FCC mulls public service obligations for digital broadcasters

Under current rules, a broadcaster must show three hours of educational programming each week on its main analog channel

The FCC is about to impose tough new obligations on television broadcasters to air dramatically more children’s programming on their new digital television channels.

The USA TODAY, citing two FCC officials as its source, said the commission may require that broadcasters run three hours of children’s programming a week on each new 24-hour multicast channel that a station broadcasts in addition to its main channel.

Under current rules, a broadcaster must show three hours of educational programming each week on its main analog channel.

The rules would allow broadcasters to shift the children’s shows to another multicast channel if it were impractical to air the programs on, for example, on an all-weather or all-sports channel — as long as the total number of required hours was met. One option, the report said, would be to broadcast an all-kids channel.

The newspaper said the proposal is supported by most of the five FCC commissioners, including Chairman Michael Powell, and could be officially approved as early as this week.

Typically, on a single new digital channel, a TV station might transmit a high-definition channel and one or two standard-definition channels in prime time, or four to six standard-definition channels during the day. Several hundred of the nation’s 1700 broadcast stations already multicast today, airing local news and weather or coverage of civic events and area sports.

The proposed new rules stem from an FCC initiative to set public interest obligations of terrestrial broadcasters in exchange for their free use of billions of dollars worth of broadcast spectrum owned by the public.

Some broadcasters worry that the requirements could hinder their multicasting plans. Many NBC affiliates, for example, plan to air all-weather channels, and possibly three or four other niche channels, such as sports, said Alan Frank, chief of Post-Newsweek Stations.

Other issues on the FCC’s table include interactive advertising targeted to children, preemption policies for children’s programs and required promotion of children’s fare.

By year’s end, the USA TODAY said the FCC also plans:

  • To propose how much public-affairs programming broadcasters must air on their digital channels.
  • To determine whether broadcasters must publicly disclose the amount of public-interest programming they air.
  • To decide whether cable systems must carry all of a TV station’s multicast channels.

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