As this Nation's 1,600 television stations begin to convert to a digital television format, it is appropriate to reexamine the long-standing social compact between broadcasters and the American people. The quality of governance, intelligence of political discourse, diversity of free expression, vitality of local communities, opportunities for education and instruction, and many other dimensions of American life will be affected profoundly by how digital television evolves.
This Advisory Committee's recommendations on how public interest obligations of television broadcasters ought to change in the new digital television era represent a new stage in the ongoing evolution of the public interest standard: a needed reassessment in light of dramatic changes in communications technology, market structures, and the needs of a democratic society.
SECTION I. THE ORIGINS AND FUTURE PROSPECTS OF DIGITAL TELEVISION
Digital television is a new technology for transmitting and receiving broadcast television signals. It delivers better pictures and sound, uses the broadcast spectrum more efficiently, and adds versatility to the range of applications. Often referred to as DTV, digital television also represents a new technological infrastructure for broadcast television, and thus a new economic and competitive paradigm.
Using an additional 6 megahertz (MHz) of broadcast spectrum temporarily granted by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a period of no fewer than 9 years, broadcasters will be able to develop a diverse range of new digital television programming and services while continuing to transmit conventional analog television programming on their existing allotments of spectrum, as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
One of the primary rationales for the Nation's transition to digital television is high-definition television, or HDTV. This transmission mode contains up to six times more data than conventional television signals and at least twice the picture resolution. But DTV also enables a broadcast station to send as many as five digital 'standard-definition television" (SDTV) signals, which are not as sharp as HDTV but still superior to existing television images. This new capacity, known as "multicasting" or "multiplexing," is expected to allow broadcasters to compete with other multichannel media such as cable and direct broadcast satellite systems.
Another DTV capability is the ability to provide new kinds of video and data services, such as subscription television programming, computer software distribution, data transmissions, teletext, interactive services, and audio signals, among others. Referred to as "ancillary and supplementary services" under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, these services include such potentially revenue-producing innovations as providing stock prices and sports scores, classified advertising, paging services, "zoned" news reports, advertising targeted to specific television sets, "time-shifted" video programming, and closed-circuit television services.
These choices -- HDTV, SDTV, and innovative video/information services -- are not mutually exclusive. Within a single programming day, a broadcaster will have the flexibility to shift back and forth among different DTV modes in different day parts. Although many existing programming genres and styles will surely continue, innovations in video programming and information services will arise, fueled in no small part by the anticipated convergence of personal computer and television technologies.
SECTION II. THE PUBLIC INTEREST STANDARD IN TELEVISION BROADCASTING
Federal oversight of all broadcasting has had two general goals: to foster the commercial development of the industry and to ensure that broadcasting serves the educational and informational needs of the American people. In many respects, the two goals have been quite complementary, as seen in the development of network news operations and in the variety of cultural, educational, and public affairs programming aired over the years.
In other respects, however, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have sometimes concluded that the broadcast marketplace by itself is not adequately serving public needs. Specific policies have sought to foster diversity of programming, ensure candidate access to the airwaves, provide diverse views on public issues, encourage news and public affairs programming, promote localism, generate more educational programming for children, and sustain a separate realm of noncommercial television programming services.
The fundamental legal framework that still governs the broadcast industry, based on the notion of "spectrum scarcity," sets it apart from other media. Congress has mandated that licensees serve as "public trustees" of the airwaves. Broadcasters have affirmative statutory and regulatory obligations to serve the public in specific ways. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the public trustee basis of broadcast regulation as constitutional.
SECTION III. RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE ADVISORY COMMITTEE
The vast new range of choices inherent in digital television technology makes it impossible to transfer summarily existing public interest obligations to digital television broadcasting. A key mandate for the Committee, therefore, has been to suggest how traditional principles of public-interest performance should be applied in the digital era. A second mandate has been to consider what additional public interest obligations may be appropriate, given the enhanced opportunities and advantages that broadcasters may receive through digital broadcasting.
Mindful of the uncertainties in how digital television will evolve, the Advisory Committee has operated under several basic principles in formulating its recommendations. The first is that the public, as well as broadcasters, should benefit from the transition to digital television. Second, flexibility is critical to accommodate unforeseen economic and technological developments. Third, the Advisory Committee has favored, whenever possible, policy approaches that rely on information disclosures, voluntary self-regulation, and economic incentives, as opposed to regulation.
The Advisory Committee recommends:
- Disclosure of Public Interest Activities by Broadcasters: Digital broadcasters should be required to make enhanced disclosures of their public interest programming and activities on a quarterly basis, using standardized checkoff forms that reduce administrative burdens and can be easily understood by the public.
- Voluntary Standards of Conduct: The National Association of Broadcasters, acting as the representative of the broadcasting industry, should draft an updated voluntary Code of Conduct to highlight and reinforce the public interest commitments of broadcasters.
- Minimum Public Interest Requirements: The FCC should adopt a set of minimum public interest requirements for digital television broadcasters in the areas of community outreach, accountability, public service announcements, public affairs programming, and closed captioning.
- Improving Education Through Digital Broadcasting: Congress should create a trust fund to ensure enhanced and permanent funding for public broadcasting to help it fulfill its potential in the digital television environment and remove it from the vicissitudes of the political process. When spectrum now used for analog broadcasting is returned to the government, Congress should reserve the equivalent of 6 MHz of spectrum for each viewing community in order to establish channels devoted specifically to noncommercial educational programming. Congress should establish an orderly process for allocating the new channels as well as provide adequate funding from appropriate revenue sources. Broadcasters that choose to implement datacasting should transmit information on behalf of local schools, libraries, community-based nonprofit organizations, governmental bodies, and public safety institutions. This activity should count toward fulfillment of a digital broadcaster's public interest obligations.
- Multiplexing and the Public Interest: Digital television broadcasters who choose to multiplex, and in doing so reap enhanced economic benefits, should have the flexibility to choose between paying a fee, providing a multicasted channel for public interest purposes, or making an in-kind contribution. Given the uncertainties of this still-hypothetical market, broadcasters should have a 2-year moratorium on any fees or contributions to allow for experimentation and innovation. Small-market broadcasters should be given an opportunity to appeal to the FCC for additional time. The moratorium should begin after the market penetration for digital television reaches a stipulated threshold.
- Improving the Quality of Political Discourse: If Congress undertakes comprehensive campaign finance reform, broadcasters should commit firmly to do their part to reform the role of television in campaigns. This could include repeal of the "lowest unit rate" requirement in exchange for free airtime, a broadcast bank to distribute money or vouchers for airtime, and shorter time periods of selling political airtime, among other changes. In addition, the television broadcasting industry should voluntarily provide 5 minutes each night for candidate-centered discourse in the 30 days before an election. Finally, blanket bans on the sale of airtime to all State and local political candidates should be prohibited.
- Disaster Warnings in the Digital Age: Broadcasters should work with appropriate emergency communications specialists and manufacturers to determine the most effective means to transmit disaster warning information. The means chosen should be minimally intrusive on bandwidth and not result in undue additional burdens or costs on broadcasters. Appropriate regulatory authorities should also work with manufacturers of digital television sets to make sure that they are modified to handle these kinds of transmissions.
- Disability Access to Digital Programming: Broadcasters should take full advantage of new digital closed captioning technologies to provide maximum choice and quality for Americans with disabilities, where doing so would not impose an undue burden on the broadcasters. These steps should include the gradual expansion of captioning on public service announcements, public affairs programming, and political programming; the allocation of sufficient audio bandwidth for the transmission and delivery of video description; disability access to ancillary and supplementary services; and collaboration between regulatory authorities and set manufacturers to ensure the most efficient, inexpensive, and innovative capabilities for disability access.
- Diversity in Broadcasting: Diversity is an important value in broadcasting, whether it is in programming, political discourse, hiring, promotion, or business opportunities within the industry. The Advisory Committee recommends that broadcasters seize the opportunities inherent in digital television technology to substantially enhance the diversity available in the television marketplace. Serving diverse interests within a community is both good business and good public policy.
- New Approaches to Public Interest Obligations in the New Television Environment: Although the Advisory Committee makes no consensus recommendation about entirely new models for fulfilling public interest obligations, it believes that the Administration, the Congress, and the FCC should explore alternative approaches that allow for greater flexibility and efficiency while affirmatively serving public needs and interests.
Finally, some members of the Advisory Committee have submitted separate statements that supplement, modify, or dissent from the Committee's recommendations. These statements are provided in Section IV of the Report.