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

Gore panelists favor extra DTV spectrum for education

Originally published in Current, June 22, 1998

By Steve Behrens

The Gore Commission has come to a consensus that an extra channel should be allocated for educational TV, along with funding to operate it, Co-chairman Norman Ornstein said at the group's sixth meeting, June 8 [1998] in Minneapolis.

The idea "strikes me as being so politically attractive and non-ideological that I don't think we'll have any difficulty finding support if we want to move this forward," said Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, according to a transcript of the discussions.

The White House appointees, formally known as the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, is moving toward writing its report, due this fall.

The idea of allocating a second 6-MHz channel for educational purposes has gathered force within the panel since January, when educators testified about unmet needs of learners of all ages. Public-interest lawyer Gigi Sohn and Dallas media executive Robert Decherd backed the idea in separate proposals in April, and an education subcommittee chaired by Lois Jean White, president of the National PTA, endorsed it this month.

In a memo from CPB, PBS and APTS, pubcasters reacted this month, advising "caution" about allocating additional channels without funds to make and broadcast programs on them.

"Public broadcasters can only encourage this proposal if there is some guarantee of content protection consistent with First Amendment principles and with the assurance of an adequate, secure and permanent source of funding to program and operate a second channel," said the memo.

Ornstein, Decherd and others recommended that the question of funding this second channel be kept separate from the matter of a trust fund to support the present public broadcasting system, which a number of committee members also favor.

White and CPB Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, also a member of the committee, said the proposed trust fund, capitalized with $5 billion or $6 billion, was meant to aid the present system, and additional funds would be needed to operate a second channel.

A trust fund of $5 billion, managed under prevailing foundation practices, would lay out $250 million a year, or the same amount that Congress is now appropriating.

Though the second-channel idea was often stated in terms of "letting public TV keep its analog channel," Ornstein and others back a less automatic approach. Committee members Gigi Sohn, Peggy Charren and James Yee have said the channels should not automatically go to existing stations. Ornstein favors allocating one channel per market and letting the FCC decide which station submits the best plan for managing it.

Sohn, Ornstein and broadcaster William Duhamel backed the idea of opening up federal funding to producers for commercial TV who make public-interest programs that wouldn't otherwise be commercially feasible.

Committee members said they don't want to impose a new "unfunded mandate" on pubcasters--to run the second channel--and discussed a number of possible funding sources. Ornstein suggested that funds to operate the channels come from auction of commercial TV channels returned to the FCC after the digital transition.

The CPB/PBS/APTS memo listed several potential funding sources for the trust fund: auction of public TV's returned analog spectrum, or any spectrum; "play or pay" fees from commercial broadcasters that opt not to do certain public-interest duties; fees paid by commercial broadcasters for subscription and other ancillary uses of DTV spectrum; a fee for sale of commercial stations; proceeds from sale or lease of vacant noncommercial channels; and donations prompted by a new tax credit.

A separate major consensus in the Gore Commission favors the reinstatement of a voluntary code of conduct for commercial broadcasters. Cass Sunstein, a prominent University of Chicago law professor, presented a draft code, based on the defunct National Association of Broadcasters code.


To Current's home page

Earlier news: Two advisory committee members backed the idea of extra spectrum for educational services.

Later news: Committee chosing broad consensus as it approaches December report to Vice President Gore.

Outside link: The advisory committee's web page, including transcripts of meetings and links for RealAudio recordings.


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