Free campaign airtime proposed as payback

Once again the Federal Communications Commission is struggling with broadcasters over the industry’s obligation to compensate the public for the billions of dollars’ worth of airwaves it was given to launch new digital services.

The FCC began an inquiry Wednesday that brought out several suggestions on how paying back the public could be accomplished.

Among the most prominent and controversial proposals is that TV stations give politicians at least five minutes of free airtime in the 30 days prior to an election.

Another proposal would require broadcasters to use their digital spectrum to tailor emergency announcements on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

The obligations would come on top of broadcasters’ current requirements such as providing three hours of educational kidvid each week.

Aggressive lobbying

The FCC has debated the matter in the past but has dropped the issue in response to aggressive lobbying by the broadcasting industry. “We don’t believe that additional federal regulation is warranted,” said National Assn. of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton.

The FCC decided to take another look at potential obligations after receiving a letter from Vice President Gore in October urging the commission to look closely at requiring broadcasters to give politicians free airtime.

In his letter, Gore referred to the recommendations of a White House-appointed panel of broadcasters and public interest advocates. The panel, commonly referred to as the Gore Commission, recommended that broadcasters voluntarily offer politicians free airtime but stopped short of calling for a government mandate. The panel was co-chaired by CBS president Leslie Moonves.

High-definition TV

Two years ago, broadcasters were handed approximately $5 billion worth of airwaves by Congress so the industry could begin offering digital services.

Originally Congress and even broadcasters had expected TV stations to use the spectrum to offer high-definition television.

HDTV offers a crystal-clear picture, CD-quality sound and widescreen formats. Since getting the digital airwaves from Congress, however, broadcasters have become increasingly interested in using them to offer pay services such as pay-per-view movies and data such as stock quotes.

The future of digital broadcasting meanwhile remains cloudy because a new digital television set costs $3,500 or more and thus far are not compatible with cable.

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