Monday, November 21, 2005

Serving the "public interest, convenience and necessity" in the digital age?

There recently appeared an interesting Op-Ed piece in The Hill, a "newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress" reminds us about something that most broadcasters would probably rather forget about: their supposed public interest obligations under the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. These obligations - which are supposed to be enforced by the FCC - demand that broadcasters continue to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity" (as outlined in S. 307 and 309 of the 1934 Act.)

Gloria Tristani, who served on the FCC from 1997 to 2001; and Meredith McGehee, director of the Media Policy Program at a nonpartisan government watchdog group, outline what these obligations should include. Serving the “public interest, convenience and necessity" should be about whether:
  • "Our televisions can keep us alert and informed in national and local emergencies.
  • "Our children can turn on a television and find truly educational content.
  • "The voices and views on our airwaves reflect the diversity of our country.
  • "People who are sight- or hearing-impaired can access all of TV’s educational, informational and entertainment programming.
  • "We can be active and intelligent participants in our democracy with sufficient civic programming before elections."

However, they argue, in the current shift toward digital television - supposed to be completed by 2009 - broadcasters might be allowed to finally slip out from under these obligations, unless strong action is taken by Congress and the FCC, who "need to address how the transition to digital television will benefit citizens’ local, civic and electoral needs." Then, basing their position on the recommendations of a 7-year-old presidential commission on the matter, Tristiani and McGehee list a set of criteria that, they argue, "should define meaningful public-interest obligations that ensure broadcasters:
  • "Air a minimum of three hours per week of local, civic or electoral-affairs programming on the most-watched channel they operate and a comparable minimum number of hours across other streams of programming they may provide.
  • "Promote the FCC’s often-stated goal of diverse viewpoints and voices on television by ensuring that independent producers provide a minimum of 25 percent of broadcasters’ most-watched channel’s prime-time schedule.
  • "Tell the public how they are serving the interests of their audiences by making this information available in a standardized, searchable format, not only at the station, but posted on the station’s own web site."

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