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Wednesday, August 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Chellie Pingree and Jonathan Rintels
With the encouragement of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell, the country's broadcasters and cable operators have agreed to meet behind closed doors to decide what Americans will see on their televisions as the nation transitions from analog to digital broadcasting.
Representatives of the public interest were not invited. Neither were the commissioners of the FCC, nor members of Congress.
Why do we call the public's attention to this private meeting? Because these two corporate oligopolies that control television are meeting to decide what the public will see on airwaves that are not their property, but the property of the public.
Television is acknowledged to be the most potent information medium ever, with tremendous power to influence our citizenry and our democratic process. With the public interest so obviously at stake, the public must be involved.
For years, there has been a war going on between the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Today's digital technology makes it possible for each over-the-air TV station to broadcast up to six channels, where before they could air only one. This makes broadcasters' digital TV licenses, which they received for free from the public, worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Since the vast majority of the American people now receive their television signals from cable, broadcasters are demanding that the FCC pass a "must carry" rule requiring cable companies to carry all their new digital programming. The NAB argues that they deserve a special FCC rule requiring digital "must carry" because broadcasters serve the public interest, so it is vitally important that their availability to cable subscribers be guaranteed.
Conversely, cable owners are equally adamant that a "must carry" rule for broadcasters' digital channels will force their customers to take channels they don't want. They claim it will infringe their First Amendment rights to free expression and also steal valuable property from them channel space on their cable systems. And they say they should be the ones to decide which network or local TV station programs are carried on their cable systems.
The private meeting has been called to end this stalemate. Powell has encouraged the meeting in the hope that the FCC itself won't have to act.
But all of this backroom jockeying misses a fundamental point: Do today's broadcasters serve the public interest so well that such a huge government giveaway of the public's digital spectrum and cable's precious channel capacity is justified?
We believe this claim ought to be put to the test. At a time when broadcasters' news coverage has never been weaker, more frivolous, and empty of any real information that helps citizens participate in their democracy, we believe that broadcasters ought to be held to real, quantifiable public-interest standards.
At a minimum, broadcasters should provide on their most-watched channel three hours a week of substantive coverage about important local, state and national issues, a higher percentage of non-network-produced programming, and at least two hours a week of quality election coverage. Is that too much to ask of broadcasters who received for free billions of dollars of public spectrum?
As the chairman of the FCC, Powell has a duty to regulate media in the public interest. He cannot simply let giant media conglomerates decide behind closed doors, without public input, what constitutes the public interest.
We hope Powell won't repeat the same mistake on digital "must carry" that he made on last year's controversial media ownership proceeding, when he held just one public hearing before he rammed through the commission new rules encouraging an unprecedented and dangerous consolidation and concentration of our nation's media.
Excluding the public from that proceeding earned the chairman an extraordinary triple rebuke from the Congress, the courts and the public.
This time, Powell needs to get the process right. Before the FCC can decide whether digital "must carry" is in the public interest, it must first articulate public-interest standards for broadcasters. To do otherwise puts the broadcasters' special-interest cart before the public-interest horse.
And this time, Powell must let the public weigh in on the fundamental question of what constitutes the public interest. If he does not, media conglomerates will meet behind closed doors to craft a deal that serves only their own corporate bottom-line interest, at the expense of the public.
That is something the public has no interest in.
Chellie Pingree is president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit citizens' lobby based in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Rintels is president of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
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