First meeting, Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters

Gore panel will try writing rules for DTV's 'wild west'

Originally published in Current, Nov. 3, 1997

By Steve Behrens

The White House has named 21 members of the so-called Gore Commission that will recommend a quid pro quo for the government's gift of digital TV channels to the nation's broadcasters. [A 22nd member, Jose Luis Ruiz, was named before the second meeting.]

The Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters met for the first time Oct. 22-23 and will meet again Dec. 5. Its report is due to the White House next June 1, but members plan to seek an extension of the period.

Seven of the group are commercial TV execs and at least seven have close ties or affinities with public broadcasting.

The panel includes such public-interest advocates as Newton Minow, Peggy Charren, Charles Benton and Gigi Sohn, as well as CPB Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, Independent Television Service chief James Yee and Frank Blythe of Native American Public Telecommunications.

Minow turned up on the panel, despite a barrage months ago from the National Association of Broadcasters, which objected to the rumored appointment of a man who already had written that the government should get commercial broadcasters to provide support for educational children's programs and for public TV.

The NAB fired another salvo last month, after the committee was named. NAB President Eddie Fritts said in a release: "We will be vigilant in our resistance to government mandates that threaten the ability of local stations to determine how best to serve their communities."

Fritts went on to assert: "Any objective examination of our industry will reveal that local stations when left alone serve their communities with unparalleled spirit and generosity."

Norman Ornstein, the think-tank pundit named as co-chairman, rejected predictions that the panel would be stalemated and said it has the opportunity to reach a "broad consensus."

Ornstein wants to make the recommendations a "win-win" situation for both the public and the broadcasters, he told reporters later. The panel's recommendations are "literally the last shot" for the government to impose obligations. "It's very, very, very important," he said.

For kids and campaigners

Vice President Gore, whose special interest in the "Gore Commission" has informally attached his name to it, expressed Ornstein's concern in remarks at the panel's first meeting [text].

"None of us can predict exactly what this new technology will bring ... ," Gore said. "But the fact that it is so limitless--the fact that so many of our present rules and expectations will not apply--makes digital the wild west of the television age. If we don't map out some of that terrain for public purposes ... we could lose the opportunity for good."

Unlike many nations, the U.S. long ago chose a broadcasting system "that is privately run but publicly regulated--one that grants tremendous freedom to the market, but bestows obligations that are just as great," Gore noted.

He put the Administration's weight behind two particular kinds of obligations:

Moving children's programming rules from the present TV system to DTV--the V-Chip requirements and the program rating system, as well as the requirements for children's educational programming.

"I will never forget," Gore said, "the hours I spent with my own children watching Sesame Street or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood--or more recently, documentaries on baseball and the Civil War, and new educational shows such as Science Court. We want to create more of those experiences, not fewer, in the digital age."

Providing free TV time for candidates to campaign for public office. He and Clinton want "to create a meaningful public forum that does not require an endless steeplechase to raise and spend campaign contributions," Gore said.

He asked, in addition, "What should a broadcaster's obligations be in areas such as public service announcements, close (sic) captioning and video description?"

For the digital medium, which will be sliced and diced into multiple, continuously changing streams of service, Gore said the committee may end up "specifying a portion of the megabits of information" to serve the public interest.

Horse out of the barn

Though the committee has backing from Gore and President Clinton, the undertaking begins from a tactically weak position: the former membership of the FCC could not agree on any new obligations it would impose on the TV industry so it went ahead with allocation of the DTV channels in April, maintaining the present obligations and reserving the right to impose new conditions later. In the meantime, the FCC is pushing big-city stations to put DTV on the air just one year from now.

If the committee proposes costly obligations, it inevitably will be accused of "changing the rules of the game after the game has begun"--a foul in a nation where sports provide so many of our political metaphors.

Another problem was mentioned in discussion between the panel and Richard Wiley, former chair of the FCC's DTV advisory committee. Deciding on new obligations will be complicated because the rules won't apply to some DTV providers--those that operate online or cable services instead of over-the-air channels. Wiley predicted the government someday will have to consider "parity" between broadcasters and wired media firms.

The committee also may fail to get much attention from the press or the public. Brad Thompson, a young communications professor at Pennsylvania State University, told the panel that its creation is "partly an attempt to push [public-interest issues] deeper into a dark corner." Indeed, Thompson was the only member of the public who came to speak during the public comment period.

There has been so little press coverage of DTV spectrum issues that when one Knight-Ridder reporter did an article that included the FCC's address, it generated 138 comments--half of the public comments spanning three entire FCC proceedings about DTV, Thompson said.

Ornstein--a close observer of the press--predicted later that the committee will get press coverage only if reporters pick up on "great conflict and nuclear warfare" within the panel.

Panel member Frank Cruz, vice chairman of the CPB Board, predicted that the committee will need to develop new kinds of requirements, because simple ones, like a certain number of hours of kidvid, won't fit a medium in which a single channel can be divided into numerous video and data streams of different sizes, possibly including paging and other nonbroadcast services. And nobody will know how that will shake out until it does, Cruz said.

Frank Blythe told Current that it will be important for the panel to figure out what the DTV channels will be worth to station owners. But Ornstein told reporters that it would be a "lost cause" to try to estimate the value, which was once estimated at somewhere between $11 billion and $70 billion.

Charles Benton, a Chicago philanthropist and video distributor, said the commercial broadcasters on the panel appear to be open-minded about its task, but it was questionable "whether they can bring along the hardliners at the NAB."

Benton suggested to the committee that it push for subsidized "model building" by public broadcasters, to develop demonstration projects to show broadcasters that public-service can mean opportunities rather than obligations. He said later that the government investment in the projects could amount to $50 million or $100 million.

He wants to "get out of the box in our thinking" and avoid the timeworn showdowns between commercial broadcasters and "the public interest."

Two additional members for the committee had been considered by the White House but the appointment process was not complete last month: Antoinette (Toni) Cook Bush, former senior counsel to the Senate communications subcommittee and now a partner in the law firm of Skadden Arps, and Jose Luis Ruiz, executive director of the CPB-backed National Latino Communications Center, Los Angeles.

Members of the public can contact the committee through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 14th Street and Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20230. Phone recordings: (202) 501-6195.

White House appointees to public-interest panel

These are the 22 appointees to the so-called "Gore Commission."

Commercial broadcasters

Leslie Moonves (co-chairman of committee): president of CBS Entertainment; former president of Warner Bros. Television and Lorimar Television.

Harold C. Crump: v.p. of corporate affairs, Hubbard Broadcasting, St. Paul.

Robert Decherd: chairman and president, A.H. Belo Co., owner of 16 TV network-affiliates and six newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News.

Barry Diller: head of USA Networks Inc., a new combo of many of Universal's TV operations plus Diller's Silver King stations and Home Shopping Network, part-owned by Segram and TCI.

William Duhamel: a cable pioneer and president of family-held Duhamel Broadcasting Enterprises, Rapid City, S.D.

James F. Goodmon: president of family-owned Capitol Broadcasting Co., which put the first DTV station on air at WRAL in Raleigh, N.C.

Paul La Camera: g.m. of WCVB-TV, the ABC affiliate in Boston.


Norman J. Ornstein (co-chairman of committee): pundit for CBS News, USA Today and other media; resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Charles Benton: chairman of Benton Foundation, active in comm policy; chairman of Public Media Inc., educational video distributor.

Frank Blythe: executive director, Native American Public Telecommunications, one of the original CPB-funded minority consortia in pubcasting; former commercial broadcaster.

Peggy Charren: longtime advocate for educational children's TV; founder of Action for Children's Television.

Frank Cruz: vice chairman, CPB Board; co-founder of Telemundo, Spanish-language network; former broadcast journalist, professor.

Rob Glaser: founder and c.e.o. of RealNetworks (formerly Progressive Networks), which developed RealAudio technology for audio on the Internet.

Richard Masur: actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Newton Minow: attorney; former chairman of the FCC and of PBS.

Jose Luis Ruiz: executive director, CPB-funded National Latino Communications Center, Los Angeles.

Shelby Scott: Boston TV journalist and president of AFTRA.

Gigi Sohn: executive director of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm

Karen Peltz Strauss: legal counsel for the National Association of the Deaf.

Cass R. Sunstein: First Amendment expert at University of Chicago law school.

Lois Jean White: flute instructor; president-elect of the national PTA; past-president of Tennessee PTA.

James Yee: executive director of the CPB-funded Independent Television Service.


To Current's home page

Gore's "wild west" speech to the committee.

Pro-regulation, anti-regulation tug-of-war at advisory committee's second meeting, December 1997.

Outside link: The advisory committee's web page.


Web page created Nov. 1, 1997
Revised Feb. 22, 1998
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1997