Another DTV Opportunity Missed by the FCC

Charles Benton

Last Friday, with about just two months left until the digital television (DTV) transition is completed, Sen Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA) sent Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin a letter asking him to confine his last FCC actions to smoothing the DTV transition and matters that "require action under the law." In response, Chairman Martin canceled the FCC's scheduled monthly meeting on December 18. That's a bad idea and another lost opportunity for digital television.

"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." -- FCC Commissioner Michael Copps

As I hope you know, by February 17, 2009, all full-power television stations in the U.S. must be broadcasting exclusively in digital. Consumers who rely on free over-the-air television must upgrade their TV sets or risk losing reception after that date. The transition, now just days away, started over 20 years ago when broadcasters first approached regulators about upgrading the technology used to deliver television signals.

The call from Sen. Rockefeller and Rep. Waxman, the incoming chairmen of the Congressional committees with FCC oversight responsibly, is not misplaced. Many people are concerned about how many people's television service might be disrupted during the transition. Most at risk are the people who rely solely on antennas to receive their TV signals and, within this group, people with low-incomes, Spanish-speaking households and elderly people seem most vulnerable.

On the FCC's tentative agenda for its now-canceled meeting was a notice of apparent liability against various companies for violations of the Commission's DTV consumer education requirements. The Commission could have used Thursday's meeting to highlight these violations and the FCC's enforcement efforts, putting television industries on notice that all players have a responsibility for giving consumers truthful information about what they need to do to make sure they continue to get television signals after February 17, 2009.

In addition, the FCC could have highlighted recent efforts by local broadcasters to help viewers prepare for the switch. On Wednesday, TV stations in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia will conduct the first-ever national readiness test. Participating stations will broadcast over their analog signals information that explains the upcoming transition to DTV and directs viewers to resources for further assistance. While the timing and length of the tests vary by station and state, many will occur during evening newscasts. In addition to statewide phone banks, some television stations will host their own call centers to answer consumer questions. The FCC's Dec 18 meeting could have been a platform for releasing initial results of these tests.

Finally, Thursday also marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Charting the Digital Broadcasting Future by a Presidential Advisory Committee on digital television. That report made a number of recommendations on how to bring the responsibilities of broadcasters to serve their local communities into the digital age. The question of digital broadcasters' public interest obligations has actually gone unanswered by the FCC for over 13 years now and is long overdue.

Broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public's interests, not just their own commercial interests. The government provides broadcasters free and exclusive access to a portion of the public airwaves - "spectrum" - for broadcasting. These profitable licenses come in exchange for broadcasters' commitment to serve the "public interest, convenience, or necessity." Television has never played a more important role in our lives. It is our primary source of news and entertainment. But today's television is too often out of touch with today's realities: parent's struggling to find educational programming for their children, voters struggling to find basic coverage of campaigns and elections so vital to our democracy, and minorities too often having difficulty finding programming reflective of their lives. In each case, broadcasters have too often lost touch with the needs of the people who own the airwaves.

In 1969, the Supreme Court declared that "it is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of the market," and thus, it is "the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."

Unfortunately, the Commission has repeatedly failed to put viewers first and redefine broadcasters' public interest obligations in light of the nation's ongoing transition to DTV. In the words of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, this "record of inaction" may "go down . . . as the Commission's major failing in its efforts to move the digital transition forward."

The obligation of broadcasters to serve local educational, informational, civic, minority, and disability needs of the public has been created by statute and upheld by the courts. Further guidance from the Commission is necessary to clarify how these public interest obligations apply to DTV broadcasters and to answer outstanding questions raised by the increased technological capabilities of the digital medium. I urge the Commission to issue clear, concrete guidelines on this subject, and to provide notice to regulated entities and the public regarding how broadcasters will continue to fulfill their public interests obligations in the digital age.

By Charles Benton.