Loud public-interest earful
FCC gets input from advocates on what, and how much more, broadcasters should be doing
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/22/2000 8:00:00 PM
Broadcasters are required to serve the public interest, there's no argument there.
But almost no one, it seems, agrees on what that obligation entails-even though it has been on the books since the government first started distributing broadcast licenses in 1927.
Last week the FCC asked some of the country's leading advocates of public-interest programming for help designing new obligations for digital TV stations and received an earful of frequently conflicting suggestions.
The hottest debate among the industry's critics is whether stations should "pay or play," meaning whether they should be ordered to air a minimum amount of specific public-affairs and children's programming or instead give a share of profits to fund public broadcasting. But the advocates also were split on the merits of reviving an industry code of conduct intended to limit marketing of violent video games and other "age inappropriate" products during children's programming and to create nightly family viewing hours.
"Broadcasters are public trustees, as many broadcasters like to point out to me," FCC Chairman William Kennard said as he opened a hearing examining broadcasters' duties last week. "Nobody really knows what that means. I do know that being a public trustee is not just what the industry says it should mean."
Former FCC General Counsel Henry Geller provided perhaps the most controversial idea by suggesting that regulators forget about making reluctant broadcasters fulfill programming obligations and instead order them to contribute 1% of gross ad revenues, roughly $250 million annually, to fund public television for kids. Geller, whose plans would require congressional action, said total public-interest deregulation could be introduced over time.
Geller, echoing other industry critics, said stations are increasingly shedding their historic devotion to covering politics and airing public-service announcements.
"Tell Congress it's time to scrap the public trustee scheme. Treat broadcasting the way you would treat cable. Cable pays 5% for use of the public streets. There is still need for high-quality public-service programming, but the commercial system is under fierce competitive pressures" and cannot be counted on to provide it.
FCC Commissioner Michael Powell, who could be the next FCC Chairman if George W. Bush wins, said Geller's idea "deserves serious consideration." The three Democratic commissioners, however, appeared more interested in proposals that would require stations to air more kid-friendly shows and local public-affairs programming. Republican Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth on the other hand, said he opposes any programming obligations.
Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, urged the FCC to require stations to use expanded channel capacity and interactive capabilities to provide additional types of education services for kids.
She also called for safeguards to prevent "manipulative and exploitative" marketing to kids and for free airtime for political candidates. She opposed deregulating stations in return for fees.
Commercial broadcasters also hated the idea of paying fees. "Pay or play is not something broadcasters have any interest in whatsoever," said Paul La Camera, president of WCVB-TV, Boston's ABC affiliate, who testified on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters. "We have no interest in paying off people to perform our public-interest obligations." La Camera, whose station is widely considered a leader in devoting airtime to political coverage, opposed the imposition of any government programming requirements.
He was countered by James Goodmon, chief executive of Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, N.C., who said stations should face "minimum requirements" for local public-affairs shows, local public service announcements and soliciting community input.
Pat Nugent, senior director of children's programming at PBS, also called for better funding for her organization's transition to digital.
First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere opposed new restrictions. He noted that a half of the shows called the worst offenders by the Parents Television Council were nominated for Emmys, including NYPD Blue, E.R and Frasier. Conduct codes barring the shows from prime time would be "censoring what is the best of television," he said.
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