"We have to address the real reason for the explosion in campaign costs: the high cost of media advertising. I will--for the folks watching at home, those were the groans of pain in the audience--I will formally request that the Federal Communications Commission act to provide free or reduced-cost television time for candidates who observe spending limits voluntarily." So said President Clinton in his State of the Union address.
And so, over the groans of his listeners in Congress, he told the American people watching on television that he planned to require broadcasters to make campaign donations of commercial time to political candidates--or, more precisely, to candidates approved by the major political parties. What the president did not tell Americans watching on television was that he had already appointed a commission last year to do just that. The Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, more widely known as the Gore Commission, is charged with creating a series of new "public interest obligations" for broadcasters. Since October, it has been deciding how high a price television stations must pay, in free political advertising time and other "public service" costs, to keep their licenses.
Of course, that's not exactly the way the White House wanted the commission to be viewed by the media in general and broadcasters in particular. But consider the president's own words last June, when he announced the appointment of the panel's co-chairmen, Les Moonves, president of CBS Television, and Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: "For years," Clinton said, "I have supported giving candidates free time....Now we're working to make it happen. Today I'm appointing two distinguished Americans to lead a commission that will help the FCC decide precisely how free broadcast time can be given to candidates, as part of the broadcasters' public interest obligations." The president described the donation of air time to political candidates as "the least we can ask of broadcasters."
But even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who thinks air-time donations are a good idea, has mixed feelings about letting the FCC, which licenses TV and radio stations, make such rules. "What prevents them from then saying, `You've got to give free time to the next FCC hearing, or the Commerce Committee chairman's next speech'?" he asked The New York Times. "Where does it end?"
McCain said only an act of Congress can obligate broadcasters to donate commercial time. But many legal scholars question whether even Congress has that power. Professor Rodney Smolla, who teaches at the College of William and Mary Law School, wrote what many believe is the bible of First Amendment law, Free Speech in an Open Society. At a January forum on the Gore Commission organized by the Media Institute, a media policy think tank, Smolla said the government will have difficulty requiring campaign donations of air time as a retroactive condition for the frequencies it has already awarded. And even if it were not retroactive, according to Smolla, the courts would let the government mandate the donated time only if judges accepted the notion of broadcasting as "a public discourse utility," a view that has usually not prevailed, especially in recent years.
There's an even larger picture to consider. The fundamental technology of broadcast television is changing with the advent of digital broadcasting. In return for opening up part of the spectrum for digital transmissions, the government has imposed certain conditions on broadcasters. For years, researchers believed that digital television was so complex it could not be squeezed into the existing band of conventional television channels established decades ago. But in 1993, what once was viewed as impossible became reality, and digital television moved from a dream into a new broadcast service--and a new business. (Digital TV will operate in the same band, and within the same channel numbers, as existing TV.)
By the end of 1999, most television stations will be required by the government to start transmitting on a second channel using a new digital television standard. Although no one is yet making television sets for consumers to receive these new signals, the FCC has required that every television station purchase new transmitters, build new transmitter towers, and broadcast new digital programs.
Some politicians and many public interest groups characterize this expansion of the television dial as a "giveaway" to broadcasters--President Clinton has said the new channels are "worth billions." And indeed, station owners in major cities are eager for the change, anticipating larger advertising revenue.
But for television stations in smaller towns and rural areas, the new equipment may be a mandate to lose money. Station owners will be required to buy the same transmission equipment whether they are in the largest U.S. television market, New York City, or the 211th, Glendive, Montana. It seems unlikely that Glendive's 5,000 households will support enough new advertising revenue to pay for the expensive new transmitter towers, transmitters, control rooms, and antennas any time soon.
The new digital channels will change forever the idea of a "television channel." At first, everyone assumed digital television would be just like current television, only with sharper, clearer pictures. But then Fox and other broadcasters realized the new digital frequencies can actually accommodate up to five simultaneous live video feeds, so one digital channel can carry as many as five different television programs. The picture is not quite as clear as if the entire channel is devoted to one program, but for most programs, broadcasters expect viewers to accept slightly lower picture quality. In any case, a split digital signal will be as good as or better than what everyone is watching now.
Once digital transmitting is in place, instead of simply tuning into channel 20, you will be able to check out channels 20A, 20B, 20C, 20D, and 20E. In major cities that have 10 or 15 over-the-air stations, that could mean 40 to 60 new television channels. Broadcast television will be able to offer a range of choice similar to that of cable television.
Enter the Gore Commission, charged with defining "public interest obligations" for the new channels. Donating free ad time to political candidates is only the first "public interest" category: Lobbyists are forming a line to add new mandatory programs for children, for health information, and for every other conceivable "public interest." Coming soon to a TV set near you: Hour after hour of new programs selected by the FCC in Washington. And every television station in the country will be required to broadcast them.
We have already seen how well mandatory programming does not work. Last year, every television station was required to run "educational" programming for children. These are not such familiar good-for-you shows as Sesame Street--which did not meet the new federal definition of "educational" programming. (Sorry, Big Bird: the new rules define "educational" programs as only 30 minutes in length.) No, the government required broadcasters to develop new programs to meet the new standards.
So broadcasters dutifully added dozens of new "educational" children's programs, such as Science Court on ABC and Ghost Writer Mysteries on CBS. The unanimous verdict is now in: According to The Washington Post, all of the new programs are failures--every one. Across the country, the reaction was a massive flipping of channels away from the new "educational" programs. The new federal program guidelines did not result in anything kids might actually want to watch.
Faster than you can say spinach, children tuned out the federally inspected programs on broadcast TV and switched to Nickelodeon and other cable stations. Kids also turned off the tube entirely: Fox is the only network holding onto its children's audience, and new ratings research this winter showed Americans between 2 and 17 years old are watching five hours a week less television than their parents watched when they were kids. (This includes broadcast and cable, but not use of the TV for videocassettes or video games.)