FCC OKs Fewer DTV Ads

Commission approves broadcaster-backed education plan

Broadcasters scored a victory last week when the FCC voted to allow them to opt for DTV education mandates that require fewer PSAs and don't require any in primetime.

Broadcasters didn't want a government-mandated campaign of any type, but the FCC made clear that wasn't going to happen.

Under pressure from Capitol Hill, the FCC agreed last week to require broadcasters, cable operators and consumer electronics firms to take certain steps, and report on them to the FCC, to ensure viewers get the message about the Feb. 18, 2009, switch to digital broadcasting.

Broadcasters have said they would provide primetime PSAs without a government gun to their heads, and have begun doing so, but the National Association of Broadcasters also worked hard to make sure there was no primetime PSA mandate and fewer PSAs than initially proposed, saying broadcasters needed the flexibility to tailor their campaign to individual markets. But part of that flexibility had to do with money.

Faced with the possibility of a hefty PSA schedule and primetime requirement, broadcasters offered an alternative plan that, after input from the FCC, broadcasters and Capitol Hill, produced one of two options the FCC offered commercial broadcasters last week (see sidebar)—an NAB-backed option with fewer PSA mandates and no primetime requirement.

According to a source familiar with the negotiations over the issue, the FCC “didn't want to take so much airtime away. [The understanding was] that if we didn't give enough airtime to educate viewers on the transition, we wouldn't have a business in February 2009.”

The two key Hill Democrats pushing for a mandatory education plan were satisfied with the result. House Energy & Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released a statement not long after the FCC announced its decision, saying they approved of what they called the “comprehensive” plan and commended the FCC for requiring it.

Initially, the FCC was considering a much stricter schedule of PSAs. Broadcasters countered that a more holistic approach that combined fewer PSAs with other outreach efforts would do the job, and was preferable to a “one-size-fits-all” government mandate.

Washington-based First Amendment think tank The Media Institute had told FCC Chairman Kevin Martin that the government-mandated PSAs would raise First Amendment issues, as did Fox. The Television Bureau of Advertising argued that veteran media planner Starcom, which the NAB retained to plan the DTV education campaign, knew better than Washington how to collect eyeballs.

Ultimately, the FCC accepted an NAB-backed proposal for a campaign with specific benchmarks that broadcasters could live with.

The FCC concluded that broadcasters needed a government prod of some kind, also recognizing some economic disincentive for giving up airtime. “Potential advertising revenue from such sources as presidential and other political campaigns may make it tempting, in the short run, not to devote advertising time to transition education,” the FCC's media bureau said in justifying the mandates.

Asked last week why the FCC did not mandate primetime PSAs, Martin talked a lot about flexibility: “Broadcasters came forward with a plan that required some PSAs, but was more flexible in what it allowed for them to do in terms of other multimedia education campaigns.”

Citing the approval of Markey and Dingell, he said that both the FCC and the Hill had concluded that “broadcasters were committed to doing everything they could to educate consumers…so [I] was pleased to end up providing a little more flexibility for them.”