Rep. Rush Pushes FCC to OK BTNC Waiver

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and three other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have written the FCC asking that the agency help the Black Television News Channel (BTNC) get off the ground and onto Dish and DirecTV.

Saying it was overwhelming in the public interest, BTNC, which has been trying to launch on cable and satellite for most of a decade without success, in May asked the FCC for a temporary, three-year waiver of the commission's requirement that programmers using DBS "noncommercial educational" channel set-asides be commercial-free. BTNC promises to have limited commercials-in their words, about half the normal load.

In the letter, Rush, who is a member of House Energy & Commerce's Communications Subcommittee and assistant Democratic whip, along with his fellow caucus members, urged the FCC to approve the waiver request.

"Drastic reductions in African American ownership of broadcasting stations and other media outlets have led to a dilution of coverage on topics...that are relevant and of importance to the underserved African American news markets and communities," they wrote. BTNC "will be uniquely able to render richer, more complex and authentic perspectives on African American values, priorities, preferences and culture," they said. The said it will also cover topics important to the African American community that are "consistently absent or underreported by the mainstream media."

BTNC says that given the decline in African-American-owned broadcast media— currently, there are only a handful of stations— it is in the public's interest to help BTNC "correct the imbalance."

The channel, which will be operated in conjunction with the journalism school of historically black Florida A&M University, promises to operate as a noncommercial entity for the duration of the "market entry period," putting the ad dollars back into the "informational needs of the community."

BTNC spelled out the conditions it would agree to accept in exchange for getting the leg up on carriage and in an effort to "concretely and meaningfully address the lack of diverse news, informational and educational programming identified by the Commission." Those include: producing 14 hours per day of news and information, operating as a nonprofit for those three years, creating 80 new jobs and at least 40 internships, providing journalism training—essentially a given since it is teaming with a journalism school—and promoting on-air training.

The legislators said that, given those commitments, the FCC should waive its rules in light of the commitments, which it assured the FCC serves the "public interest, convenience and necessity,"  the core, communications values that the FCC is mandated to uphold.

Also signing on to the letter were Reps. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.).

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.