Quid Pro Quo

Broadcasters could soon be forced to air specific amounts of local programming and political coverage.

House Commerce Committee members are debating whether digital-TV legislation to be introduced within two weeks should impose defined “public-interest” obligations on TV stations in the DTV era. The National Association of Broadcasters, the industry’s largest trade group, has repeatedly opposed Capitol Hill and FCC proposals to dictate part of stations’ programming lineup for a decade. But B&C has learned that a handful of station groups are pushing to include a small set of public-interest obligations.

The maverick broadcasters are pushing the idea because they believe broadcasters can trade a narrow slate of obligations for winning TV broadcasters’ top priority in Washington: expanded cable-carriage rights for their digital programming.

These broadcasters fear that the legislation, being drafted by House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), will contain only bad news for their industry. The primary purpose of the bill is to set a firm deadline for cutting off traditional analog broadcasts years earlier than current law requires, perhaps as soon as Dec. 31, 2006.

Free Carriage For One Digital Signal

Two months ago, the FCC rejected broadcasters’ request for digital must-carry rights that would have entitled them to demand that their local cable operators be required to offer the five or six programming streams that going digital allows them to provide.

Under FCC rules, digital stations are entitled to free carriage of only one “primary” digital signal. Broadcasters lost a good chance at new carriage rights at that time because they opposed FCC Democrats’ offer to support digital must-carry in return for public-interest obligations. NAB asked the FCC to reconsider that decision last week.

A Commerce Committee staffer confirmed that the negotiations over public-interest obligations are under way but wouldn’t identify the station groups. He also said Barton won’t decide whether to include the provision in the formal bill until Barton polls his committee members and learns whether passage of the overall DTV bill is contingent on inclusion of public-interest/cable-carriage provisions. Barton himself opposes must-carry rules and prefers to exclude the provisions.

NAB Reserves Judgment

At the NAB convention in Las Vegas last week, Barton never mentioned the possibility of public-interest provisions but did acknowledge that must-carry obligations are on the table. Referring to expanded cable-carriage rights, Barton told reporters, “It could be in there; it could not be in there.”

The big broadcast networks have told lawmakers they won’t lobby against a public-interest provision if it is narrowly tailored. NAB is not involved in the negotiations and has indicated that it will reserve judgment until the formal bill is announced.

Activist groups such as Media Access Project (MAP) and Common Cause are pushing for public-interest obligations as well, but broadcasters involved in the talks hope to exclude them from the deal-making. Industry lobbyists fear that the activists will demand measures beyond what stations will accept. For instance, activists have pushed for quotas for independently produced programming, which broadcasters oppose, refusing to give outside parties any programming say over their operations.

MAP President Andrew Schwartzman says the NAB has been foolish to oppose public-interest obligations at a time when new wireless video services are coming online and threatening their business. Unless stations provide programming that the government has clearly defined as a public service, the government may one day decide that there’s no reason stations should continue to enjoy preferential interference protections or their domain over the country’s most valuable slice of communications frequencies.

“I think the NAB has made a serious tactical error,” Schwartzman says. “It has hurt broadcasters’ position in Washington and their bottom line.”