Public Interest Debate Moves Into Digital Age


Washington-Handed the free spectrum to perform all kinds of digital magic, the country's

local TV stations are at the center of a debate over how much of the digital airwaves should be devoted to public-interest programming.

Some Federal Communications Commission regulators complain there's too much sex and violence on TV, and not enough wholesome programming designed to educate children or introduce voters to the candidates that want to rule the country.

Without defending primetime sleaze, other FCC officials take the view that the agency can't legally make programming decisions for broadcasters, even though they use the public airwaves for free.

This division became apparent last week at a six-hour forum on the public-interest obligations of digital-TV licensees-a marathon that included 20 witnesses with opinions as divided as those of the five FCC commissioners.

Broadcasters are required to serve the public interest. But aside from directives to air three hours per week of children's educational programming and indecency restrictions, TV stations are largely on their own in deciding how to serve that mandate.

"Broadcasters are public trustees," said FCC chairman William Kennard, a critic of sex, violence, and strong language on TV. "Nobody really knows what that means."

Kennard wants the FCC's staff to craft a set of public-interest principles that would govern digital-TV stations. But some believe the time has come for the agency to adopt a new approach that would protect TV stations from First Amendment intrusion while promoting the availability of quality children's programming and political discourse.

Henry Geller, the former FCC general counsel and special assistant to former chairman Dean Burch, advanced that new approach.

Under Geller's plan, Congress would drop the public-interest standard in exchange for a tax on TV stations' gross revenue and use that money to fund public television stations.

Geller said his 1 percent tax would raise $250 million for public TV stations while relieving the FCC of policing commercial stations' content in a constitutionally suspect manner.

"Tell Congress it's time to scrap the public-trustee model," Geller said, asserting that public TV stations should take over the role of providing public interest programming. "The public system is eager to do that."

Geller, now with the Washington Center for Public Policy Research, insisted the FCC could not adopt such a plan on its own. Congress would need to act, he said.

Kennard questioned Geller's idea, saying local TV stations would continue to command large audiences.

"What do you tell the people who are still going to rely on commercial television, that the model won't work and it's always counter to market incentives, so we're just going to give up?" Kennard said.

Geller said local TV stations are under no mandate to offer news today. He said the absence of an FCC-enforced public-interest standard would not cause broadcasters to drop local news programs.

"The broadcaster will continue to do what he does now, even if you deregulate them. They provide news because it is essential," Geller said. "It's a moneymaker for them. They're not going to abandon news."

Broadcasters didn't embrace Geller's plan either, and said they don't believe in trading money for deregulation.

In his testimony, Capitol Broadcasting Co. president and CEO James F. Goodmon urged the FCC to establish a basic set of public-interest requirements that are clear to everyone.

"It sounds like [Geller] has given up on us," Goodmon said.

Echoing Goodmon's view was Paul La Camera, president and general manager of WCVB-TV in Boston. He said he had "no interest in paying off" public stations to take over his station's public interest obligations.

Tom Epstein, vice president of communications for the Public Broadcasting System, said Geller's plan would about double the budget of the local TV stations that Congress funds, assuming the money was intended to supplement current federal funding, rather than replace it. He said PBS was not commenting directly on Geller's proposal.

"We are always interested in new ideas that will bring consistent sources of funding for public broadcasting," Epstein said.