Digital divide? Yes!

And it's FCC Chairman Michael Powell's job to close it

In his first major statements to the press as FCC chairman, Michael Powell presented what many parents and child advocates believe is an unfortunate vision for his agency. Breaking with the long-standing bipartisan agreements on the digital divide (e-rate and universal service) and public service to children (the Children's Television Act rules), Powell suggested that these positive policies would not find a supportive home at his commission.

Perhaps it was just foolish overstatement. As we all know, one of today's hot-button issues that generates widespread concern is the failure of the media to serve the needs of children, while pandering to them with violent-themed and commercially overloaded programming.

A broad coalition of groups fought hard for more than a decade to get rules in place that would ensure some minimal level of children's educational programs on broadcast television. We had hoped that, during his tenure, Chairman Powell would continue to build upon this important legacy. Instead, his remarks show little willingness to enforce these policies, claiming they have "marginal impact." But research by his own agency and by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center clearly shows that the rules have increased the amount of educational and informational programming for kids.

The Children's Television Act is one of the few remaining requirements that broadcasters must meet to serve the public interest, a core principle at the heart of the FCC's mandate. The television industry continues to trade on its privileged public trustee status to press both Congress and the Commission for a long laundry list of special requests-from digital must-carry to removing ownership caps. At the same time, broadcasters complain (as many did at last month's NATPE meeting) that their obligation to children is onerous. Unfortunately, Chairman Powell's remarks about children's television are just the kind of signal that could send some stations to their vaults to pull out The Jetsons
and The Flintstones
as cheap replacements for the educational shows currently on the air.

As we move into the digital era, the FCC should play an even more prominent role to ensure that media serve children's needs. Interactive television will usher in a powerful new digital media culture that is sure to become a pervasive presence in the lives of children. The FCC's current rulemaking on digital television provides an opportunity to build into the framework for the new media a commitment to harness the capabilities of these technologies to enhance children's learning in a variety of ways.

At the same time, without effective safeguards against manipulative interactive-advertising practices targeted at children, DTV could become a Pandora's box of minute-by-minute behavior tracking, detailed consumer profiling, personalized one-to-one marketing, and instant t-commerce sales pitches.

Through its implementation of the e-rate provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the commission has already provided many of our nation's schools and libraries with affordable access to the Internet, part of a broader national commitment to bridge the "digital divide." However, there is still a wide disparity in the quality of that access, with more-affluent communities far outpacing their counterparts in lower socio-economic areas. As broadband becomes the state-of-the-art technology, these inequities could be further exacerbated. Given this administration's promise to "leave no child behind," we find Mr. Powell's regrettable reference to a "Mercedes divide" one of the more cynical remarks he has made, significantly more disturbing than FCC Chairman Mark Fowler's "toaster" comment of two decades ago.

We hope that Powell will reconsider the positions he has articulated in his first few weeks at the helm of the FCC. We expect him to play a decisive leadership role in working with industry, parents' groups and educators to build consensus for policies that serve the broader public interest. If he chooses to promote a narrow ideological agenda focused only on the special interests of the media industries, he should not be surprised to see a rising tide of opposition from angry parents and the many others who care about a quality media culture for our children.