WASHINGTON (October 14, 2005) – Broadcasters should be accountable to the public in exchange for their free use of "tens of billions of dollars worth" of publicly owned airwaves, according to the chairman of the bishops' Communications Committee, who urged Congress to include public interest obligations for broadcasters in legislation set for debate next week.
"Today, even as the broadcasting industry continues to benefit from its subsidized use of the public airwaves, broadcasters' observance of meaningful public interest obligations has declined," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Communications Committee. "We ask that, in exchange for the use of tens of billions of dollars worth of new spectrum rights, broadcasters be required to put forth a substantial effort to provide programming that better serves the public."
Bishop Kicanas urged the codification of public interest obligations for broadcasters in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK). The Commerce Committee is set to deliberate on October 19 on several bills updating the nation's communications laws.
Broadcasters are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to use the airwaves – for free – in nominal exchange for serving the "public interest, convenience, and necessity," according to current law. A defined set of "public interest obligations" were rigorously enforced by the FCC in the past, but since the early 1980s, Congress and the FCC have pursued a much more deregulatory approach.
"The rapidly growing consolidation of the media industry has allowed companies to ignore their obligations to serve the public interest," Bishop Kicanas said. "As a result, there are fewer broadcast stations that are willing to provide local and religious programming."
He noted that the USCCB has collected anecdotes from "a significant number" of dioceses which have found it increasingly difficult to place their programming on local stations.
"The bishops are concerned that local broadcasters' programming decisions regarding religious and educational programming are more deeply rooted in their desire for commercial gain, rather than in serving their communities' interests," Bishop Kicanas said. "I respectfully urge you to reconfirm broadcasters' obligation to serve their local communities of license with programming that responds to the religious needs and interests of the local community."