Jim Goodmon’s Recommendations to the President’s Committee on Public Interest Obligations for Digital Broadcasters
A few months ago, Jim Goodmon, President and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co., Inc., was appointed to the President’s Committee on Public Interest Obligations for Digital Broadcasters. The members of that committee were asked to make recommendations on what television broadcasters should be required to do in order to meet and address the needs and interests of the local communities they serve. Mr. Goodmon’s proposals were presented to the Committee in Minneapolis on June 8, 1998. A copy of his recommendations follows:
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
A PROPOSAL FOR A MINIMUM LEVEL OF PUBLIC INTEREST REQUIREMENTS FOR ALL STATIONS AND A VOLUNTARY BROADCASTER CODE OF CONDUCT
Submitted for Consideration by James F. Goodmon President and Chief Executive Officer Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc.
The relationship between broadcasters and the local communities to which broadcasters are licensed always has been and remains the cornerstone of America’s system of free, over-the-air broadcasting. Local television broadcast stations are not intended to serve only as conduits for national programming but are intended to respond to the needs and interests of the communities they serve. This attention to localism is the ingredient that separates television broadcast stations from networks, satellite, and cable services. As long as broadcast stations are permitted to use public airwaves, it is not unreasonable for the public, in return, to expect their community needs and interests to be served.
With this goal in mind, the President’s Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters is charged with developing a plan to make sure the needs of the public are met. Members of this committee are working judiciously to draft a proposal that meets those needs and, at the same time, does not impose an unreasonable burden or bureaucracy on broadcast stations or government agencies. All of us need to work together for the common good of the American public.
During debate on passage of the Telecommunication’s Act of 1996, there were those who argued that the spectrum set aside for digital television transmission should be auctioned to the highest bidders. Others proposed unreasonable public interest requirements for use of the spectrum by broadcast stations. Still others advocated that broadcasters have a right to use the licenses and public airwaves for free, without any public interest requirements and that the free market in itself would protect the public interest. When viewed through the prism of reasonableness, it quickly becomes clear that none of these positions would further the public interest.
This proposal seeks a middle ground among these positions and is a plan for meeting the purpose of the Commission as well as the needs of the public and broadcast stations. It details a specific minimum set of requirements for the use of digital spectrum by broadcast stations and, at the same time, calls for the reinstatement of a voluntary code to be developed by broadcast stations. With that in mind, we submit the following proposals for consideration. The proposal addresses the following issues:
B.Public Service Announcements
C.Public Affairs Programming
D.Free Political Program Time
F.Lowest Unit Rate and Reasonable Access
I.”Play or Pay”
J. Public Broadcasting
The proposal also addresses the importance of “must carry” to the public interest and calls for the reinstatement of a voluntary code of conduct for broadcast stations.
I. Minimum Public Interest Requirements for Digital Broadcast Stations
A. Ascertainment. A station should be required to undertake steps designed to “ascertain” a community’s needs and interests. The ascertainment process is the foundation of the station’s news and public affairs efforts. There will be no proscribed way of conducting ascertainment, but the process and results will be reported quarterly by the station. Ascertainment participants should also be encouraged to offer solutions to community problems. The ascertainment process could be used as the mechanism for determining the issues to be addressed by political candidates in broadcast debates and political programming. Stations should, on the air, invite public input into the process.
6:00a.m. – 4:00p.m. = 55 per week
4:00p.m. – 11:30p.m. = 40 per week
11:30p.m. – 6:00a.m. = 55 per week
An emphasis should be given to PSAs produced in cooperation with local groups and communities. A minimum percentage (half) of the total aired spots should be locally produced. In its quarterly report the station should state how its PSAs address the ascertained community problems and solutions.
C. Public Affairs Programming. Each broadcast station should be required to broadcast two hours of public affairs programming each week. One hour of the public affairs programming should be aired between six p.m. and midnight. Public affairs programming from syndicated sources or the network may be applied to the total, but at least 50 percent of the required programming should be documented as locally produced and addressing local issues. News programs or portions of news programs shall not be counted towards meeting the public affairs commitment.
D. Free Political Program Time. Programming time for use by candidates for federal office should be provided for free by the digital broadcaster. Thirty and sixty second commercials do not provide for adequate discussion of public issues. Programs would. At a minimum, each station would provide eight one-half hour programs in the eight weeks before a general election. One-half of the programs would air between 6:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and one-half between 5:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. The format of these programs would be determined by the station. Only candidates (not their representatives) could appear. Free programming time requirements may likely foster fringe candidates promoting single issues because of the ability to generate free airtime. For that reason, equal opportunity exemptions may be necessary in order for this structure to work.
E. Accountability. Stations will report to the public on their public interest efforts in two ways. First, on a quarterly basis, stations will broadcast a program that reports to the community on the station’s ascertainment results as a part of the two-hour local public affairs programming commitment. Secondly, televisions stations will place quarterly reports in their public files documenting:
1. How they conducted their ascertainment process and the results;
2. Their performance in meeting the minimum requirements for public affairs programs;
3. Their performance in meeting the minimum requirements for public service announcements; and
4. Their performance in meeting the requirements for free program time for federal candidates.
The station should indicate how their programming and PSA effort addresses the results of their ascertainment process.
F. Lowest Unit Rate and Reasonable Access. The current method of applying the lowest unit rate for political commercials is confusing and unwieldy. While it is reasonable that all qualified political candidates be given a discounted rate for commercial time, the current structure needs to be improved. One possibility would be that all qualified candidates for public office would receive three commercials for the price of two-at competitive commercial rates. Candidates would be required to appear in and voice 75 percent of the commercial. The requirements for discounted political commercial time would be limited to 45 days preceding primary elections and 60 days preceding general elections. “Reasonable access” rules would apply only within the 45/60-day period preceding elections. This would make it possible for stations to refuse to accept political commercials outside of the 45/60-day windows.
G. Issue Advertising. Stations would not be allowed to air “issue advertising” announcements that contain the name of a candidate or a political party in the 45/60-day window before a primary or general election.
H. Multicasting. East station should be expected to broadcast at least one full-time channel that is subject to full minimum public service requirements. For those stations that multicast, each such channel should be required to present the percentage of the total minimum public interest requirements that corresponds to the percentage of the twenty-four hour period that such channel operates (e.g., a channel that operates twelve out of twenty-four hours per day would be required to meet fifty percent of the minimum public interest requirements). Broadcast stations should not be permitted to use one channel to meet public interest obligations while ignoring those needs on other channels.
I. “Play or Pay”. The original premise of local stations serving the needs and interests of local communities cannot be met under “play or pay” proposals. No local station operator should be permitted to pay his way out of meeting public interest obligations.
J. Public Broadcasting. Public television is one of this country’s most valuable resources. It is in the public interest that non-commercial stations continue to be viable facilities for local communities. Public stations should have the same minimum public interest requirements as commercial stations. Localism and ascertainment are just as important for public stations as they are for commercial stations. It is also important that the financial needs of public broadcasting be supported. For those reasons, consideration should be given to the idea of earmarking for the use of non-commercial broadcast stations a certain percentage of the funds that come from the auction of the returned analog spectrum. Further, twenty-five percent of the gross profit from any television station sold within a three year period of its last purchase date should be deposited in a common trust fund for public broadcasting.
II.Code for Broadcast Stations
A voluntary code of conduct similar to the old NAB code should be adopted by the broadcast industry. (Legislation may be needed because of anti-trust laws.) The National Association of Broadcasters would serve as the agency to coordinate and develop the code.
III. Must Carry.
Since nearly 65 percent of the public receives their local broadcast signals through cable, it is reasonable to require that cable must carry digital channels, as they become available in order for the public to benefit from the public interest programming of the digital broadcaster. In other words, if we adopt public interest obligations for digital broadcast stations and only 35 percent of the public can receive that service, then we have failed in our purpose. A minimum of one free digital channel per broadcast station must be carried by cable, and the broadcast transmission must be passed through in the same format delivered by the broadcaster.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration U.S. Department of Commerce 14th & Constitution, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20230