Do Broadcasters Serve Public Enough?

Advent of 'advanced TV' leads Clinton, FCC to rethink industry's 'public interest' duties

Turn on the television. As the picture flickers on, has it ever occurred to you the airwaves carrying "NYPD Blue" and the evening news also belong to you? Probably not.

But it has to Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And to John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. And to President Clinton. None of them thinks you get enough from the people who use those valuable assets, and they're determined to change that.

Mr. Clinton is now appointing a panel to determine what the public-interest obligations of the broadcasters should be in the new world of high-definition television. The FCC is also about to start a fact-finding proceeding to find out what the public thinks it deserves.

The moves have sparked indignation in television circles and set the stage for a tense, behind-the-scenes battle with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), one of Washington's most powerful lobbies. Already full of quiet recriminations and fierce indignation, this fight will determine what you see when you turn on the TV well into the next generation.

"Isn't it only appropriate that, in return for the free use of the public spectrum, broadcasters provide something substantial, something that wouldn't otherwise be provided by marketplace competition?" asks Chairman Hundt.

Bristling, broadcasters insist they already provide public-service in the form of news, political and public-affairs talk shows, and public service announcements such as antidrunk-driving spots.

"We've been bedrock solid in meeting those commitments since Day 1," says Edward (Eddie) Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

But their critics are far less certain. In fact, one derided Mr. Fritts's assertion by saying, That doesn't even pass the laugh test."

"It's very hard to see anything concrete they're doing in the public interest, other than what they've been dragged kicking, screaming, and weeping to do, which is to provide three hours of educational children's programming," says Patricia Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University here.

The debate over the public interest was revived by the advent of high-definition digital television, known as advanced TV. This year, Congress and the FCC gave the nation's broadcasters additional bands of spectrum so they could start converting to the new technology that will bring crystal-clear pictures and as many as five new channels per station. Your local channel, WHOME, could soon be WHOME1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

"What we have now is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reopen the public conversation about what are the responsibilities of the broadcasters who use this very valuable resource for private gain," says Andrew Blau of the Benton Foundation, a nonprofit communications think tank here.

The new spectrum is worth an estimated $10 billion to $100 billion. The FCC's Hundt, who will step down as soon as a successor is appointed, wants to set out quantifiable standards for broadcasters to meet in exchange for the spectrum. They range from guaranteeing that broadcasters meet their obligations under the Children's Television Act to offering political candidates free time for political advertisements.

Clinton has embraced the idea of free air time as part of an overall campaign-finance reform plan. In March, he asked the FCC to make granting free TV time a condition of getting new digital licenses, saying it "can help free our democracy from the grip of big money."

But Congress went ahead and ordered the FCC to give the licenses to the broadcasters before any public-interest responsibilities were clearly delineated. Critics charge the nation's politicians just gave the broadcasters a billion-dollar bonanza for nothing.

"All they may have to do is give a few free ads to the politicians who engineered the give-away, and they get to keep their monopoly," says Robert McChesney, a mass communications professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "It's corrupt and incredibly sleazy - the politicians get their ads, but the public gets nothing."

The television owners see something else entirely. They're looking at up to $10 billion to convert each station to digital. They're also facing competition from cable and Direct Broadcast Satellite, which are fragmenting their audiences and ad revenues.

"Don't weep for us, but the fact of the matter is we're given the right to invest an enormous amount of money to exploit the airwaves," says CBS senior vice president Martin Franks. "Does the fact that we provide a free and universal service count for nothing?"

SINCE television's inception, politicians and regulators have tried to ensure the public got more than entertainment in return for letting broadcasters use America's airwaves. In 1934, Congress struck the deal: You provide us with public-service programming, and we'll give you access to the airwaves. It was known as operating in the "public interest."

In the 1940s, as much as 30 percent of programming was noncommercial. By the 1980s, under sway of the Reagan administration's antigovernment policies, most of the public-interest requirements that produced such programs were rolled back.

"The public trustee scheme, that they operate in the public interest, is really a total failure," says former FCC general counsel Henry Geller. He and others argue the TV industry has become so competitive that it no longer makes sense to ask it to put serving the public above cashing in on ad revenues. They believe broadcasters should pay a simple spectrum fee, put that money into a trust fund, and use it for public television and things like air time for political candidates.

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