Gore panel endorses adding educational DTV channels

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An extra digital TV channel should be reserved in every community for noncommercial
educational purposes, the Gore Commission recommended last week in its report to the White House.

These channels, the usual 6 MHz wide, would be granted more than seven years from now, or whenever broadcasters turn back their old analog channels to the FCC.

The expected recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters was one of the most concrete in a report constructed of compromises between seven commercial broadcasters and 13 other members of the committee.

Co-chairmen Norman Ornstein and Les Moonves “were trying very hard to get a consensus, which is a good goal, but I think the splits were simply too wide,” said Newton Minow, a committee member, last week. “The result is, you get the lowest common denominator.”

“Our grandchildren will one day regret our failure to meet one of the great
communications opportunities in the history of democracy,” Minow wrote in his
separate statement in the report  [text].

Minow and others were particularly disappointed that the committee backed only a weak
recommendation on free airtime for political candidates–the objective that President
Clinton highlighted when he appointed the advisory committee in October 1997.

“The television broadcasting industry should voluntarily provide five minutes each
night for candidate-centered discourse in the 30 days before an election,” the full
committee advised. But the 13 nonbroadcasters on the panel–an actual majority of the
members–said in a separate statement that the voluntary airtime is
“insufficient,” and recommended that the FCC require free airtime for national
and local candidates.

When Vice President Gore officially received the report Dec. 18, he noted: “The
President and I continue to believe strongly that there should be mandatory, universal
free time for candidate-centered discourse. It is unfortunate that the opposition of a few
members prevented the committee from adopting such a recommendation unanimously.”

Gigi Sohn, executive director of the Media Access Project and a vocal leader of the
committee’s public-interest wing, said she was proud that the panel’s compromises are as
strong as they are.

Sohn noted that the report does endorse mandates in several areas and establishes the
idea of a “pay or play” option for commercial broadcasters if they choose to do
DTV multicasting. Not the least, “public broadcasting got some very good

“Neither automatic nor eternal”

The additional educational channels recommended in the report actually weren’t sought
actively by existing public TV broadcasters, and they would not be guaranteed to receive
the licenses, though they might get first shot.

“One option would be to give the first opportunity to claim and run each
educational channel to the local public television station or stations,” the report
suggests. “Partners could include universities, libraries, minority organizations,
other noncommercial broadcasters and other groups. However, the license to operate the
channels would be neither automatic nor eternal.”

License applicants would give the FCC a plan for community involvement and types of
programming and “how the new channel devoted to education would be different from
their existing public television stations.”

CPB Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, a panel member, said in a separate statement that he was
“disheartened” because the report did not guarantee licensing of the new
channels to existing public broadcasters. Cruz was joined in his comment by Minow and
Frank Blythe, head of Native American Public Telecommunications.

Who would pay to operate the new channels? The panel as a whole suggested a laundry
list of possible sources, but a separate statement by Charles Benton and seven others said
most of those sources already are spoken-for, inadequate or unreliable. Benton advanced
the idea of a 2 percent fee on the sale of all broadcast and telecom properties plus a 2
percent fee on gross revenues of broadcast, cable and satellite operators.

For the existing public broadcasting system, the committee also recommended a separate
federally endowed trust fund.

Only the beginning

Though the committee’s work is done, the report is only the beginning of the political
process, said committee member and children’s TV activist Peggy Charren earlier this fall.
“The important thing is to get the issues on the table so they can be debated by the

Activists on both sides of regulatory issues immediately began putting spins on the
report–a process that will draw much more public attention than the committee managed to
get during a year of meetings.

A coalition of progressive groups led by Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education
(CME) is planning to push for stronger public-interest rules and has already won the
attention of major media. The Los Angeles Times editorialized Dec. 7 that the
committee report was looking like “a national scandal.”

“If broadcasters are unwilling to give something back to society in return for
using the public airwaves,” the Times said, “then the Clinton
Administration and Congress should take those airwaves back and do what they should have
done in 1996: auction them off and use the money for the public good.”

“It is a disappointment that this gets punted back to the FCC,” after a year
of meetings involving some brilliant panel members, says Mark Lloyd, executive director of
the Civil Rights Forum, an ally of CME’s.

On the anti-regulation side, the conservative Media Institute expressed “profound
disappointment” that the committee wants to perpetuate “an outdated regulatory
scheme.” (One of the few things the Media Institute likes about the report is the
proposal for added educational channels.)

The advisory
committee’s 10 recommendations

Verbatim text in boldface

1. Digital broadcasters
should be required to make enhanced disclosures of their public interest programming and
activities on a quarterly basis, using standardized check-off forms that reduce
administrative burdens and can be easily understood by the public.

(The theory is that having this information will help the public assess and influence
the performance.)

2. The National Association of Broadcasters, acting as the
representative of the broadcasting industry, should draft an updated voluntary Code of
Conduct to highlight and reinforce the public interest commitments of broadcasters.

In hopes of bringing “bad broadcasters” up to the standards of good
ones–terms that some committee members used in discussions–the committee wants to enlist
peer pressure and revive industry self-regulation. NAB would publish a voluntary statement
of principles or good practices like the code it maintained between 1952 and 1982.

3. The FCC should adopt a set of minimum public interest
requirements for digital television broadcasters.

To supplement the NAB code, the FCC would develop and phase-in a set of minimum
standards–for cable TV and satellite TV providers as well as DTV broadcasters–in these

  • community outreach–ascertainment of community interests;
  • accountability–stations’ disclosure of their performance, as in the first
  • public service announcements–including local produced PSAs, in all dayparts;
  • public affairs programming–aired in “visible time periods during the day and
    evening,” including newscasts;
  • closed captioning–four-year phase-in of captioning of PSAs, public affairs and
    political programming.

The committee was unable to reach a consensus on more specific standards.

4a. Congress should create a trust fund to ensure enhanced and
permanent funding for public broadcasting to help it fulfill its potential in the digital
television environment and remove it from the vicissitudes of the political process.

If Congress does create a trust fund for the field, the committee would urge pubcasters
to reduce or eliminate “enhanced underwriting,” which “closely resembles
full commercial advertising.”

4b. When spectrum now used for analog broadcasting is returned
to the government, Congress should reserve the equivalent of 6 MHz of spectrum for each
viewing community in order to establish channels devoted specifically to noncommercial
educational programming. Congress should establish an orderly process for allocating the
new channels as well as provide adequate funding from appropriate revenue sources.

The panel urges Congress to get operating funds for the new channels from fees that DTV
broadcasters will be paying to the FCC for ancillary uses of DTV spectrum–funds that
Congress already has committed to deficit reduction.

Up to 20 percent of the support funds would go to commercial or noncommercial
broadcasters to make and air educational program that otherwise would not be feasible.

Also, the Department of Education would be enlisted to suggest programming and
datacasting ideas.

4c. Broadcasters that choose to implement datacasting should
transmit information on behalf of local schools, libraries, community-based nonprofit
organizations, governmental bodies and public safety institutions. This activity should
count toward fulfillment of a digital broadcaster’s public interest obligations.

For example, the committee said, broadcasters could use the DTV signal during off-peak
hours to transmit educational software for schools and community information.

5. Digital television broadcasters who choose to multiplex,
and in doing so reap enhanced economic benefits, should have the flexibility to choose
between paying a fee, providing a multicasted channel for public-interest purposes, or
making an in-kind contribution. Given the uncertainties of this still-hypothetical market,
broadcasters should have a two-year moratorium on any fees or contributions to allow for
experimentation and innovation. Small-market broadcasters should be given an opportunity
to appeal to the FCC for additional time. The moratorium should begin after the market
penetration for digital television reaches a stipulated threshold.


6a. If Congress undertakes comprehensive campaign finance reform,
broadcasters should commit firmly to do their part of reform the role of television in
campaigns. This could include repeal of the “lowest unit rate” requirement in
exchange for free airtime, a broadcast bank to distribute money or vouchers for airtime,
and shorter time periods for selling political airtime, among other changes.

6b. The television broadcast industry should voluntarily provide
five minutes each night for candidate-centered discourse in the 30 days before an

6c. Blanket bans on the sale of airtime to all state and local
political candidates should be examined.

The panel recognized that campaigns may be frustrating for broadcasters to deal with,
but opposed blanket refusals to sell political ad time.

7. Broadcasters should work with appropriate emergency
communications specialists and manufacturers to determine the most effective means to
transmit disaster warning information. The means chosen should be minimally intrusive on
bandwidth and not result in undue additional burdens or costs on broadcasters. Appropriate
regulatory authorities should also work with manufacturers of digital television sets to
make sure that they are modified to handle these kinds of transmissions.

8. Broadcasters should take full advantage of new digital closed
captioning technologies to provide maximum choice and quality for Americans with
disabilities, where doing so would not impose an undue burden on the broadcasters. These steps should include the gradual expansion of captioning on PSAs, public affairs
programming and political programming; the allocation of sufficient audio bandwidth for
the transmission and delivery of video description; disability access to ancillary and
supplementary services; and collaboration between regulatory authorities and set
manufacturers to ensure the most efficient, inexpensive and innovative capabilities for
disability access.

9. Diversity is an important value in broadcasting, whether it is
in programming, political discourse, hiring, promotion, or business opportunities within
the industry. The Advisory Committee recommends that broadcasters seize the opportunities
inherent in digital television technology to substantially enhance the diversity available
in the television marketplace. Serving diverse interests within a community is both good
business and good public policy.

10. Although the Advisory Committee makes no consensus
recommendation about entirely new models for fulfilling public interest obligations, it
believes that the Administration the Congress and the FCC should explore alternative
approaches that allow for greater flexibility and efficiency while affirmatively serving
public needs and interests.

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