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

'Gore Commission' may suggest extra channels for public TV

Originally published in Current, April 20, 1988

By Steve Behrens

With no consensus in sight about substantial new obligations for commercial TV broadcasters, the so-called Gore Commission is high on a tangential idea: recommending that one additional channel per market be allocated afresh to public broadcasting or other noncommercial services.

Robert W. Decherd, c.e.o. of Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corp., a station group, brought up the idea at the January meeting of the White House advisory committee, and came back recently with a formal proposal.

Decherd's idea was seconded in a separate proposal by Gigi B. Sohn, executive director of the Media Access Project, and a vocal member of the committee's public-interest bloc.

It was one of several points where there may be consensus within the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, which held its fifth meeting April 14 in Washington.

The committee, which has been working without much public input or attention since last October, has gotten an extension from the White House, allowing it to complete its homework by October. Its next meeting will be held June 8 in Minneapolis.

With consensus the acknowledged goal, the 22 members are split between seven commercial broadcasters, who largely deny that DTV channels are much of a gift from the public, and public-interest reps who want to extract various concessions, such as freetime for political candidates--the objective that President Clinton plainly stated when he appointed the group.

Decherd and some other commercial execs on the panel opposed a "pay-or-play" tradeoff that would free them from playing specified kinds of public-interest programming in exchange for paying new fees to support public broadcasting or achieve other public-interest goals. They argue for deregulation without giving something in exchange. On the other side, Newton Minow asserted that pay-or-play, on a local option basis, "is a way out of the conundrum."

Trying to negotiate divisive obligations like these is the "wrong direction," said Norman J. Ornstein, the prominent pundit from the American Enterprise Institute, who is co-chairman and a leading force on the panel. But giving an additional public-TV channel to every market looked like a "win-win" option to him.

A return to a voluntary code of good practices like the defunct NAB Code looks like another non-contentious option, said Cass Sunstein, a law professor from the University of Chicago.

Funding for the added channels?

Decherd put the additional-channel proposal in a March 31 letter to Ornstein and co-chairman Leslie Moonves, president of CBS-TV.

The channels would be allocated for education, other public-interest programming, freetime for candidates, public access and programs by independent producers, Decherd said. CPB would manage and monitor usage of the channels, along with the FCC.

"I hope we will consider this idea separate and apart from others," Decherd said. It was not a quid pro quo for dereg of commercial broadcasters, he insisted.

"The technological reality of this idea is that all of the access ever imagined for educators, public-interest groups and political candidates can be accomplished without any displacement of current programming ... ," Decherd asserted.

To help run the channels, he suggested, CPB would receive income from fees the FCC is already planning to levy on commercial broadcasters for subscription and other closed, ancillary uses of DTV channels. CPB also could receive direct appropriations "as merited" to support educational services.

Colleagues on the committee were skeptical that Congress would let go of channels that otherwise would be auctioned off for deficit reduction, but Decherd noted that education is a popular issue and it has a better chance since the federal budget was balanced.

Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, said his greatest fear is that Congress would accept the idea without providing funds to make the educational programming.

"Giving more channels to [pubcasters] is not enough," agreed James Yee, executive director of the CPB-funded Independent Television Service.

Panelists on the public-interest side supported the idea but weren't sure they'd want the extra channels to go to pubcasters. Sunstein indicated that a PBS connection would be a political liability with some congressional leaders.

"I for one am concerned about putting all our political eggs in the public television basket," said Karen Peltz Strauss of the National Association of the Deaf.

Kidvid activist Peggy Charren seconded the concern. She loves pubcasting, but wants to support "an independent platform for civic engagement."

The important thing, said William Duhamel, a broadcaster from Rapid City, S.D., is to set aside the spectrum for education now, before it's gone. It would help in rural states, where there's an educational crisis, he said.

"Champions of the public interest"

Decherd said in his proposal that only two frameworks are acceptable: deregulation and the present regulatory scheme. TV can be deregulated, he said, because "intense and ever-increasing competition" will force broadcasters to provide local programming that serves the public interest, and eliminate the need for "burdensome government regulation."

The alternative to dereg, according to the paper, would be a continuation of the present FCC rules, but that would make broadcasters subject to obligations that don't apply to cable systems and other competitors.

Regulation also isn't needed because commercial broadcasters already are "champions of public-interest programming," Decherd wrote.

That was the point of the new National Association of Broadcasters survey released a week earlier at NAB Convention in Las Vegas. The survey estimated that commercial TV and radio stations annually donate time worth $4.6 billion a year for public service announcements and help charities raise $2 billion a year. Stations and their networks also donate airtime worth $148.4 million for debates, candidate forums and convention coverage.

After NAB's survey expert, Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, presented the results to the advisory committee April 14, the committee members spent the rest of the morning criticizing and defending its methodology.

They also tusseled over a separate study with different conclusions conducted by the Media Access Project and the Benton Foundation. A lower-budget effort that covered just two weeks and five markets, it found that 35 percent of the 40 stations provided no local news, and 25 percent had neither newscasts nor public affairs shows.

The study also found that the stations devoted just one-third of 1 percent of their airtime to local public affairs.

Everyone was pleased that NAB had done its survey, but several members politely pounced on the methodology. Ornstein said NAB had hired a "first-class surveyer," who provided useful information, but he observed that NAB's respondents likely would be the ones who were most generous with airtime, skewing the results. Sunstein called the methodology "terribly unreliable." Others questioned whether the airtime was worth as much as NAB estimated (applying the stations' run-of-station ad rates), when much of it aired in unsold time long after dark.

McIntruff said the survey was "defensible," with a large sample and a 63 percent response rate among TV stations. Duhamel noted that the rate applied to estimate the value of TV airtime was not a high one: $136 an hour.

McInturff and Duhamel, in turn, dismissed the Media Access Project's findings about public-affairs programs--shows that largely have been replaced by more effective segments within newscasts.

As the discussion grew more heated, Moonves charged that Sohn and Benton had gone off and done "a splinter survey on their own." Sohn replied that their project was as legitimate as the NAB survey introduced by broadcasters on the committee.

Sohn's proposal

In her proposal, Sohn laid out actions that, she said, the FCC could adopt without congressional action:

The FCC would also set rules encouraging program access for disabled people and balanced coverage of referenda. Stations would have to keep a more descriptive list of their public-interest programming in their public files, and would be urged to resume formal ascertainment meetings with community leaders.

Sohn also advanced recommendations for congressional action, admitting that enactment would be "highly unlikely":

Fritts offers a non-deal

Though freetime was a major topic at the advisory committee's March 2 meeting in Los Angeles, it got little attention this month.

Ornstein did start the meeting by trying to accept a deal that NAB President Eddie Fritts reportedly had offered during an unguarded moment. Fritts was quoted in the trade press as saying that he would "make a deal tomorrow" to pledge that stations would carry two hours of freetime to federal candidates if the candidates were prohibited by Congress from buying additional time.

"I propose we take that deal today," observed Newton Minow. Selling access to elected positions at the high rate of TV advertising "is a national scandal," he added. The situation requires candidates to focus on big-bucks fundraising and sound-bite TV ads, and incumbents with those advantages can often snub debates with their opponents. "If [candidates] couldn't buy time, wouldn't everyone be debating?" Minow asked.

One of Fritts' vice presidents later was heard explaining to Ornstein that Fritts' remark wasn't really an official NAB offer.



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