FCC gives Big Bird OK on selling ads

Advent of digital TV allows b'casters to operate more than one channel

WASHINGTON — Are you ready for Big Bird pitching Ginsu knives on latenight TV?

Public TV won’t be so public — or commercial free — in the wake of a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday that will allow public broadcasters for the first time to run ads and earn revenues directly from programming. The order addresses ancillary digital channels only, not the primary public TV channel in any given locale.

Still, the decision sparked immediate concern that the reg agency is jeopardizing the basic tenets of public broadcasting.

Democratic FCC commish Michael Copps, the lone dissenting vote, said the ruling could warp and corrupt “the soul” of public TV.

“Public broadcasting was to be what commercial broadcasting was not. Commercial television is about appealing to and entertaining the broadest possible market. Public television is about serving the better angels of our nature,” Copps said.

With the advent of digital TV, broadcasters will have enough spectrum to operate six channels, versus one analog channel.

Thursday’s order grants permission for public broadcasters to use the new channels for subscription services, whether it’s Internet data, college courses or traditional video programs. Viewers would need cable or some sort of descrambler box to receive such channels.

Defending the mandate

Powell, clearly angered by Copps’ lengthy statement, shot back that in no way was he undermining the congressionally mandated mission of public broadcasting.

“The soul of public broadcasting is in no way compromised,” Powell said.

Yet even one of Powell’s chief advocates on Capitol Hill, Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), questioned the wisdom of the decision.

“The FCC ruling opens the door to creeping commercialism,” Tauzin aide Ken Johnson said. “It’s a blank check.”

In its order, the FCC did state that the “substantial majority” of the new channels should be devoted to non-commercial, educational programming.

Not good enough, said Johnson, whose boss chairs the powerful House Commerce Committee.

“Chairman Tauzin recognizes that public broadcasters, like commercial broadcasters, need some flexibility in order to make the transition to digital. That said, we may very well ask the agency to tighten its definition of ‘substantial majority.’ The chairman would be much more comfortable if commercials were restricted to one or perhaps two channels,” Johnson said.

Alternative rev sources

Assn. of Public Television Stations prexy-CEO John Lawson said the FCC order will in no way jeopardize the role public TV plays in offering viewers educational and other top-quality content. His org has been lobbying for the ruling since 1997, arguing that public broadcasters need the financial leeway in order to make the transition to digital.

In fact, it actually protects against “creeping commercialism” by providing more financial flexibility, he said. Historically, public TV is underwritten by government funds, corporate sponsorship and viewer contributions.

“The bottom line for us is that digital TV means we can provide a new range of services simultaneously, whereas now we have just one channel. We have to find a way to fund content to populate the other channels,” Lawson said.

Public broadcasting stations will have to pay the government a 5% tax on gross revenues for revenue-generating channels.

Under the new rules, public broadcasters could use the secondary channels to air all sorts of programming,even movies or sitcoms historically reserved for commercial TV.

Losing their drive?

Copps questioned whether the citizenry will still be open to pledge drives for their local public station when they know the station is pulling in revenues from other channels.

“What happens to foundation support and corporate contributions? Do the people’s elected representatives begin to look differently at the levels of support they provide? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know it would be a shame if today’s action undermines the support for this precious national resource,” Copps said.

PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have stayed out of this particular fight.

Consumer advocates predicted a huge public backlash to Thursday’s ruling.

“Once the word gets out that they’ve embraced the notion of selling advertising, there’s no reason for federal support anymore,” Center for Digital Democracy director Jeffrey Chester said.

“We intend to let every foundation know that public broadcasting is abandoning its non-commercial philosophy,” Chester said.

On another front in the digital transition, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti, National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy-CEO Eddie Fritts and CBS senior veep Martin Franks were among those meeting on Capitol Hill to discuss what can be done to speed the process along. Cablers and the consumer electronics manufacturers also were repped.

At the private meeting, Tauzin and several other top members of the House Commerce Committee asked the assembled parties to hammer out their differences or face congressional intervention. Some of the more contentious issues include copy protection and deadlines to go all digital.

“It was a good give-and-take when it comes to the many challenges facing all the affected parties. Hopefully, we’ve nudged the process along,” Johnson said.

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