DTV transition lacks public service obligations

A coalition of citizen groups claim that the FCC has failed to define broadcasters’ obligations during the transition to DTV.

A group of 28 national citizen activist organizations charged last week that the FCC is failing to enforce court-tested mandates by its refusal to define the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters.

Over the past 12 years, the FCC “has repeatedly failed to redefine broadcasters’ public interest obligations in light of the nation’s ongoing transition to digital television,” the coalition said in an FCC filing.

“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,” the groups said. “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.”

The coalition, with diverse groups that include Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the U.S. Conference Of Catholic Bishops, cited the warning of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps who said the official inaction may be the commission’s “major failing in its efforts to move the digital transition forward.”

The filing, part of the record for the FCC’s third periodic review of the transition process, argued that with less than 600 days before the completion of the transition “the American public deserves to know how television broadcasters will fulfill their role as public trustees of the airways in the digital age.”

The groups noted that in its original rulemaking, the commission proposed procedures and rule changes necessary to complete the transition, but “once again failed to address broadcasters’ obligations to serve local communities’ educational, informational, civic, minority, disability and emergency information needs.” The public, the groups said, need these obligations clearly defined.

“Despite the fact that most broadcasters have come to treat the public airwaves as their personal property, that incredibly valuable spectrum is still owned by the American public. It is the Commission’s job to remind broadcasters of that fact and to demand substantive public interest efforts in return,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a coalition member.

The groups petitioning the FCC include: the Alliance For Community Media, Benton Foundation, Center for Digital Democracy, Chicago Media Action, Citizen Advocacy Center, Common Cause, Common Cause Illinois, Common Cause Michigan, Common Cause Ohio, Common Cause Wisconsin, Communication Service For The Deaf, Consumer Action, Democracy Now, Free Press, Hearing Loss Association Of America – New York State, Illinois Campaign For Political Reform, Illinois PIRG, League Of Women Voters Of Minnesota, League Of Women Voters Of Wisconsin, Michigan Campaign Finance Network, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Northern Virginia Resource Center For Deaf And Hard Of Hearing Persons, Ohio Citizen Action Education Fund, Sunshine Project -- University Of Illinois At Springfield, Take Action Minnesota, The Campaign Legal Center, United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

To download the complete FCC filing, go to