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Digital television package may require free air time for candidates

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Dec 20, 1999    

Digital television package may require free air time for candidates

  • The capability of digital television to carry multiple data streams is leading to calls within the Federal Communications Commission for increased public service obligations during elections.

Three FCC commissioners voted Dec. 15 to consider requiring free air time for political candidates as a part of a package of public service obligations to be outlined for digital television broadcasters. The vote resulted in a notice of inquiry by the five-member commission seeking public comment on free air time as well as other considerations for public interest obligations.

Because digital television allows the transmission of multiple data streams over the same channel, the commission has been urged to require broadcasters to add new public service obligations as a part of their expanded broadcasting services.

FCC Chairman William Kennard told the commission that it is “the right time to consider whether the public interest obligations are appropriate and sufficient for the digital era.”

Two Republican FCC commissioners supported the overall inquiry into public service obligations but objected that free air time should not be a part of the consideration. Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth called that measure a “painful and targeted tax” on broadcasters.

Commissioner Michael Powell said the matter, which could “fundamentally alter political discourse,” should be taken up by Congress, not the agency.

The FCC’s notice responded in part to a late October letter from Vice President Al Gore urging it to follow up on recommendations from an advisory group he chaired last year. The Gore Commission had recommended that in the 30 days leading up to an election, broadcasters should provide five free minutes daily to political candidates.

A broad coalition in late October also asked the FCC to require five minutes of free air time each night for candidates in the month before elections. Signers included former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and retired broadcaster Walter Cronkite.

The FCC notice calls for comment on whether broadcasters could “enhance the quality of political discourse through use of the airwaves for political issues and debate.”

The notice also seeks comment on how television stations should use digital technology to serve communities, provide viewers information on their public interest activities, relay emergency information in new ways, increase access to television programming by people with disabilities and further “legislative and regulatory goals of diversity.”

(FCC No. 99-390)

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