Independent broadcasters who operate in the public interest have no reason to fear the heavy hand of government regulation, Federal Communications Commission member Ervin Duggan said yesterday.

Duggan, in an address before the Assn. of Independent Television Stations convention, sounded a recurrent theme that has run through the INTV confab: A commitment to local public service rather than crass commercialism will be the saving grace for broadcasters in a 500-channel future.

Duggan said the “best defense against the dead hand of government is the lively imagination of (an) industry” that voluntarily improves kidvid and public affairs programming and local news coverage. “If your voluntary concern for the public interest is present and visible, you have little to fear from government, ” said Duggan.

Duggan said indies still hold an advantage over a cable industry that “still has not mastered very well the art of binding itself to its local communities.”

Even in an era of DBS and digital compression, there is nothing “nostalgic or sentimental” in believing there exists a “clear public interest rationale in preserving and protecting localism,” he said.

The Democratic commish expressed reservations over an FCC timetable that calls for all broadcasters to be aboard the high-definition TV train by 2008. Although he is “dazzled” by HDTV’s potential, Duggan warned that consumer demand has yet to be tested.

“We need to make our regulatory stance on HDTV one of encouragement, but not coercion,” said Duggan. Broadcasters deserve a “rational timetable for converting to HDTV,” he said.

Duggan, who remains a longshot candidate to replace Al Sikes as the new FCC chairman, reiterated his belief that modest deregulation should be the FCC’s agenda.

The FCC has “an obligation … to move carefully” on revising rules such as those on prime time access or fin-syn, said Duggan. “Meltdowns, blowups and flash cuts are not my style,” he said. “If we jerk up our regulations by the roots and cast them brusquely aside, we commit a kind of regulatory violence that shakes whole industries to their foundations.”

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