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FCC Chairman warns industry must meet commitments FCC Chairman William E. Kennard used an occasion at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City
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FCC Chairman warns industry must meet commitments FCC Chairman William E. Kennard used an occasion at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City in mid-October as the backdrop to call for more benefits to the public from what he called "the $70 billion giveaway of a second digital TV channel." Speaking before an audience that included students, representatives of the public interest community and the broadcast industry, Kennard outlined his strategy in which broadcasters' would fulfill public interest obligations by enhancing the democratic process and detailed plans to jump-start digital TV and the wireless web.

Kennard urged the television broadcast industry to ensure that the power of television is put to the service of the American democracy. Kennard said, "When we realize that television should not only entertain us as consumers, but engage and ennoble us as citizens, we will have come a long way to establishing the 21st century's first true electronic democracy." Kennard outlined a five-part strategy as a framework for rethinking broadcasters' public interest obligations:

- Stations should commit to carry every single presidential debate, as well as coverage of state and local races. Kennard said television reached "a new low" when the NBC and Fox chose to preempt the Oct. 1 debate for sports and entertainment programming.

- Stations should commit to show more public service announcements (PSAs) during peak viewing hours.

- Stations should provide free air time to candidates for federal office during the last few weeks of an election season.

- The broadcast industry should establish a code of conduct for good citizenship by broadcasters; and,

- The Commission will hold a public meeting to further explore how television can enhance democracy by contributing to political discourse, serving local communities and protecting children.

If that wasn't enough, Kennard said on the conversion from analog to digital, "Broadcasters have decided to sit on these two highly valuable properties - licensed to them for free by Congress - for as long as they can." He warned broadcasters, "Squatting on empty spectrum smothers innovation and endangers America's lead in new technologies."

In an attempt to put some teeth into his thoughts, Kennard urged Congress to implement a three-part plan to push the conversion to digital TV, freeing up spectrum for the wireless web and the money potential that auctioning off this spectrum would bring. Kennard's three-part plan would:

- eliminate the "85 percent loophole" in the law, thereby making 2006 a hard deadline for broadcasters to return their analog channels;

- adopt a requirement that all new television sets include the capability to receive digital TV signals by a given date, such as Jan. 1, 2003; and

- impose an escalating "spectrum squatters fee" on broadcasters if they do not meet the 2006 conversion deadline. The proceeds from the fee could help fund the digital conversion of public television and support programming that serves the public but is not provided by the market.

During the speech, Kennard said broadcasters disregarded their public interest obligations. "Broadcasters cannot delegate their obligation to act in the public interest.

"Never again," he said, "should a major network miss covering a presidential debate." Baseball contract or not, business interests should not "trump their compact with the American people."

He chided the broadcast industry for its "disinterest" in fulfilling its role as public trustee of the airwaves, saying that is unacceptable, particularly in light of the $70 billion in digital spectrum that was given to broadcasters, free of charge. "Broadcasters have increasingly elevated financial interests above the public interest."

Taking on the National Association of Broadcasters, Kennard said that NAB's claim that the industry did $8.1 billion in community service in 1999 is overstated. He also said broadcasters have to move faster to implement digital TV and return analog spectrum so it can be used by others.

Kennard continued: "I want to cut the Gordian knot of public interest vs. financial interests and outline clear tangible public interests obligations that broadcasters can commit to."

NAB President and CEO, Eddie Fritts said, "It is regrettable that Chairman Kennard has failed the test of leadership." Fritts says broadcasters are well ahead of schedule in the transition process, with 158 stations now sending digital signals that reach 65 percent of U.S. households.

The manufacturing industry says that a lack of innovative new broadcast programming, including shows in the super-sharp HDTV format, has made it difficult to sell the sets.

No one can say that CBS isn't doing its part. With nearly a dozen hours of HDTV programming in primetime, weekly, they are certainly doing their fair share, but where are the rest? NBC only offers the token Leno show during late night.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) strongly supports Kennard's remarks. "It's content that drives the market," said Jeff Joseph of CEA. "And the fact is there is very little content. We strongly support [Chairman Kennard's] efforts to make the broadcast industry accountable to commit to the digital TV transition."

National Cable Television Association's Dave Beckwith added, "Perhaps it's time for the spectrum to be returned so it can be auctioned to those who will bring newer, better services to the public."

It is not hard for anyone, prior to the elections, to look at all this as political hot air. However, there is little question that something has to give, sooner or later. It would be difficult, at best, to expect anything much to happen in Washington before the new tenants in the White House have taken up their residency and their particular cut on things is made known.