A Step Forward, or Just More Corporate Welfare?
Digital TV: Unlocking the Power to Serve
by Charles BentonAn adage in the television industry goes: not everyone you met is a doctor, not everyone you meet is a lawyer, but everyone you meet is a television programmer. Everyone has an opinion about what they see on TV.
Over the past 14 months, I have served on a Presidential Advisory Committee on Digital TV with 21 other representatives of the industry, labor unions, minority organizations, independent producers, children's advocates, and public advocates. The question before the Committee has been how to redefine the compact between local broadcasters and the communities they are licensed to serve for the digital age. For years, the agreement has meant that broadcasters get free use of a valuable public resource -- called spectrum -- in exchange for the promise to serve as trustees acting in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity."
By 2006, broadcasters are to complete a transition from today's analog TV system to DTV. For broadcasters, the transition will give them the ability to offer a wide, new array of services: high-definition television (HDTV) with picture and sound quality that rivals a movie theater experience, multiple, simultaneous programming channels with a quality equal to or better than today's service, the ability to provide subscription and pay-per-view programming, as well as paging and wireless telephone service. Broadcasters could also use the technology to make television more interactive with a service called datacasting.
But what's in it for the public? What will "in the public interest" mean in the 21st Century when digital TV is apt to become as ubiquitous as today's analog TVs? Exit polls after November's election identified education as the #1 issues for voters. Well, there's another adage about television: there's no disagreement that it educates, it's what it teaches that causes all the controversy.
In a report the Committee sent to Vice President Gore on December 18, we recommend that broadcasters do more to address the concerns of the public and unlock the educational potential of digital television. Our recommendations call for broadcasters to provide and support a wide range of educational programming for children and adults alike on there own channels and a new, commercial-free service. We recommend that broadcasters develop means for determining their community's needs and interests and providing programming around those needs.
We suggest improved reporting requirements so that the public has a better sense of how broadcasters are serving their interests. We ask broadcasters to improve their coverage of campaigns and candidates and to challenge Congress to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform. We recommend that broadcasters use their datacasting capacity to provide interactive services to schools, libraries and other community organizations.
Do you think you'd make a good television programmer? Do you believe television is on the right track now? Would you like to see a reduction of the violence and sex and sensationalism on TV as we embark into the digital future? If you could control what's on TV, would you unlock the power of this educational tool on serving the needs of children, your community and our democracy?
I do not pose these as idle questions -- the work of the President's Advisory are recommendations that will go to the new Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Policymakers will have to hear from you if they are to chart the right course for the digital future.
A window of opportunity exists over the next few months for you to leave your mark on how television stations will be licensed to serve you and your community. Don't miss the opportunity to have your say.
Charles Benton is Chairman of Public Media Inc and the Benton Foundation.
Is Benton on target here, or will policies that fail to charge free-market prices for the use of spectrum ultimately be a loss for our citizens? What sort of "compact" between the American people and the TV station owners can justify corporate welfare to the owners? Let's hear your views:
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