Do TV Broadcasters Have Obligations to the Public? Forum TOMORROW, 10/3

Note: On Friday, October 3, the Information Economy Project at George Mason University School of Law will feature a discussion about “The Gore Commission, 10 Years Later: The Public Interest Obligations of Digital TV Broadcasters in Perfect Hindsight.” It will be held at 8:30 a.m. at the National Press Club. Registration details are below.

By Drew Clark

If all goes according to plan, on February 17, 2009, television broadcasters will power down their analog transmitters. They will be broadcasting their signal only digitally.

After more than 20 years in the long transition to digital television, this might be considered progress. Now, millions of Americans are collecting vouchers from the Commerce Department to subsidize their purchase of converter boxes. These are the electronic devices that take the digital signals — and convert them back to analog — so that viewers without high-definition televisions can watch broadcast TV on their old sets.

What about the bigger questions? Is there any benefit to the public, or to consumers, from the transition to digital television? What about the vaunted visions of hundreds of broadcast channels, through multi-casting? What would be the new public-interest obligations, if any, of broadcasters? This question has definitely not been resolved.

It may come back to this question: what was the point of making this move to digital and high-definition television? I recounted some of this history in “Spectrum Wars,” a 2005 article in National Journal magazine:

[The National Association of Broadcasters] seized upon a new technology out of Japan called high-definition TV. Compared with the 45-year-old U.S. standard, the sharper, high-resolution images used twice as many lines on a television screen, and broadcasting a program required two television channels instead of one. For broadcasters, that was just the point: High-definition gave them a way to fend off the FCC’s effort to grab frequencies back and turn them over to other uses. The broadcasters lobbied the agency to postpone the spectrum reallocation [currently being considered for cellular telephones] and to study the new technology.

The NAB worked its magic on Capitol Hill, inviting Japanese broadcaster NHK to Washington and rolling big-screen Sony TVs into a hearing in the Senate Caucus Room. Fear of Japanese competition was at fever pitch in Washington. Congress was stunned by the picture quality and frenzied at the prospect that the Japanese would outflank American manufacturers of televisions, just as they had done to the makers of videocassette recorders. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., then-chairman of the House Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee, took up their cause, and Congress pressured the FCC to leave the spectrum assignments alone on the condition that broadcasters develop HDTV.

[…]

But there was still a problem. Existing TV broadcasting equipment could not send digital signals, and existing analog television sets couldn’t receive digital signals. Broadcasters would have to invest in new television cameras and towers for digital signals, and consumers would have to spend thousands of dollars apiece on new sets. During the transitional period, each broadcaster would need two channels, one for analog and one for digital.

Broadcasters turned to Congress, now in Republican hands, and lobbied for a new compact: We’ll give you HDTV if you give us a second channel, for free, until Americans have made the switch. “It was understood that the channels would be loaned for a period of years to prevent consumers from losing television,” said Robert Seidel, vice president of engineering for CBS Broadcasting.

Congress initially approved a transition to digital in 1997, setting year-end 2006 as the target transition date. But a loophole rendered the 2006 irrelevant until congress revisited the issue and, on February 1, 2006, fixed February 2009 as the end-date for the transition.

In the intervening decade, the question of broadcasters’ public interest obligations has been intermittently revived. Most significantly, as a result of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, an Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters was created. It became popularly known as the “Gore Commission.”

Unlike other modes of communications, broadcasters are regulated as a “public trustee.” This means that they must meet certain obligations — by airing children’s television, or by including coverage of civic and political events, for example — that are not required of their counterparts on cable or the print medium.

At the time of the Gore Commission, one voice in the debate was Henry Geller, a former FCC general counsel who has continued to work on broadband matters as a private citizen. He was an FCC attorney before rising to general counsel in 1964-1970, later serving as an assistant to FCC Chairman Dean Burch, from 1970-1974, and then becoming the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under President Carter, from 1978-1981.

In a 2000 hearing on the subject before Congress, Geller suggested the following (reprinted in Current magazine):

I urge you to consider the following: Scrap the public trustee content scheme, and treat broadcasting like its main rival, cable, which pays up to 5 percent of gross revenues for use of the public streets for cable rights-of-way (significantly, the public makes little or no distinction between cable and broadcast channels).

By taking some modest fee from commercial broadcasters for their use of the public spectrum in lieu of the public trustee obligation, noncommercial television could be adequately funded to deliver high-quality public service programming. The objective is to obtain such programming, but since the government soundly cannot review for quality, we are dependent upon the broadcaster to present the high-quality public service programs. The noncommercial system has demonstrated that it will strive to do so; the commercial system, under fierce and growing competition, has no such history or incentive.

Geller instead suggested a 1 percent spectrum fee on gross advertising revenues, netting about $250 million at the time, and going to fund educational programming on public television

Geller also argued, with respect to political content:

There is one other recommendation to Congress—affording free time to candidates as an important part of campaign finance reform. The details of such an effort are of course to be fashioned by Congress. Since it would obligate broadcasters to allocate a relatively large amount of air time every two years (or perhaps issue vouchers for purchase of that air time), the free time provision, along with the above 1 percent figure in the educational field, would constitute the full broadcaster contribution in lieu of its present public trustee obligation. This would be a meritorious conclusion, because an educated and informed electorate is so vital to the proper functioning of our democracy.

Geller, together with two officials involved in the Gore Commission — Norman Ornstein and Gigi Sohn — will present their reflections at a forum TOMORROW, on Friday, October 3: “The Gore Commission, 10 Years Later: The Public Interest Obligations of Digital TV Broadcasters in Perfect Hindsight.” The event, to be held beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the National Press Club, will feature is sponsored by the Information Economy Project at George Mason University School of Law, of which I am the assistant director. The full program is available at http://iep.gmu.edu. Admission to the event is free and open to the public. To reserve your spot, please email Drew Clark at: iep.gmu@gmail.com.

Later today, I’ll be returning to this theme with two more blog entries in this spot:

  • What Did the Gore Commission Accomplish?
  • How Do the Gore Commission’s Finding Apply to Our Video Future?

Conference Program:

A mini-conference • Friday, October 3, 2008, 8:30 a.m.The Gore Commission, 10 Years Later:
The Public Interest Obligations of Digital TV Broadcasters
in Perfect Hindsight

A mini-conference • Friday, October 3, 2008, 8:30 a.m.
National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, Washington, DC

On December 18, 1998, the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, commonly referred to as the “Gore Commission,” released its final report, recommending:

  • Disclosure of “public interest activities” by commercial broadcasters
  • A voluntary standard of conduct crafted by the industry
  • A minimum standard of public interest requirements set by the FCC
  • A trust fund for public broadcasters to be established by Congress; and
  • Five minutes airtime per night for “candidate-centered discourse in the 30 days before an election,” set to commence Sunday, October 5, 2008

Have the recommendations been implemented? Has the approach worked? Are the standards and regulations advocated relevant in today’s media marketplace? What has experience taught us about broadcast regulation and public interest obligations?

8:30 am: Welcome THOMAS HAZLETT
Professor of Law and Economics, George Mason University School of Law
Director, Information Economy Project

8:45 am: GIGI SOHN
President, Public Knowledge
Member of the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (“Gore Commission”)

9:30 am: NORMAN ORNSTEIN
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Co-Chair, Gore Commission

10:15 am: HENRY GELLER
Retired General Counsel, Federal Communications Commission, 1964-70
Assistant to FCC Chairman Dean Burch, 1970-1974
Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1978-1981

11:00 am Adjourn

When: Friday, October 3, 2008, 8:30 a.m. – 11 a.m.
Where: National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, Washington, DC

Admission is free, but seating is limited. See IEP Web page: http://iep.gmu.edu.
To reserve your spot, please email Drew Clark: iep.gmu@gmail.com.

About the Information Economy Project:
The Information Economy Project at George Mason University sits at the intersection of academic research and public policy, producing peer-reviewed scholarly research, as well as hosting conferences and lectures with prominent thinkers in the Information Economy. The project brings the discipline of law and economics to telecommunications policy. More information about the project is available at http://iep.gmu.edu.