Loud public-interest earful

FCC gets input from advocates on what, and how much more, broadcasters should be doing
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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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