Noncommercial TV stations will be allowed to use part of their digital spectrum to offer commercial services, including advertising-supported services, the FCC decided last week.
The commission's ruling, approved by a 3-1 vote, was a victory for the Association of Public Television Stations, which argues that noncommercial stations need new revenue sources to pay for construction of digital facilities.
APTS President John Lawson envisions stations' offering subscription and pay-per-view programming and tuition-based televised education courses. Other opportunities include data delivered to PCs.
"We're delighted," he said. "Public broadcasters need flexibility to develop content that can be distributed through our digital capacity."
The commissioners imposed limits, though somewhat vague ones, on how much of the spectrum and time can be devoted to commercial services. Under the new rules, a public station must continue to devote a "substantial majority" of its weekly digital capacity to traditional noncommercial, educational broadcasts. Just like their commercial counterparts, public stations that offer commercial services must pay 5% of the resulting revenue to the U.S. Treasury.
Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, the sole dissenter, warned that funding from Congress and donors will diminish if public stations stray. "It has the potential to warp the nation's image of public television and to endanger the identity and even the viability of a national treasure," he said prior to the Oct. 11 vote.
"Convergence we don't want to see," he added, "is convergence of our public and commercial television services until they become indistinguishable."
The FCC action was also criticized by Media Access Project, a public-advocacy group frequently allied with public stations. "We think this is bad law and a bad direction for noncommercial broadcasters to be going," said MAP President Andrew Schwartzman.
He said some operators are grumbling that their relations with commercial broadcasters will be jeopardized if they wander into the ad business. "Public broadcasters don't need to tick off the National Association of Broadcasters."
And the FCC action raised concerns with at least one member of Congress. "The ruling is too much of a blank check," said a spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Specifically, Tauzin wants the FCC to better define the "substantial-majority" requirement.
Lawson said that fears of an increasingly advertising-based revenue model for public broadcasters are overblown: "There's no business model that includes advertising as the driver of new services."
Funds generated by commercial sources will supplement government and corporate dollars already slated for the transition. So far, state legislators and donors have contributed $664 million needed to cover the $1.7 billion cost of digital facilities at the country's public TV and radio stations. The federal government is being asked to cover another 40%. But, Lawson added, stations will need money for digital content.