Digital TV Standards and the Public Interest

Couch potatoes may be pardoned for a lack of gratitude this past Thanksgiving, when it was announced that broadcast and computer industry honchos had finally come to an agreement about standards for digital -- or, as it once was known, "high definition" -- television. After all, in how much greater definition does one need to experience Jay Leno's chin, Ricki's hairdo or the antics of Friends?More is at stake than pretty pictures, however, and there are even reasons to be, if not grateful, at least mildly upbeat. The first is that the standards accord could have been much worse. Broadcasters and TV manufacturers wanted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use the traditional standard for how broadcasters display images on a TV screen. Computer folks wanted digital TV sets to be able to transmit computer-generated images as well, but computers display images differently. For years, it seemed like the broadcasters -- longtime pros at lobbying and all-around political influence -- would get what they wanted, effectively blocking competitors. But after FCC head Reed Hundt made it clear that the commission would only consider a negotiated settlement, the two industries finally agreed to disagree. The FCC is basically going to let the market decide."This is good news," said Andrew Blau of the Benton Foundation, a foundation that encourages nonprofit uses of new communications technologies. "Someday consumers will only need one piece of equipment, instead of having to turn from their TV to their computer screen when they want to look at their bank statement or e-mail grandma or do their homework." Blau assumes, as does just about everybody in the industry now, that digital TV will perform a range of digital services we've begun to take for granted: telecommuting, automated energy conservation, burglar alarms, Web crawling.Of course, consumers will have to buy new TV sets, and it will take a few years for them to come down in price. But people have made the switch before, in the 14 years it took to make color TV the norm.Now that digital TV has cleared the standards hurdle, much larger decisions can be made. Most important is the question of the spectrum, or section of the airwaves, on which digital signals will ride. The FCC tells all users which part of the spectrum -- which is a public resource -- they can use for what purpose, and it charges users, either in cash or in kind, on behalf of the public. The FCC has long promised broadcasters a second swatch of spectrum on which to transmit digital images, so they can keep broadcasting analog signals on their old spectrum while today's TV sets are still out there. But the agency has never made clear what broadcasters have to do for the public in return for the lucrative inside track on the digital TV era.After long treating spectrum as a gift that goes on giving, the government may finally make broadcasters give back a little something. "The issue once was something for the public or nothing," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the veteran public interest legal firm Media Access Project. "Now it's more like, should it be money or services?" If the government decides it wants money, it will likely hold spectrum auctions -- something that makes politically influential broadcasters wince.As for services, there are plenty of ways broadcasters might serve the public, as FCC head Hundt pointed out in a recent speech: guaranteed free (non-subscription) channels; free electoral time to assist campaign finance reform; kids' educational shows; transmission of noncommercial channels like C-SPAN; neutral but informative coding of programming so that families can make up their own ratings systems.In the '60s and '70s, a rough public interest standard had emerged for old-fashioned TV. In addition to their commercial fare, broadcasters offered news, public affairs, fair treatment of controversial and electoral issues, children's shows and community programming. But as Hundt grimly noted, the Reaganites killed all that with a deregulatory zeal that also destroyed accountability. He argued that it was time to establish, once again, a public interest standard for broadcasters.Just what that standard should be -- video soapboxes? free electoral time for all candidates? community volunteer group shows? lifelong education programs? -- is, until January 10, an open question at the FCC, through a docket known as MM87-268. The FCC accepts e-mail on the issue at dtvallotment@fcc.gov. The Benton Foundation (www.benton.org and (202)638-5770), among other public interest organizations, is encouraging the debate about what the public gets out of digital TV.

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