On September 21, the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced a set of hearings on the U.S. transition to digital television. This is an important step and a clear demonstration that our legislators are taking their oversight responsibilities seriously.
Local broadcast television is not merely a source of entertainment; it is still the place where the vast majority of Americans get emergency information, local news, and political reporting. Millions of Americans still rely solely on over-the-air broadcast television for information.
The last Congress did not set aside enough money to ensure a smooth transition despite the clear importance of moving Americans from analog to digital television before the nation-wide switch on February 17, 2009. The federal agencies most responsible for managing this transition—the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission—have not yet detailed a plan to ensure that those who are most at risk of losing service will be protected. And we do not yet have a clear idea of what public interest responsibilities digital television broadcasters should shoulder.
Congress needs to appropriate funds that will help elderly, poor, and rural Americans who are most dependent on television make the transition. We need an ongoing research effort to make sure that messages about the planned coupon program are effective for these populations, and we need outreach efforts that fund and engage grassroots groups and direct service providers who work with these populations.
We also need to make sure that broadcasters and the public are clear about how this new digital service will meet the licensee’s continuing obligation to act in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. Because the current chairman of the FCC seems a little confused about all of this, I offer the following history:
In the late 1990’s I was serving as counsel and coordinator of a national coalition called People for Better TV. We pushed a proceeding at the FCC to determine the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters. We also worked with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders who demanded action on the public interest obligation of broadcasters. The FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking and Chairman William Kennard vowed “to cut the Gordian knot of public interest vs. financial interest, and outline clear, tangible public interest obligations that broadcasters can commit to.” But the proposed rules were dropped once Commissioner Michael Powell took over the FCC, and the commitment to public interest obligations was forgotten.
It is true current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has bowed to pressure to act on one part of our coalition’s effort—establishing the obligations of digital television broadcasters regarding children’s programming. But the FCC has failed miserably when it comes to creating clearer obligations so that broadcasters meet the other needs of the local communities they are licensed to serve.
In May of 2000, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Byrd (D-WV), and Sam Brownback (R-KS) wrote to the FCC saying, “the time has come for the Commission to engage in a broad reexamination of the public interest standard and the license renewal process, to determine if in fact the broadcasters are serving ‘the public interest, convenience and necessity’” Despite Chairman Martin’s assurances to Broadcasting & Cable magazine that “we have been establishing public-interest obligations,” over seven years have passed and the senators concerns have still not been addressed.
Chairman Martin claims that “we have been very clear that all of the public-interest obligations that apply to broadcasters in analog also apply when they are broadcasting in digital.” The problem, of course, is that except for three hours of children’s programs, no one knows what obligations apply to broadcasters in analog.
Are broadcasters obligated to carry local news and information on all the digital channels they provide? Are broadcasters obligated to air public service announcements that address issues of local concern? Are broadcasters obligated to use the additional digital capabilities to provide information, news, weather, emergency announcements in different languages? What about enhanced closed-captioning and video description services? Try to locate these obligations on the FCC’s maze of a website and you will return empty handed.
Chairman Martin is urging broadcasters to step up and “more specifically identify the kind of public-interest programming they are putting on.” In other words, instead of engaging the public in a proceeding to determine the public interest, the FCC should just hear from the broadcasters. According to this interpretation, the public interest becomes whatever the broadcasters say it is. Does Chairman Martin work for Congress, or the National Association of Broadcasters?
Here, in brief, is what the FCC attempted to address in 2000:
Given the “new flexibility and capabilities of digital television,” how can a broadcaster best provide viewers with information on how it is serving community needs?
How can broadcasters best serve the needs of the disabled?
How can broadcasters best meet the goals of diversity?
How can broadcasters best use digital technology to enhance the quality of political discourse?
As Congress gets set to hold hearings on the digital television transition, they should press for answers to the questions they asked seven years ago and hold the federal agencies responsible for the transition to digital TV accountable.