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Call the Broadcasters' Bluff

November 12, 1998

Broadcasters in big cities nationwide are rolling out digital programming this month on separate television channels--more major new channels than at any other time in the last half-century. These broadcasters are also pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to require cable operators to carry every single new station as a public-interest obligation. But wait a minute. The FCC should first require broadcasters to live up to their own broken promises to protect the public interest.

A commission appointed by Vice President Al Gore met Monday to draft its recommendations to the FCC on the obligations that broadcasters should assume in return for the government's decision last year to give them the digital TV airwaves without charge. Those airwaves would have fetched up to $70 billion had the government auctioned them instead to cell phone companies and others.

Broadcasters are pressuring the Gore Commission to stop at voluntary commitments. That takes gall, considering broadcasters' history. When the government began handing out airwaves to broadcasters in the 1930s, up to one-third of programming was to be devoted to local public affairs. Since then, broadcasters have steadily retreated. Today, according to a study of five media markets by two Washington policy groups, only a fraction of 1% of broadcast time is devoted to local public affairs.

Similarly, when broadcasters accepted the digital air space in 1997 from the FCC, they understood that in return for the gift the agency might ask them to assume additional public-interest obligations, to be determined by the Gore Commission. But now broadcasters on the commission are threatening to walk out if any obligations are mandated. At a minimum, broadcasters should be required to provide free prime time to candidates before elections, an idea endorsed by most commission members.

It's time for Washington to call the broadcasters' bluff and compel them to at least make good on their earlier promises. The FCC failed its duty once before and must not do so again.

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