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REWRITING THE RULES | NEWS ANALYSIS

Is Free TV Worth Saving in a 500-Channel World?

June 03, 2003|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

The first man on the moon. The assassinations of JFK and John Lennon. Political campaigns and Super Bowl games. Tornado warnings, manhunts, "MASH" and "Joe Millionaire."

Since the 1950s, the free broadcast system has served as the great galvanizer and equalizer, accessible to anyone in the nation owning a rooftop antenna and a TV. Even today, most Americans get their news from TV broadcasters.

Yet some critics say the system is irreparably broken and growing more irrelevant in the face of competition from cable and satellite services, even as the federal government has moved to prop up the broadcast industry.

Monday's vote by the Federal Communications Commission to loosen the rules governing media ownership were, at root, about one thing: "trying to strengthen the foundations of free, over-the-air television," in the words of FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell.

But increasingly, critics are asking some pointed questions: Is broadcast television worth saving, especially when the industry arguably has abandoned the pact struck decades ago -- that is, in exchange for serving the "public interest," TV stations get to use the airwaves for free? Why give broadcasters the ability to become more profitable when many of them no longer air the kind of community-oriented programming that once was their mandate?

Might it make more sense for Uncle Sam to fatten its coffers by taking back the airwaves and selling them to the highest bidder?

Although the notion is radical -- and largely confined right now to a handful of politicians and the think tank crowd -- the numbers are hard to ignore: Selling off the broadcast spectrum to wireless phone companies and other high-tech interests could fetch as much as $400 billion. The proceeds could help fund schools or health care or a public TV system free from commercial influences.

What's more, proponents of the sell-off idea point out that nearly 85% of the nation's households already pay for cable or satellite TV, and their packages typically include the local TV stations and broadcast networks. Given that only 15% of the country relies solely on free, over-the-air TV, many say the spectrum could be put to better uses. (If the spectrum was sold off, the have-nots could be subsidized so they would receive pay television -- what some have dubbed "food stamps for TV.")

"Take away the government protections, and the free TV system would die a natural death," said Thomas Hazlett, a former chief economist for the FCC and now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. "We should do something productive with the spectrum."

Two of the FCC's five members have called for a complete examination of industry practices, including whether broadcasters are living up to their public interest obligation.

"No one has a God-given right to use these airwaves for strictly commercial purposes," said Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who was one of two dissenters in Monday's 3-2 vote.

In Copps' view, many Americans have been disenfranchised as broadcasters increasingly target the 18- to 49-year-old viewers for whom advertisers pay the most to reach.

Television, Copps said, "seems to have narrowed its mission to one of delivering eyeballs to advertisers.... That kind of television is tunnel vision, and the target audience of tunnel vision is no longer the majority but a small, albeit free-spending minority."

Safeguarding the public interest has been the cornerstone of the agreement between broadcasters and federal regulators since the dawn of the industry. After all, "broadcasting was a privilege," not a right, declared Democratic Sen. Clarence Dill of Washington, one of the lawmakers behind the Radio Act of 1927, which set the public interest standard.

Congress' aim in the 1927 act, as well as in follow-up legislation such as the Communications Act of 1934, was to keep advertising at a minimum while requiring licensees to inform and entertain according to local tastes and sensibilities.

As TVs became more commonplace in American homes during the 1950s, broadcast licensees were closely scrutinized every three years under a rigorous renewal process.

To prove they were worthy of keeping their licenses, stations were required to write proposals outlining their plans for meeting the public interest. Typically a station would poll 100 top community leaders on the 10 most important issues of the day and then promise in its proposal to devote so many hours a year to each of these topics.

Stations also were subject to "comparative hearings," in which other parties could petition for their licenses -- in part by claiming that they could better serve the public. Los Angeles' KHJ was tied up in litigation for 15 years as a result of one of these challenges, which claimed that its programming was second-rate. Walt Disney Co. ultimately ended up with the station and changed its call letters to KCAL. (KCAL is now owned by Viacom Inc.)

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