Digital TV Rules Lack Public Benefit, 28 Groups Tell FCC

Broad Coalition Asks Commission to Define the
Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters

August 15, 2007

Over the past 12 years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has repeatedly failed to redefine broadcasters’ public interest obligations in light of the nation’s ongoing transition to digital television, a coalition of 28 groups said in a filing at the FCC today. The groups echoed the warnings of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps that this "record of inaction" may "go down . . . as the Commission’s major failing in its efforts to move the digital transition forward."

The groups’ filing came in the FCC’s third periodic review of the conversion of the nation’s broadcast television system from analog to digital television ("DTV"). The DTV transition will increase efficient use of the spectrum, expand consumer choice for video programming, and increase the amount of spectrum available for public safety and other wireless services. Analog TV broadcasts are to end February 17, 2009. In its rulemaking, the FCC proposed procedures and rule changes necessary to complete the transition, but once again failed to address broadcasters’ obligations to serve local communities’ educational, informational, civic, minority, disability and emergency information needs – or how these services should be disclosed to the public.

"Congress and the courts have been clear," said Benton Foundation Chairman Charles Benton, "that the rights of viewers are paramount in broadcasting. The FCC has worked long and hard to help broadcasters make the transition to digital TV technology, a transition that could greatly increase the value of their businesses. The Commission must now do the work to define the benefits of the transition for the public, a transition that could make their airwaves more valuable to them."

"The Commission has the opportunity and the statutory obligation to create an important and lasting legacy to benefit the citizens of our nation as we enter the digital age," said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center. "Despite the fact that most broadcasters have come to treat the public airwaves as their personal property, that incredibly valuable spectrum is still owned by the American public. It is the Commission’s job to remind broadcasters of that fact and to demand substantive public interest efforts in return."

Fourteen members of the Midwest Democracy Network, which includes the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, signed on to the letter.

Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform – one of the Midwest Democracy Network members who participated in the filing – said: "The Supreme Court has observed that speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government. Due to its reach, influence and statutory obligations, local television news, in particular, has a special responsibility to inform voters at election time about the backgrounds, experiences, qualifications, and policy views of candidates for public office. Between elections, it has a duty to help citizens make sense out of governmental issues and decisions that will impact their lives and communities. By defining and enforcing the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters, the FCC can guarantee that citizens have the access they need to be full participants in our democracy."

When the FCC launched this proceeding earlier this year, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said, "I am concerned that we have not yet provided broadcasters and the public with a concrete understanding of broadcasters’ public interest obligations in the digital age. This necessary piece of the transition continues to lag further and further behind. Congress made clear that broadcasters continue to have public interest obligations in the digital world, but left it up to us to specify how to apply them. As we continue to speed the arrival of the best possible digital television service to the public, an important proceeding that could bring certainty continues to linger at the Commission…. A crystal clear digital picture is important, but quality programming is just as, if not more, important."

List of commenters: Alliance for Community Media, Benton Foundation, Center for Digital Democracy, Chicago Media Action, Citizen Advocacy Center, Common Cause, Common Cause Illinois, Common Cause Michigan, Common Cause Ohio, Common Cause Wisconsin, Communication Service for the Deaf, Consumer Action, Democracy Now, Free Press, Hearing Loss Association of America – New York State, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Illinois PIRG, League of Women Voters of Minnesota, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Michigan Campaign Finance Network, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, Ohio Citizen Action Education Fund, Sunshine Project – University of Illinois at Springfield, Take Action Minnesota, The Campaign Legal Center, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

FCC Filing