Let's Define the Public Interest

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Both Members of Congress and a majority of Federal Communications Commission members are calling for a clear definition of the public-interest obligations of digital- television broadcasters this year. These policymakers understand TV's importance to our country, that it is much more than a toaster with pictures.

Because of the speed and immediacy of television, broadcasters perform a public-forum function with immense power to influence public opinion and affect elections. TV is a window onto our world and a mirror of our society. It is our society's primary source of information. And local news is used even more than national news by citizens.

What we see and hear helps inform what we think and believe. Research shows that television points out not only what issues people should think about but also what to think about those issues—something no toaster has ever achieved.

As broadcasters are quick to point out, they are in the business of competing for eyeballs—and that competition gets fiercer in the digital age every day. The Internet, computers, Blackberrys, Gameboys and a host of other gadgets vie to be the central device in a person's life. Doesn't it make sense that broadcasters would want to reach the greatest number of viewers with content that is not peripheral but central to their lives? Ironically, that is what public-interest obligations encourage broadcasters to achieve.

In return for serving the public, broadcasters enjoy a variety of government-ensured benefits. Among them:

  • Free, exclusive use of a valuable but scarce public spectrum—including many billions of dollars worth of temporary additional spectrum to convert to digital.
  • Legal protection against anyone else who seeks to compete in their market or broadcast over their licensed frequencies.
  • Federal preemption of local zoning and environmental regulations in order to make sure stations' transmission towers can be erected and send signals to viewers.
  • Free carriage of programming on local cable systems for which other programmers pay millions.

As the FCC's recent vote on digital must-carry shows, these benefits may not survive in the digital age without a strong commitment from broadcasters to serve the needs of their communities.

If broadcasting is continually seen as just a business, like the toaster business, a short-sighted focus on narrow, profitable market segments may prevail. The result will be less and less programming that benefits the broadest segments of society. And TV could soon be seen as just a big box filled with yesterday's technology.

When broadcasters embrace their roles as journalists and protectors and proponents of the public interest, we benefit far beyond what TV stations can recover in advertising: People are engaged as citizens; government power is checked; waste and fraud are exposed; and we can value our televisions as much as broadcasters value our well-being.

Without public-interest obligations, our country's most time-honored broadcast values of competition, diversity, localism and democracy might all be toast.

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