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Free campaign airtime our salvation, Gore sez

WASHINGTON — Television could be the lifeboat that American democracy needs, if broadcasters would agree to air campaign commercials for free, Vice President Al Gore said at Wednesday’s opening meeting of a presidential commission charged with examining the public-interest duties of digital broadcasters.

“I urge you to pay special attention to free TV time to be set aside for the survival of our democracy,” Gore said.

The issue of free airtime is “especially important to the President and to me,” said Gore, who like President Clinton is under attack for alleged improprieties involving campaign fundraising. The commission should strive “to create a meaningful public forum that does not require an endless steeplechase to raise and spend campaign contributions,” Gore said.

Significantly, Gore suggested that the Clinton administration has an open mind when it comes to how broadcasters exploit their valuable digital channels for profit. In contrast, some in Congress have been highly critical of broadcasters who say they may not use their digital airwaves to offer high-definition TV — a single channel with a super-sharp picture and CD-quality surround sound. Instead some broadcasters have suggested they would use their digital signals to offer an array of as many as five separate, but slightly lower resolution pictures.

Gore hinted Wednesday that the marketplace should decide what the best use of the digital spectra should be. “None of us can predict exactly what this new technology will bring — whether it will be high-definition or multicast; whether it will broadcast to TV screens, to computers, or to digital TVs,” Gore said.

The White House hopes to use the so-called Gore commission to lock-in free airtime for politicians and increased educational programming for children. The Clinton administration argues that broadcasters owe the U.S. public some additional public-interest duties in return for the digital TV spectra they are receiving for free.

During his remarks Gore said the spectra is worth “untold billions.” But broadcasters argue that early estimates of the digital spectra value at as much as $70 billion and as little as $9.5 billion were wildly inflated. Industry lobbyists point to one recent spectrum auction in which several companies failed to make good on billions of dollars worth of bids.

Gore pushed the 19-member commission to consider beefing up broadcasters’ current requirements when it comes to kids. According to Gore, serving kids adds up to “helping parents screen what they believe to be bad, and giving (children) more of what we know to be good.”

The National Assn. of Broadcasters issued a statement Wednesday saying it welcomes the opportunity to work with the Gore commission. However, it also said it does not need advice from the federal government when it comes to serving the needs of their own viewers. “(W)e will be vigilant in our resistance to government mandates that threaten the ability of local stations to determine how best to serve their communities,” NAB president Eddie Fritts said.

The Gore commission, officially known as the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, is co-chaired by CBS Television president Leslie Moonves and American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein. Other members include HSN CEO Barry Diller, kidvid advocate Peggy Charren and former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow.

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