Last month, America's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, stood alongside President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to announce a five-year, $1-billion TV ad campaign urging teenagers to "say no to drugs" like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. The commercials are far from perfect: They fail to target alcohol abuse and say nothing about drunk driving, for example.
But the biggest problem with McCaffrey's latest campaign is the $1 billion being paid to TV networks out of taxpayer money. This is a gargantuan sum for network air time that was once provided without charge as a public-interest payback for the right to use the airwaves, which belong to the public.
Broadcasters cited their faithful obedience to that obligation in 1996 when Congress was preparing to sell a part of the airwaves in an auction expected to yield up to $70 billion for taxpayers. Congress was persuaded to give them these airwaves, gratis, in exchange for an agreement to meet additional public-interest obligations, to be determined later by a Federal Communications Commission panel. They also promised to return the spectrum space by 2006.
Since then, a coalition of TV networks represented by the National Assn. of Broadcasters has retreated from both of those commitments. Last year, it persuaded Congress to pass a bill adding so many conditions for returning the airwaves that it's now reasonable to question whether they will ever be given back.
The broadcasters have been fighting the FCC public-interest panel ever since Clinton established it last year. Last week, one broadcaster boasted to the trade journal Communications Daily that the panel will never require any new obligations, that it will "fizzle out and be a bunch of nothing" instead.
Broadcasters have not only refused to assume new public-interest obligations, they have quit honoring some old ones. As former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt puts it, prime-time public-service announcements "have dried up and disappeared like rain in the desert."
The FCC should not let broadcasters wiggle out of the public-interest obligations they so solemnly promised to honor in 1996. In addition to providing McCaffrey some free air time for his antidrug messages, broadcasters should, as Hundt has suggested, set aside 60 prime-time seconds every night for public-service announcements.
Hundt calls it "a small price to pay for the use of the public spectrum," but broadcasters seem determined to avoid any obligation worth mentioning and leave the American taxpayer holding the bag.