Carving out free air time on digital TV

Report raises debate over what networks should give public for use of its airwaves.

After a year of fierce debate, a report that has the potential to refocus American television will be handed to Vice President Al Gore today.

Its goal is to set out how the nation's broadcasters should best serve the public, in exchange for the estimated $70 billion worth of free airwaves the government has given them as they transition into the uncertain world of digital TV.

Already, the report has enraged some public activists, disappointed a group of moderates and upset parts of the broadcast industry. "It's not always the case that if you're attacked on the right and the left, you've done the right thing," says Norman Ornstein, co-chairman of the Gore Commission, which wrote the report. "But I'm pretty satisfied with this report."

The government-mandated transition to digital TV started in November, when the major networks and more than a dozen major market affiliates began transmitting some programs with a digital signal. Digital TV has the potential to produce pictures as sharp and dazzling as the best movie-theater screens.

But, in reopening the debate about television obligations to serve the public, government officials and public advocates also took advantage of the fact that broadcasters were given double their normal airwave. As a result, President Clinton set up the Gore Commission, formally called The Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters.

Its report calls for all broadcast stations to adhere to a minimum, but as yet undefined, amount of public-service programming and recommends the industry set up a voluntary code of conduct to encourage more.

It suggests broadcasters voluntarily give five minutes of free airtime for 30 days leading up to an election for political debate.

And it would give educational television a boost, by allowing public stations to keep their extra airwaves, or spectrum, once the transition to digital is complete, and by setting up a trust fund for educational television.

Several media-advocacy groups contend the report doesn't go far enough to meet the public's needs in the digital age because it fails to lay out any specific mandatory requirements on broadcasters.

"It's mind-boggling how big this spectrum giveaway is, and how absolutely little broadcasters are willing to give back to the public," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education in Washington.

SEVERAL broadcasters, on the other hand, are just as upset, contending the commission would impose far too many specific requirements on them.

For instance, if broadcasters choose to "multiplex" - or split their spectrum into several channels to increase profits - the report calls for the Federal Communications Commission, after a two-year moratorium, to impose fees or some other type of "in-kind" contribution to compensate the public.

"The report totally embraces an outmoded regulatory framework as we enter the new digital age," says Michael McCarthy, executive vice president and general counsel of BELO-TV in Dallas.

But Mr. Ornstein insists that the report represents a center of agreement and a base from which to go forward into the digital age.

He and his co-chair, CBS president Les Moonves, insisted that the commission should reach a consensus rather than vote democratically on individual items.

Ornstein says had they taken the latter route, they probably could have recommended a whole series of mandatory requirements on the broadcast industry. But he does not believe that would have moved the debate on public-service obligations any further.

"I share the objective of a much more robust political discourse and a strong role for broadcasters," says Ornstein. "But I can't for the life of me see, other than making people feel good, what benefit would have been served if we had drawn a line in the dust."

Ornstein insists that, to protect the public interest, flexibility and creativity have to be built into the regulatory framework.

But for public advocates who believe the broadcast industry long ago gave up serving the public in its pursuit of profits, that argument doesn't hold up.

"The broadcast lobby over the years has become a very powerful and feared organization," says Mr. Chester.

"Nonetheless, given this free gift [of airwaves], they should give something back."

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