Public Interest Obligations

A key principle of federal communications law is that in exchange for free use of the public airwaves broadcasters agree to take actions to benefit the public. These principles are enshrined in the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934 in the mandate that "broadcasting serve the public interest, convenience and necessity."

As America's television and radio stations convert to a digital format (DTV), it is appropriate to reexamine this longstanding and important social compact between broadcasters and the American people. There is a roadmap for ensuring the public benefits in the DTV transition.

Recent Updates

  • In December 2007, the FCC adopts new broadcast ownership rules allowing newspapers to own local broadcast outlets. In its Order, the FCC moves the debate over public interest obligations into a new proceeding on broadcast localism

  • On August 15, 2007, 28 Groups Tell FCC That Digital TV Rules Lack Public Benefit
    • FCC Commissioner Copps responds: "I welcome the comments of the 28 groups who came together to ask the Commission to get serious about defining how this transition will benefit not just broadcasters, but all the American people."

  • On June 12, 2007, the Midwest Democracy Network urged the FCC to impose stronger public interest obligations on local television broadcasters.

  • FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, in a New York Times op-ed, wrote that he fears the Commission has not done enough to stand up for the public interest.

  • Radio host Michael Savage attacked Rep Maurice Hinchey and other sponsors of the Media Ownership Reform Act (MORA) for seeking "the final solution for conservatives on talk radio" -- that is reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

  • House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell told the three main advertising groups -- the American Advertising Federation, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies -- that he's planning an effort to revive the Federal Communication Commission's Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to offer competing viewpoints in a balanced manner when presenting controversial issues.

  • Can the Marketplace Deliver the Media We Need? by Charles Benton

  • Imus and "I'm Us" by Mark Lloyd, Center for American Progress

  • On April 16, Broadcasting&Cable reported that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has circulated a notice of proposed rulemaking that would require online filing of TV stations' public files.

  • On March 27, 2007, the Campaign Legal Center, the Benton Foundation and the Center for American Progress wrote to House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell and Subcommittee Ed Markey asking Congress to push the FCC to finish its inquiry into DTV public interest obligations. The FCC had been considering new DTV public interest rules since 1995 without any resolution of the issue.

  • On March 22, 2007, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said: "The Commission made a... determination to carry over obligations from analog to digital in the television context... We increased the obligations for children's programming in the digital world. The Commission is currently considering a proposal that would modify broadcasters' disclosure obligations to improve the availability and quality of information available to the public. I support this "enhanced disclosure" -- the requiring of broadcasters to tell us and the public exactly how much time they devote to, for example, local programming, news and current affairs, political campaigns, or even local sports. I am not comfortable, however, telling broadcasters exactly how much time they must spend on each of these areas. In addition, I believe mandatory minimums too often become ceilings on what broadcasters provide, not floors."

  • On March 14, 2007, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told the House Telecommunications Subcommittee that the Commission has already addressed a number of questions raised in a 1999 notice of inquiry on possible new DTV public-interest obligations noting an extension of analog public interest obligations to digital TV and by coming up with new DTV kids TV rules.

  • TVNewsDay reports that Gannett and Media General, multimedia companies with substantial newspaper and TV station interests, are quietly floating a proposal under which the FCC would grant waivers of the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rule if the stations involved in the crossownership situations accept increased public interest obligations. Other broadcasters say they, too, are willing to deal, not for regulatory relief, but for regulatory help: they want carriage of all their digital TV channels on local cable systems.

  • On March 13, 2007, Broadcasting&Cable reports, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin distributed to the other commissioners a proposal to give DTV multicast channels leased to minorities and small businesses by TV broadcasters the same must-carry rights as those stations get. Apparently the rule would allow a broadcaster to lease a multicast stream to a designated entry, with the "punch line" being that right to mandatory carriage. The proposal would essentially create a new class of station by proxy, with the same privileges, most notably carriage, and the same public interest responsibilities.

  • More Than 4,200 Days of FCC Inaction US television broadcasting will be all digital in less than 700 days, but the Federal Communications Commission still has not determined the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters -- a matter it first asked for public comment on in 1995!

  • In September 2006, the FCC approved hundrerds of TV programs, produced by non-profit organizations, to be shown without closed captions. The National Association of the Deaf is asking for support to challenge the FCC orders.

Benton Resources & Publications

Citizen's Guide to the of Digital Television Broadcasters

Charting the Digital Broadcasting Future, the final report of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the of Digital Television Broadcasters, part of the Benton "PIAC" legacy project

Conditions and Public Affairs Programming: Implications
for Digital Television Policy

Looking Back at PIAC: The Unfinished Business of Ensuring the Public Benefits from DTV

Keeping Up to Date

Benton's Communications-Related
provides daily updates on developments
in the transition to digital television and other pressing
communications issues. Benton also provides an RSS feed on recent press reports concerning public interest obligations.

Related Resources

A number of organizations provide online
information, research, citizen action possibilities,
and other related links. A select list follows:

DTV website

for Digital Democracy


Access Project

Campaign Legal Center