Quid pro quo


Broadcasters operate their businesses thanks to the benevolence of a government that has essentially given them three channels: analog, digital and local cable, due to must carry.

But the quid pro quo for that arrangement always has been that broadcasters must deal with government's constant meddling in their affairs.

Some meddling they want and some they don't, but throughout the years broadcasters have been highly successful at convincing the government to allow them to use the spectrum without facing many requirements in return.

Now, broadcasters are not only delivering programming over six megahertz of prime spectrum, they also are sitting on six more MHz of spectrum-worth billions of dollars in the open market-while they make the transition from analog to digital.

That puts a big bull's-eye on broadcasters when the government wants to collect money from someone to balance the budget, or to blame when a kid shoots up a school, or when campaign costs go through the roof.

Right now, broadcasters have a long list of items on the negotiating table. But policymakers have their own list, and the two don't often mesh. Here's a look at who wants what in Washington:

What TV networks or affiliates want from the government:

  • Require cable operators and satellite carriers to carry both their analog and digital signals during the transition to digital, including everything broadcasters may offer on their digital frequencies
  • Require cable operators to pass broadcasters' digital signal through to the TV
  • Keep at 35% the cap on station ownership limits
  • Allow wireless companies (and anyone else who may want to ante up) to pay them millions of dollars to get off the analog spectrum early
  • Affiliates want FCC to intervene in their ongoing battle with the networks
  • Pass legislation that would require TV-set manufacturers to include a digital TV tuner in all new sets
  • Continue to allow them to charge whatever the market will bear for political advertising time
  • Copy-protect over-the-air digital broadcast programming
  • Stop Time Warner from stripping broadcasters' electronic program guides
  • Allow more TV duopolies
  • Get rid of the crossownership ban on TV stations and newspapers
  • Allow radio broadcasters to stream their signals over the Internet without paying additional royalty fees

What the government would like that broadcasters are resisting:

  • Agree to any kind of requirements that would grant free or reduced-rate airtime to politicians
  • Agree to any new public-interest requirements on their digital channels
  • Report minority-recruitment efforts
  • Agree to a law that would limit violent programming to late hours
  • Decline to run ads for R-rated movies until after 9 p.m.
  • Pay spectrum lease fees

What the government requires them to do:

  • Restrict how many stations they own
  • Air three hours of educational children's TV programming each week
  • Air TV content ratings with content descriptors at the beginning of every program
  • Report commercial time during kids' programming
  • Restrict "indecent" programming to late hours, if airing it at all
  • Add video descriptions and closed captioning to some programming
  • Air emergency-alert warnings
  • Operate in the "public interest," which is open to interpretation.