Wright firm on digital ideals

WASHINGTON — Testifying before the blue ribbon commission on digital television, NBC president Robert Wright said Friday that broadcasters should not have to shoulder additional public interest obligations just because they are going digital.

Wright also urged the so-called Gore Commission not to force broadcasters to hand over free airtime to political candidates. Doling out free airtime to all qualified candidates in markets such as New York would consume advertising inventories, Wright said. “I just think it is an impossible situation,” he said.

In contrast to Wright, HSN Inc. chairman and Gore Commission panel member Barry Diller said Friday he supports giving political candidates free airtime. However, Diller insists that any free airtime should be included in a package of meaningful reform of campaign finance laws.

The Clinton administration is a vocal proponent of the free airtime proposal. Other public interest advocates, including Media Access Project executive director Andy Schwartzman, say digital TV should be used to ensure public access to the airwaves.

Schwartzman doubts broadcasters will use their digital spectrum to broadcast in HDTV, predicting instead that they split the signal into several different digital channels. If broadcasters do multiplex, they should set aside some of their extra capacity for public-interest programming, Schwartzman said.

In contrast, Wright predicted broadcasters would use their new digital spectrum for super high resolution pictures — leaving multichannel programming to the cable and DBS industries. “The highest quality picture will win,” Wright said. If broadcasters do stick with a signal channel business plan, they should not be forced to perform additional public interest duties, Wright added.

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