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Regulatory rerun

People reading TV industry headlines last week might wonder if they had stepped back in time. In an age when government agencies tout their devotion to loosening government rules, Washington last week was filled with speculation about the resurrection of long-dead vestiges of the high-water mark of broadcast-industry regulation some three-plus decades ago.

Here are some new twists on old ideas.

The FCC is contemplating a new Fairness Doctrine, and Congress is thinking about bringing back the broadcasters' code of conduct, this time for the entire entertainment industry.

Also under consideration by policymakers is a new batch of public-interest and KIDS-TV obligations for digital broadcasters. Civil rights are even an issue as the FCC fights broadcasters over new minority-recruiting rules.

"It's like the '60s all over again," said Richard Wiley, who was FCC chairman during the Nixon years, when the NAB's family hour was overturned by the courts. Wiley now heads one of the industry's top law and lobbying firms.

The prospect on new rules is a scary one for broadcasters, who think the past 20 years of deregulation have finally brought them close to full First Amendment rights. In fact, when then-FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick presided over the axing of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, he declared it an attempt "to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed."

"It's distressing that the change-over to digital is being used as a pretext to extend regulation," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

But longtime industry critics say broadcasters are simply being stingy with their airtime. With the transition to digital transmissions, they argue, broadcasters must compensate the public for getting new spectrum at no charge and for a new technology that allows them to develop multiple channels and revenue streams.

"There are plenty of people out there who are not currently licensees who would love to be doing what the commission has proposed," said Newton Minow, the Kennedy-appointed FCC chairman of the 1960s who saw TV as a "vast wasteland."

"If existing broadcasters don't want to do it, there are a lot of people who would love to take their place," Minow observed.

At the heart of the debate are opposing views of broadcasting's role in a world of digital communications.

Broadcasters argue they are only one of many venues for distributing video and sound to audiences. To saddle them with obligations not faced by cable companies, Internet providers and others would mean sticking with archaic notions of "spectrum scarcity" stemming from the three-network analog world.

Supporters of new obligations say stations going digital will have such greatly expanded capacity that they can't justly argue that asking for a few obligations will impinge on their free speech in any meaningful way.

Most recently, on Sept. 14, the FCC proposed new public-interest obligations for kids programming as well as some limited general mandates.

FCC Chairman William Kennard, who will hold a hearing on the issue in October, said the FTC report on media marketing underscores the need for more scrutiny. TV "can actually have a detrimental effect on our families and our kids," he said.

Commissioner Susan Ness added that the 1996 law mandating children's programming led to the creation of top-rated shows. But without better publicity, many go unheralded. "Parents should be informed about when these shows are aired," she said.

As for stations' general obligations, the FCC so far is going light.

There's no mention of a free-airtime mandate for political candidates, which caused a firestorm in years past. Instead, the FCC simply wants stations to provide standardized reports on how they are fulfilling the public interest.

Stations would not have to quiz community leaders on how best to serve the public interest but might have to spell out how they determined what those interests are. The forms would be filed quarterly and posted in their files on the Web as well as kept at their studios.

But free airtime could raise its head anyway as part of a campaign-finance-reform package being pushed by the Gore campaign.