Copps and Adelstein Urge the FCC to Impose Stronger Public Interest Standards for Broadcasters

Copps and Adelstein Urge the FCC to Impose Stronger Public Interest Standards for Broadcasters

Celia Wexler, Common Cause’s vice president for advocacy, is attending the NAB conference in Las Vegas and filed this story on Wednesday, April 21.

Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein yesterday urged broadcasters to voluntarily devote five minutes a night in the 30 days before this year’s election to candidate-centered discourse. Participating in “The Regulatory Face-Off” at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, Adelstein asked broadcasters, “Can you spare five minutes on the real issues?”

He stressed, however, that the FCC must also “act as quickly as we can on [stipulating] the broader public interest obligations broadcasters have. We’ve contemplated this for 20 years,” and have seen “study after study” documenting how little time local stations devote to coverage of local elections and other community issues.

Adelstein’s challenge to broadcasters was prompted by questions from moderator ABC News journalist John Cochran. Cochran referred to a press conference held earlier yesterday by the Public Interest, Public Airwaves coalition, whose members include Common Cause, the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, Media Channel, the Alliance for Better Campaigns, and the Center for Creative Voices in Media. “These groups want to put more teeth in public interest standards for broadcasters, such as set hours for political and public [affairs] programming,” Cochran said, asking Commissioners if they agreed that it was time to do so.

Commissioner Michael Copps joined Adelstein in urging that the FCC articulate stronger, more specific public interest standards, particularly at a time when digital technology now will permit broadcasters to air six or more channels of programming in the space that only one program now can be broadcast. Broadcasters want the FCC to require cable companies to carry their new digital channels, to approve the “multi-cast must-carry” rule.

“The central question is how does this new [digital] multi-casting capacity serve the public interest?” Copps said. “We have 217 stations now multicasting and they don’t have the foggiest idea of what their public interest obligations are.”

“Must-carry could be a boon to localism and diversity,” Copps added. “But at the same time” the FCC is addressing must-carry, “we have to tee up” an agency rulemaking on public interest obligations, he said.

But FCC Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin were considerably more lukewarm about the idea. Abernathy said that “any specific public interest mandates,” faced constitutional hurdles. “We’re talking about intrusions on [broadcaster] free speech rights,” Abernathy said.

Martin said that he was “sympathetic to calls to involve the [broadcast] industry in public interest obligations.” But he added that he was “very hesitant” to specify the number of hours broadcasters ought to devote to public affairs and electoral programming.

Martin also noted that the broadcast industry “is involved with its local community as much as any industry I’ve seen.”

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