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

Gore panel watches revived tug-of-war on FCC regulations

Originally published in Current, Dec. 15, 1997

Testimony before the so-called Gore Commission generally avoided common ground Dec. 5, as commercial TV execs argued against new regulations for DTV, while public-interest folks pushed for new rules and the return of old ones.

Members of President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters listened politely to disagreeing panels of public-interest advocates and broadcasters. For its second meeting, it was still "information-gathering."

CPB President Bob Coonrod, one of six speakers, reminded the panel that pubcasters "do the things you want done." But otherwise the only talk about public TV responded to questions from CPB Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, a member of the committee. Cruz asked for comments on spectrum fees to support pubcasting--an idea floated over the past year by House telecom Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

Paul Taylor, key advocate of required free air time for political candidates, called the idea "a promising piece of a solution." But Taylor also wants rules putting freetime speeches in front of the bigger audiences that tune to the major TV nets. That's "the place to find the 'information-poor'," he said.

Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, vehemently opposed a spectrum fee for DTV, comparing it to "buying your way out of the draft."

Also opposed was NBC President Robert Wright, who said commercial TV is already fulfilling many public-interest objectives--with its news coverage, for instance.

Wright also objected to any increase in FCC obligations for his industry. If stations end up airing single-channel HDTV, which he sees as inevitable, they will have extra transition and simulcasting costs with no matching increase in revenues. Multicasting on DTV is another matter, Wright said, and one he opposes. But as long as DTV remains a single-channel service, "there is no occasion to create additional obligations" for broadcasters, he said.

Wright said the government should be looking to cable companies as well as broadcasters. If it's looking for "a bank to rob" to support public-interest services, cable is large, growing and government-licensed, he said.

Schwartzman disputed the view that DTV is a downer for TV firms. Stations are selling at stunning prices despite well-known conversion costs ahead, he said. "People are investing because digital is going to be a great business."

Mark Lloyd, director of the Civil Rights Telecommunications Forum, testified from his own experience as a broadcaster that the FCC's old ascertainment rules were valuable for pushing broadcasters to know their communities, and should be reinstated in a less cumbersome form. (Wright said ascertainment isn't needed any more because commercial broadcasters "have to be running around like mad" learning about audience needs just to do well in business.)

The committee reconvenes Jan. 16 for speakers on digital technology and on education and pubcasting. Topics are not set yet for later meetings--March 2, April 14 and June 8. The White House directed the committee to complete its report by then, but committee leaders plan to ask the White House for a deadline extension.

Jose Luis Ruiz, executive director of the CPB-funded National Latino Communications Center, attended the meeting as its latest member.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Advisory committee appointed, October 1997.

Later news: Advisory committee members discuss swaps that would support public TV or other third-party programs, January 1998.

Outside link: Advisory committee's web site.


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