FCC backs down on new guidelines for 'educational' channels

Originally published in Current, Feb. 7, 2000

Further struggles are likely over the meaning of "educational," as in the FCC's reserved "noncommercial educational" channels. After a month of escalating complaints from conservative congressmen and religious groups, the FCC on Jan. 28 withdrew its December guidelines that attempted to clarify restrictions on religious broadcasters' use of the reserved channels.

Defending a stricter definition of "educational" channels is a new Coalition to Defend Educational TV, put together by the new advocacy group Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. CIPB said the coalition includes the National Education Association, People for the American Way and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Before the FCC reconsidered, its House overseers weighed in heavily against the restrictions. Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) floated a draft resolution Jan. 27 urging the FCC to drop its new guidelines. Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) has asked Bliley to hold a hearing on Oxley's Religious Broadcasting Freedom Act, introduced Jan. 24. The bill, which has accumulated 102 co-sponsors, would forbid changes to the channel rules without a full FCC rulemaking. And Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) sent FCC members a series of questions demanding to know why religious teachings and music are not "educational."

"We're convinced that is what prompted the FCC to abandon the whole issue," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. "They backed off this one pretty quickly."

Commissioner Michael K. Powell (R) said the commission's December order had "opened a Pandora's Box of problems," and its reconsideration was now putting "the lid back on the box." But Gloria Tristani (D), who provided the sole vote against reconsideration, said the FCC had "capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery."

The FCC essentially dropped two new guidelines for licensees of reserved educational channels--(1) that more than half of the airtime must serve "an educational, instructional or cultural purpose in the station's community of license," and (2) that "programming devoted primarily to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs would not qualify as 'general educational' programming." Earlier FCC definitions of "educational," which were less specific, were not withdrawn.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Commission puts forth "additional guidance" in WQED/Cornerstone case, December 1999.

Related document: Text of "additional guidance," now partially withdrawn.

Related document: Text of FCC reconsideration order, January 2000.


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