Final report, Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters

Gore panel endorses adding educational DTV channels

Originally published in Current, Dec. 21, 1998

By Steve Behrens

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.

Ornstein and MoonvesCo-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 recommendations."

"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 public."

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 categories:

  • community outreach--ascertainment of community interests;
  • accountability--stations' disclosure of their performance, as in the first recommendation;
  • 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 election.

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.



To Current's home page

Outside link: Complete text of the 159-page report, summaries of meetings and other materials about the advisory committee on the Benton Foundation's web site. (On this site, the report is available in ordinary web format; the committee's official site offers it in the finicky but attractive Adobe Acrobat format.)

Outside link: Web site about Gore Commission from the Media Institute, a conservative think-tank on the media.

Newton Minow's separate statement from the committee report.

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.

Earlier news: Panel chooses consensus over majority rule; soft Gore report expected, November 1998.


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