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Powell muses: Maybe pubcasting can help!

Originally published in Current, Sept. 22, 2003
By Norris Dickard

A funny thing happened on the way to the FCC’s loosening of federal media ownership rules: Chairman Michael Powell had an epiphany about the increasingly important role of public, noncommercial media. The transcript of the FCC’s one official media ownership forum, held in February, records the moment.

Michael PowellAs one might expect, the hearing included a spirited conversation on television content and the role of government in regulating it. Echoing former FCC Commissioner Newt Minow’s lament about TV being “a vast wasteland,” the Parents Television Council’s Brent Bozell argued that the 200-channel universe was no improvement. He told the FCC commissioners that few of the council’s 1 million members cared about diversity or competition or localism, values the FCC is supposed to promote. TV content, however, did cause their blood to boil. “They are disgusted, revolted, fed up, horrified, I don’t know how else to underscore this, by the raw sewage of the ultra-violence, the graphic sex, the raunchy language that is flooding into their living rooms day and night,” said Bozell.

Powell gave Bozell little hope that the FCC would ride to the rescue, asserting that consumers get the TV they choose and it’s difficult for the government to select another definition of the public interest to favor.

But after a lunch break, Powell mused: “Now, a lot of what I hear today, which is very informative to me, suggests that one of the problems isn’t so much big [size of media companies], isn’t so much corporate, but that it’s commercial. But anything by definition that’s commercial is profit-seeking . . . Maybe a greater commitment to public broadcasting or forms of public broadcasting is one of these things this country, the government ought to put more stock in.”

What was so ironic about this eureka moment was that the Bush administration’s fiscal year 2004 budget a few weeks earlier called for crippling cuts to public broadcasting. The Association of Public Television Stations warned that the threatened cuts “would, if enacted, seriously compromise our ability to deliver the services we are required by law to provide to the American people.”

I’m not sure what prompted Powell’s insight. Maybe he’s a closet pubcasting booster after all. Maybe he had listened to others who have argued for “a purification program”: freeing commercial media to be, well, more commercial, and pubcasting less so. Perhaps he’d pondered one of the quid pro quo proposals put forth over the years: deregulate commercial media but extract from them a significant dividend for the improvement and support of public broadcasting.

Perhaps he noticed that public broadcasting gave far better coverage to a major consumer and public-interest issue—his own deregulation proposal and the public reaction it generated. When many of the major media players, with a stake in a FCC deregulatory decision, were not covering the issue, PBS and NPR picked up the slack. Living up to the motto “If PBS Doesn’t Do It, Who Will?,” many local PBS stations aired Now with Bill Moyers, which provided the most detailed coverage of the media ownership debate available.

In Arizona, where the Benton Foundation worked with numerous local partners to organize a regional media ownership forum to educate the public about the issue, local NPR affiliate KJZZ ran interviews with local scholars and the state attorney general on the topic. Horizons, an award-winning public affairs program on Phoenix public TV station KAET, covered the forum and interviewed FCC Commis-sioner Michael Copps, who spoke at the event. Otherwise, there was a near-blackout on commercial stations.

In much the same way, most commercial radio stations no longer attempt to provide substantive local news. Carl Matthusen, a panelist at the forum who is manager of public radio station KJZZ and a former NPR Board chairman, observed that his station clearly benefited from its focus on local news and the dearth of it at the area’s commercial stations, increasingly owned by outside companies.

Indeed, as the FCC’s media-ownership debate raged, proponents of public broadcasting have begun trumpeting what had been a secret to most TV viewers: In many communities, pubcasters are the last locally owned and controlled media. James N. Morgese, president of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, went public in a newspaper op-ed titled, “Public TV, the last true local broadcaster.”

Though public TV exists to fulfill its public-service responsibilities, it should not be expected to shoulder them alone, said two prominent speakers at the PBS Annual Meeting in June, PBS President Pat Mitchell and media historian Robert McChesney.

At a PBS Board meeting, Mitchell responded to colleagues who assumed the media ownership rules debate was their issue—that “we had, as it were, no dog in the fight.”

“Not true,” she replied. “We had the biggest dog of all in the fight—the public.” She also warned that, since pubcasters are not covered by FCC rules requiring their digital channels to be carried on cable or satellite networks, they must be very concerned about the emergence of powerful gatekeepers.

McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, delivered the keynote address at the PBS meeting in Miami. Since pubcasting is part of a broader media ecosystem whose members’ health is interrelated, McChesney argued, “We cannot exist as a public service island in a sea of conglomeration and commercialism.”

Mitchell testified to similar effect later that month before a committee of the British House of Lords: “From the evidence piling up daily that the proliferation of media choices has not necessary led to greater service or even desirable options, I have come to believe, more strongly than ever, that all media must be held accountable to the public. . . . Without accountability measures or some thoughtful regulatory policy, we are letting commercial users of public spectrum off the hook, so to speak, about public service, and to do so is to ignore the fact that they, too, hold a public trust, a trust used in their case to build assets and make profits.”

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee this summer held hearings in which damning evidence was presented that commercial broadcasters have not lived up to the obligations of their public-interest contract and have, in fact, been taking a free ride on the public airwaves.

We at the Benton Foundation have recently heard from numerous public interest advocates about two crucial needs: to ensure that commercial media live up to their public-interest and local-service obligations and at the same time to increase support for a vibrant, noncommercial, independent public media sector. Fortunately, a federal circuit court has stayed FCC implementation of the new media ownership rules, pending judicial review, and the Senate last week voted to do the same.
So what does this all mean for public broadcasting?

First, pubcasters must redouble their efforts to serve their local communities, especially by exploring possibilities afforded by new technologies. On July 21, just weeks before the FCC’s new media ownership rules were to take effect, Chairman Powell had another awakening. He announced that he had heard—a little too late, critics would add—the public’s concerns about the possible impact of the new rules on “localism” and diversity. Though he confirmed his previous preference for looser media ownership rules, he suggested that there are other regulatory instruments the FCC could use to promote localism and diversity. He announced that a task force would investigate the matter and offer suggestions.

In this regard, pubcasting must be at the table and help to expand public media choices. Some stations already are doing so by moving educational content to the Internet. They may also support projects in low-power television, low-power FM, cable access channels and community access to media creation technology. The FCC localism taskforce is likely to back many of these efforts.

Second, advocates must also seize this unique opportunity of heightened public awareness over the dangers of media concentration to re-explain pubcasting’s “value proposition” and discuss the challenges it faces. Now is the perfect moment to highlight for a more general audience the system’s financial squeeze, declining government aid and the increasing pressures for full-blown advertising on public channels. Where is the persuasive case that pubcasting is still vital even in a 200-channel TV and radio universe, delivered via satellite and/or cable? It needs to be made.

Third, now is the time to develop improved revenue models and make stronger linkages to local news, information, arts and culture. The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT), proposed by Lawrence Grossman and Newton Minow, continues to advance as a policy idea. The idea behind DO IT is that libraries, museums, universities, cultural centers, pubcasting stations and others must make innovative use of information technologies to continue to serve their essential public purposes. DO IT would make that happen, endowed by some of the billions received from FCC spectrum auctions.

Federal funding, to the tune of $750,000, has been provided to the Federation of American Scientists to create a proposed structure for DO IT and to develop a research and development road map of steps necessary to implement the idea. This is a significant vote of confidence from Congress, given the current federal fiscal situation. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced H.R. 1396, which, among other provisions creates a trust fund similar to DO IT’s.

Now that Powell has had his eureka moment, advocates for public broadcasting would be remiss if they don’t seize the opportunity to establish his common-sense insight as a widely accepted justification for renewed support for independent, noncommercial media.

Norris E. Dickard is director of public policy at the Benton Foundation, a Washington-based organization that promotes communications in the public interest. He held policy positions in the Clinton administration and was an administrator at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


Posted Sept. 24, 2003
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