Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters Timeline 1995-2007

Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters
Timeline 1995-2007
More than 4,000 days of inaction

July 28, 1995 In Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Advanced Television Systems and Their Impact Upon the Existing Television Broadcast Service, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) firsts asks for public comment on the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters.

December 12, 1995 FCC EN BANC hearing on Advanced Television Systems including panel on the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters. FCC Commissioner Hundt asks if its "reasonable to give away spectrum worth whatever number, hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and not ask, at the same time, for specific public interest obligations to be performed."

February 8, 1996 President Clinton signs the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which states "Nothing in this section shall be construed as relieving a television broadcasting station from its obligation to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity." Additionally, the Act directs the FCC to conduct an evaluation of the digital television services program within 10 years of first issuing DTV licenses.

February 5, 1997 Citing the need to define obligations for the digital age, Vice President Al Gore announces President Clinton's intention to appoint an advisory group to recommend digital TV guidelines within a year saying, "Digital technology will greatly enhance the opportunities available to broadcasters to utilize multiple channels. The public interest obligations should be commensurate with these new opportunities."

March 13, 1997 President Clinton signs Executive Order 13038 creating the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters to advise the Vice President on the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters.

April 03, 1997 Fifth and Sixth Report & Order on Advanced Television Systems and Their Impact Upon the Existing Television Broadcast Service. The Commission did not adopt specific new public interest rules for broadcasters in the digital world. "We are not resolving this debate today," the Order reads. “Instead, at an appropriate time, we will issue a Notice to collect and consider all views. As we authorize digital service, however, broadcast licensees and the public are on notice that existing public interest requirements continue to apply to all broadcast licensees. Broadcasters and the public are also on notice that the Commission may adopt new public interest rules for digital television. Thus as to the public interest, our action today forecloses nothing from our consideration." FCC Chairman Hundt said the action would allow "the Administration, Congress and the public to advise us on the appropriate nature and scope of specific public interest obligations in the future" This will give the public a real chance to ensure that the Commission adopts appropriate public interest obligations for broadcasters in the digital age."

January 27, 1998 During his State of the Union address, President Clinton announces, "I will formally request that the Federal Communications Commission act to provide free or reduced-cost television time for candidates who observe spending limits voluntarily. The airwaves are a public trust, and broadcasters also have to help us in this effort to strengthen our democracy." Broadcasters successfully thwarted efforts to extend their relevance in campaigns.

December 18, 1998 Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters releases Charting the Digital Broadcasting Future, a report which includes a history of public interest obligations and broadcasting, an account of the genesis of digital television, and the Advisory Committee's recommendations. Eight years later, the FCC still has not implemented the Advisory Committee recommendations that called for:

  • Disclosure of Public Interest Activities by Broadcasters
  • Voluntary Standards of Conduct
  • Minimum Public Interest Requirements
  • Improving Education Through Digital Broadcasting
  • Multiplexing and the Public Interest
  • Improving the Quality of Political Discourse
  • Improved Disaster Warning in the Digital Age
  • Disability Access to Digital Programming
  • Diversity in Broadcasting
  • New Approaches to Public Interest Obligations in the New Television Environment

October 20, 1999 Vice President Al Gore sends letter to FCC Chairman William Kennard urging the Commission to swiftly address four specific recommendations of the Advisory Committee: 1) improving the quality of public discourse, 2) disaster warnings, 3) disability access to digital programming and 4) diversity in broadcasting.

December 15, 1999 Responding to the Vice President's letter outlining four key area, the FCC adopts Notice of Inquiry (MM Docket No. 99-360) on the Public Interest Obligations of TV Broadcast Licensees. The Commission asked for comment on four general categories of issues: 1) the application of television stations' public interest obligations to the new flexibility and capabilities of digital television, such as multiple channel transmission; 2) how television stations could best serve their communities in terms of providing their viewers information on their public interest activities, and using digital technology to provide emergency information in new ways; 3) how DTV broadcasters could increase access to television programming by people with disabilities, and further the longstanding legislative and regulatory goals of diversity; and 4) whether broadcasters could enhance the quality of political discourse through uses of the airwaves for political issues and debate. After receiving comment on this proceeding, the FCC has never issued a report on this NOI.

September 14, 2000 Out of concerns that the public could not determine the extent to which broadcasters were meeting obligations even in the analog world, FCC begins proceeding in the matter of Standardized and Enhanced Disclosure Requirements for Television Broadcast Licensee Public Interest Obligations which sought comment on requiring television broadcasters (both digital and analog) to disclose on a quarterly standardized form how they are serving the public interest. The FCC has not adopted a Report & Order in this proceeding.

September 14, 2000 FCC begins proceeding on Children’s Television Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (MM Docket No. 00-167).

October 16, 2000 FCC EN BANC hearing on the Public Interest Obligations of TV Broadcast Licensees. Chairman Kennard notes that: "[t]here are fewer PSAs. There is less involvement between broadcasters and their communities." and spoke about the "unease among many minority communities that we are not being represented on television in positive roles" He asked for more clarity because, "[b]eing a public trustee certainly doesn't mean that you just get free spectrum anymore. It must mean more than that."

October 11, 2001 FCC Chairman Michael Powell creates the Digital Television Task Force to review the ongoing transition to DTV, and to make recommendations to the Commission concerning priorities to facilitate the transition and promote the rapid recovery of broadcast spectrum for other uses. One job of the Task Force is to "to help us set priorities as we move forward -- what we need to do immediately, what can wait, what need not be done at all, and what is more appropriately done by someone else because it involves aspects of the transition not within the purview or expertise of the FCC."

August 8, 2002 FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin says about a DTV-related Report & Order, "I believe it is extremely important for the Commission to resolve outstanding DTV-related issues quickly so that affected industries and consumers know the rules of the road."

June 2004 Sen John McCain and FCC Chairman Michael Powell send letters to nation's broadcasters asking them what their plans are for educating voters during election year. McCain says that if broadcasters fail communities during election, it could very well give new life to legislation calling for free time for political candidates.

August 12, 2004 FCC adopts NPRM on review of the Emergency Alert System (EB Docket No. 04-296)

September 9, 2004 FCC Adopts Children's Programming Obligations for Digital Television Broadcasters (MM Docket 00-167).

February 10, 2005 FCC Resolves Dual and Multicast Carriage Issues (CS Docket No. 98-120). Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, once again, call for action on digital television public interest obligations:

  • Commissioner Copps: "We are told to act now because this proceeding has been pending for so long. Other items integral to this one, prerequisites for today's vote, have been around even longer. Consider that in 1999, more than a year before our first must-carry vote, we opened a proceeding on the public interest obligations of digital TV broadcasters. And in that public interest proceeding, remember that we were not writing on a blank slate. Rather, we were addressing issues raised in a report from a Presidential advisory committee that was issued a full year before that. It is six years later now, and this Commission still has not provided the American people with a clear idea as to how broadcasters' enhanced digital spectrum is going to improve our viewing experience. The must-carry decision was a golden opportunity in which to consider this, but we let it slip away. Instead we have a record of inaction that will go down, I believe, as the Commission's major failing in its efforts to move the digital transition forward.”
  • Commissioner Adelstein: "For nearly two years, both internally and externally, I have consistently maintained that it would be premature to decide multicast carriage without assurance that each programming stream would indeed serve its local community through the imposition of concrete and meaningful public interest requirements" Unfortunately, for two years I was unable to engage the industry in an effective fashion to step forward and engage in public interest discussions. Illustrating the resistance, the NAB expressed hostility to the Commission even inquiring into broadcast localism. And aside from concluding a children's programming item last year, the Commission until today continued to sit on an enhanced public disclosure proposal and a more than five-year old general inquiry into digital public interest obligations."

November 03, 2005 FCC Amends Emergency Alert System (EAS) Rules to Include Digital Media Technologies and Seeks Further Comments on EAS System. The Order expanded the Commission's current EAS rules to include providers of digital TV broadcasts by May 31, 2007.

November 18, 2005 Citing a woeful lack of progress, FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) adopts recommendation that FCC should, within six months, issue Reports & Orders in the matters of 1) Public Interest Obligations of TV broadcast Licensees (MM Docket No. 99â€"360) and 2) Standardized and Enhanced Disclosure Requirements for Television Broadcast Licensee Public Interest Obligations (MM 20 Docket No. 00-168)).

May 18, 2006 CAC deadline on DTV public interest obligations and disclosure passes. Fourteen members write FCC Chairman Kevin Martin asking for an explanation on progress in the Public Interest Obligations proceedings. As of January 2007, no response from the chairman.

February 7, 2007 Responding to oversight questions from the House Commerce Committee, FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps again call on the Commission to develop DTV public interest obligations and encourage more PSAs:

  • Commissioner Adelstein: "The FCC must develop DTV public interest obligations and encourage more PSAs. First, in order to maximize the benefits to the American people, the Commission needs to determine DTV broadcasters' public interest obligations. This proceeding has been pending since 1999, and the Commission has failed to produce final rules. Quantitative public interest obligations would encourage broadcasters to develop news and entertainment programming that is compelling and relevant to the viewing audience."
  • Commissioner Copps: "Consumer education and outreach are indispensable in gaining consumer acceptance of DTV. Responsibility for this outreach lies with both the Commission and the most affected industries. Another--and critically important--step we could take is to revive some of our long dormant inquiries into the public service obligations of TV and radio broadcasters after the digital transition. I believe that resolving these questions as soon as possible will help consumers understand the benefits of going digital, which will in turn allow them to make the appropriate buying decisions in advance of the transition. In addition, we should be bringing the parties together and encouraging the development of such practices that will bring needed consumer information to buyers before they become owners. It's the right policy; it is also, I believe, good business."