Moonves and Ornstein at November meeting

Broad consensus was the strategy for co-chairmen Moonves (left) and Ornstein (showing cover design of forthcoming report).

On the committee's web site

On the Benton Foundation's site

Eighth and final meeting, Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters

Soft Gore report will be price of consensus with commercial TV

Originally published in Current, Nov. 23, 1998

Analysis by Steve Behrens

One of the most concrete proposals that the Gore Commission will submit to the Vice President Dec. 18 [1998]--and perhaps the one that it embraced most readily--will be its recommendation for an additional educational DTV channel in every city.

The idea was snapped up by the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters because it could do something for the public interest without adding obligations for commercial broadcasters.

At times during the committee's final meeting, Nov. 9, it appeared that the most important people in shaping the report were the commercial broadcasters on the committee--though they made up only seven of the 22 panel as well as their commercial colleagues outside the committee, who are not-eagerly awaiting its report. Panel members repeatedly dismissed recommendations that would not fly with the politically formidable commercial TV industry.

The panel backed away from specifying minimum public-interest requirements for broadcasters after Co-chairman Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television, said those very words were "lightning rods," and Boston broadcaster Paul La Camera said his peers would regard them as "a declaration of war."

Hollywood titan Barry Diller spoke forcefully against "pay or play" tradeoffs, which would let stations buy their way out of public-interest duties by paying for pubcasting or other good works. And Moonves warily crossed his arms, warning that he wouldn't vote on anything until he'd seen the whole report.

His fellow co-chairman, Norman Ornstein, wasn't taking votes anyway. The famed political news analyst held firm to his strategy of finding a consensus acceptable to the whole committee and letting individuals write narrow dissents.

Ornstein explained to reporters after the meeting that a "hard-line" report voted by a bare majority of the committee would be easier for opponents to dismiss as a "fringe" document. "You get nowhere," he said.

Even with a broader consensus, he predicted, "We're going to get some screaming from broadcasters that it's onerous and outrageous, and from the left that it's way too weak." But getting consensus from both commercial broadcasters and public-interest advocates on the panel is not insignificant, he said.

"If a consensus does not exist, and I believe that's a fact, then you have to resolve it by taking votes," advised committee member Newton Minow. And public-interest attorney Gigi Sohn observed that the report would be stronger if it reflected majority votes. But Ornstein was adamant. The votes, he said, would happen when members decide to sign on, or not.

This week, panel members are reviewing a final draft of the report and writing their dissents. The day after the meeting, public-interest advocates led by the Center for Media Education caucused privately in Annapolis, Md., on strategy to shape public reception of the coming document.

What the report may say

At least some committee members left the Nov. 9 meeting wondering exactly what the final draft of their report will say. But there were glimpses of its major elements from the draft report and from their talk:


To Current's home page

Earlier news: White House appoints committee, October 1997.

Earlier news: Hearings show the distance between commercial broadcasters and public-interest activists, December 1997.

Earlier news: Committee touches briefly on "pay or play," January 1998.

Earlier news: Two members propose second educational channel, April 1998.

Earlier news: Second channel has consensus, says Ornstein, June 1998.

Outside link: Draft report, audio files and minutes of the Nov. 9, 1998, meeting on the advisory committee's web site.


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