Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Carving out Free Air Time on Digital TV Report Raises Debate over What Networks Should Give Public for Use of Its Airwaves

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Carving out Free Air Time on Digital TV Report Raises Debate over What Networks Should Give Public for Use of Its Airwaves

Article excerpt

After a year of fierce debate, a report that has the potential to refocus American television will be handed to Vice President Al Gore today.

Its goal is to set out how the nation's broadcasters should best serve the public, in exchange for the estimated $70 billion worth of free airwaves the government has given them as they transition into the uncertain world of digital TV.

Already, the report has enraged some public activists, disappointed a group of moderates and upset parts of the broadcast industry. "It's not always the case that if you're attacked on the right and the left, you've done the right thing," says Norman Ornstein, co-chairman of the Gore Commission, which wrote the report. "But I'm pretty satisfied with this report." The government-mandated transition to digital TV started in November, when the major networks and more than a dozen major market affiliates began transmitting some programs with a digital signal. Digital TV has the potential to produce pictures as sharp and dazzling as the best movie-theater screens. But, in reopening the debate about television obligations to serve the public, government officials and public advocates also took advantage of the fact that broadcasters were given double their normal airwave. As a result, President Clinton set up the Gore Commission, formally called The Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. Its report calls for all broadcast stations to adhere to a minimum, but as yet undefined, amount of public-service programming and recommends the industry set up a voluntary code of conduct to encourage more. It suggests broadcasters voluntarily give five minutes of free airtime for 30 days leading up to an election for political debate. And it would give educational television a boost, by allowing public stations to keep their extra airwaves, or spectrum, once the transition to digital is complete, and by setting up a trust fund for educational television. Several media-advocacy groups contend the report doesn't go far enough to meet the public's needs in the digital age because it fails to lay out any specific mandatory requirements on broadcasters. …

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