WASHINGTON (March 27, 2000) – Citing numerous examples of television stations choosing to broadcast revenue generating programs over local religious and educational programs, the U.S. Catholic Conference today urged the Federal Communications Commission to re-impose "public interest obligations" on broadcasters as they make the transition to digital transmissions.
"The FCC has both the authority and the obligation to require a minimum amount of public interest programming on each digital channel used by digital broadcasters," said comments filed with the FCC today. "USCC and Catholic dioceses which attempt to air their own programs on local television outlets face formidable barriers to placing those programs. Those barriers have resulted from the elimination of regulations which enforced the public interest responsibilities of broadcasters."
The FCC is currently gathering information as it prepares to develop regulations for the digital age of television.
By law, the airwaves over which broadcasters transmit their signals -- known as the broadcast spectrum -- are considered public property. Since Congress passed the first Communications Act in 1934, broadcasters have been granted use of a segment of the broadcast spectrum for free as long as they aired a minimum amount of programming considered to be in the interests of the local community. Regulations on these so-called "public interest obligations" were relaxed in the early 1980s. With the transition to the digital technology over the next few years, the FCC is examining whether to reimpose some measurable public interest obligations on broadcasters.
"USCC urges the FCC to impose clear, enforceable requirements that digital broadcasters ascertain the needs and interests of their communities of license and air a minimum amount of free public affairs and other free programming which meets those needs and interests," the USCC commented.
While commercial broadcasters and some members of Congress argue that the FCC has overstepped its authority in proposing to regulate digital television, the USCC and dozens of other religious, education, civic and community organizations note that the FCC has always overseen the licensing of the spectrum and "continued to adjust the public interest obligation as television has evolved."
"The FCC has consistently defined the public interest over the last sixty years as requiring each broadcast licensee to determine the needs and interests of its community of license, including religious needs, and develop programming to meet them," USCC said. "That simple principle, applied here, is the touchstone of effective regulation of digital television."
The USCC and other groups are lobbying for public interest obligations because of empirical and anecdotal evidence that the deregulation of the 1980s has resulted in a severe decline of community based programming responsive to the community's interests and needs. A 1998 study by the Media Access Project and the Benton Foundation showed that commercial television licensees in top 10, 25, 50, 100, and 100+ markets devoted only 0.35% of their total programming to local public affairs.
As part of the comments submitted today, the USCC provided 20 examples from around the country of the difficulties encountered when diocesan and other personnel attempted to have their programming aired on local television channels.
- Said the communications director for one diocese in Iowa:
"The only regular [non-paid] program, a weekly worship service that rotated among different churches, was taken off the air in '95 so the time could be sold. Nothing non-paid has replaced it on any of the stations. I once attempted to buy time on a local channel to broadcast our bishop's installation. I was told I could not even buy the time because it would disrupt the audience for the soap operas. Literally, I could not get them to name a price."
- A diocesan communications director in Florida said:
"I have repeatedly tried to get interfaith religious documentaries and public service announcements aired by three local network affiliates. In all cases, these have been rejected. The reasoning most often is the 'equal time' concern. ... On the other hand, we have never been rejected when we have agreed to buy air time for [our] Christmas message ..."
- A diocesan communications director in Illinois offered:
"A decade ago our PSAs [public service announcements] were welcome at the television stations. Some even requested more of 'those [religiously-based] spots.' Today, none of the four network affiliates in our city ... accepts PSAs. The reason: if you want time, you have to pay for it."
The USCC called the free licensing of spectrum to broadcasters for digital television a "gift," and said "the FCC's decisions regarding digital television, then, must be guided by the bedrock principles that a television licensee operates on a public resource not open to all ... It is the right of viewers and listeners, not the right of broadcasters, which is paramount."