FCC Calls for Public Comment on Digital TV
Last year, a commission appointed by President Clinton recommended that, in view of stations' vastly increased opportunities for broadcasting more programming, they be required to carry more public-interest and educational programming. Included in the recommendations were such suggestions as increasing children's educational programming. (At present, the requirement is only three hours per week per station.)
FCC Chairman William Kennard said the current inquiry would start a "very, very important debate." Two years ago, Kennard backed a plan to give political candidates free air time, a proposal that could have affected the influence of special-interest groups on candidates' apparent positions by making the candidates less dependent on campaign contributions. That proposal was blocked by Congress.
In the "great bandwidth giveaway" that began the transition to what ultimately will be an all-digital (and, presumably, somewhat high-definition) television broadcasting system, each TV station in the US was given a second channel in addition to its existing analog channel. The bandwidth required for one ultimate-resolution digital channel can be used for several so-called standard-definition channels, tremendously increasing the amount of potential programming any broadcaster can beam at the public.
This potential has caused a number of nonprofit advocacy groups to campaign for expanded public-service requirements. Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education in Washington, DC, describes his group's view of the situation this way: "This public 'gift' allows broadcasters to transmit several interactive digital channels, giving them the equivalent of free beachfront property on the Information Superhighway. The public deserves a dividend in return."
Chester's group will ask for new safeguards to protect kids from harmful interactive marketing and advertising practices on digital broadcasts, and may push to let schools use some of the bandwidth. The FCC will entertain comments through the month of April. The agency isn't noted for its lightning speed, however: any new rules that emerge as a result of the inquiry could take years to establish.