and specific local programming quotas. Broadcasters oppose any expansion of their public-service obligations.

"Although these proposals are advanced in the name of the public interest," in many cases they are little more than recycled versions of the regulatory policies of another era," wrote CBS.

"Nothing inherent in digital technology requires a different or more expansive public-interest analysis than currently applied to analog television," said the National Association of Broadcasters.

Supporters of new obligations say the potential for multiple channels and lucrative new business gives stations more flexibility and a duty to beef up their public-service offerings.

"Broadcasters'abysmal performance providing coverage of issues of local concern exemplifies the need for a rulemaking to clearly define their obligations," said the Benton Foundation. Benton noted that a five-year-old study of newscasts in 19 cities showed that local newscasts are increasingly relying on breaking news, planned events and out-of-town feeds rather than conducting investigations and special series. The groups urged the FCC to require digital broadcasters to choose between clear requirements for noncommercial public affairs and children's programming, or to be absolved of public interest obligations by paying into a fund that would support independent noncommercial programming.

Media Access Project (MAP) also said the FCC should set minimum standards for currently existing obligations that will be transferred to digital stations and called for stations to face expanded requirements for video-description services and stronger equal employment opportunity obligations.

To protect children from online TV shopping services, the Center for Media Education asked the FCC to prohibit links to advertising or sales on Web sites during children's programming and to prevent broadcasters from collecting information from children.

The State Broadcasters Associations noted that stations would be discouraged from developing new products if ancillary channels were saddled with their own obligations, as MAP wants. CBS added that any justification for imposing duties on pay-per-view and subscription products is negated by the 5% fee on revenue established by the FCC under congressional order.