Washington -- A divided presidential commission last week
endorsed must-carry for digital-TV stations that comply with various public-interest
obligations, including free airtime for political-office seekers.
"I think that the combination of these recommendations
would be a major step forward, and it is a kind of different way of looking at these
problems," said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar based here and co-chairman of the
22-member panel, which is also called the Gore Commission, after Vice President Al Gore.
But Ornstein also acknowledged that there was significant
disagreement about digital must-carry and other controversial proposals. The latter
included the voluntary practice of free airtime for political candidates and heftier
obligations for broadcasters that split their digital signals into several channels.
"We are going to get some screaming from the
broadcasters that this is outrageous and too onerous. And we are going to get screaming
from the left that say this is too weak," Ornstein said, adding that he would
consider some agreement among the public-interest advocates and broadcasters on his
commission to be "significant."
The 22-member panel, however, will take no up-or-down votes
on any specific proposal, he said. It is planning to tender a report to Gore Dec. 18. But
it's not clear if all members will endorse the final product.
"I'm reserving all rights until I see how it is
written out and how it comes out," said CBS Television president and CEO Leslie
Moonves, who shares the chairmanship with Ornstein.
Moonves said his decision will depend on the specific
recommendations that the report contains.
The panel's draft report included a recommendation
endorsing digital must-carry. Barry Diller, chairman of USA Networks Inc., is the only
panel member with cable interests.
The report said must-carry would help to make digital
television available to the largest number of Americans.
The National Cable Television Association sent a letter to
Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard last week that sought to
torpedo the notion that digital must-carry was justified because local TV stations are
airing abundant amounts of public-interest programming.
NCTA president Decker Anstrom's letter said that in
the Washington, D.C., market, this year's election-night coverage was carried
virtually nonstop by five national cable networks and one local news channel.
In contrast, Anstrom said, two local broadcasters had no
election coverage between 6:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.; three PBS stations had "only
minimal coverage"; and no station "had more than an hour-and-a-half of exclusive
Anstrom said the record that night showed that there is no
justification for a "double dose" of must-carry and no rationale for putting
"every broadcast station in line ahead of any cable network."
National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis
Wharton said viewers turned to TV stations for election results in far greater numbers
than they did to cable networks.
"[A total of] 14 million households watched
election-night coverage, compared with a cable audience that barely reached 3
million," Wharton said. "Viewers are voting with their remotes, and free TV won
by a landslide."
Anstrom's views gained the support of Rep. John
Dingell (D-Mich.), who, as chairman of the House Commerce Committee in 1992, was
instrumental in passing that year's Cable Act, which included the analog must-carry
In an Oct. 28 letter to Bill Trevarthen, executive director
of nonprofit cable network Michigan Government Television, Dingell said a dual must-carry
requirement "would be unlikely to serve the public interest."
Dingell aide Andy Levin said Dingell "would rather
leave it up to the marketplace" to decide digital-carriage issues.
In endorsing digital must-carry, Ornstein said the mandate
should be connected to broadcasters complying with a set of "mandatory minimum
standards." These could include community outreach, accountability and public-service
"We are suggesting that if there are such standards,
then it is in the public interest to get digital television out," Ornstein said.
The report acknowledged that must-carry could be
problematic for some cable systems, as those with limited channel capacity would have to
drop cable networks to accommodate both digital- and analog-TV signals -- the implicit
point of Anstrom's letter to Kennard.
"If digital must-carry is implemented, it would be
best to find a balanced process that would minimize dislocation," it read.
Another provision would require broadcasters that split
their digital signals into several channels (multicasting) to either pay fees or dedicate
channels to minority interests.
The commission members have two weeks to draft any
rebuttals that they want attached to the report. The recommendations, of course, are just
that, and they must be implemented by the FCC or by Congress before becoming law.
States News Service contributed to this story.