Background on Better TV

People for Better TV, 1999


If it takes a village to raise a child, who shapes the village? Increasingly the answer is media, especially TV. Despite all the talk about the power of the Internet, Roper cites TV as the most watched and most trusted source of information for most Americans. 93 percent of Americans watch a network television program in the course of a week, and 69 percent of Americans say TV is the most trusted source of information. No other source of information comes close. Despite TV's popularity most Americans believe television is on the wrong track, and express concern about the lack of educational programs and the excess of programs with violent and sexual content. Many experts argue that when TV combines with the Internet to create Digital TV it will become even more powerful. We have, this year, a real opportunity to shape TV for the better. It is the first such opportunity in over sixty years, and it will not last long.

In the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress gave existing television broadcasters an additional 70 billion dollars worth of public airwaves to make the transition to digital television. That transition begins this year. As broadcasters begin using the public airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission must set standards on how broadcasters are to serve the public. Finally, the public will have an opportunity to say what the broadcasters should give back.

The relationship between broadcasters and citizens has changed dramatically since the 1934 Communications Act. The old deal struck in 1934 was that broadcasters get the use of public airwaves for free and in exchange they must provide for the public good of their local communities. That old deal has eroded. Broadcasters are no longer required to determine community needs. They no longer adhere to a Fairness Doctrine, or even a voluntary code of conduct. Licenses, which were once for two years, are now automatically renewed for five. Competitive hearings are no longer held to determine who is the best qualified to serve the local community. The number of stations one entity could control was far more limited that it is today-as was the percentage of the audience one owner could reach.

It is also true that other sources of programming did not exist when the regulations for the broadcast industry were first negotiated. Internet, cable and direct broadcast satellite television now compete for broadcast television audience, even as they extend the reach of broadcast television. Television executives understandably consider the future with caution. But the sky is not falling. Indeed, despite a decreasing share of the audience, broadcasters' advertising dollars are increasing. And in most instances the broadcasters are only competing with another division of their parent company.

Just as television did not herald the death of motion pictures, neither will the Internet and other program sources replace television. It is more likely that new communications technologies will increase the power of television. The reach of the local TV signal will be extended. Old programs will have new life. New programs will be repeated at different times. Pay-per-view events will be broadcast. Interactivity will allow broadcasters to capture more information about viewer use and more effectively target advertisements. Many predict that TV and personal computer convergence will create a rosy future for broadcasters, particularly given the free and exclusive license TV station owners get to the most valuable parts of the public's airwaves.

A new deal, both reasonable and enforceable, must be made in exchange for new airwaves, to protect and advance the public good. The hallmarks of that deal should be fair representation of diverse views, respect for children and families, and accountability to local communities. Simply put-in exchange for the use of the public airwaves broadcasters should serve the public interest.

A national broad-based coalition, involving dozens of different organizations and advisors, have now joined together under one umbrella called People for Better TV.

We plan to launch a grassroots effort to educate the general public about:

1.the impact of television,
2.the short-term opportunity to get broadcasters to make a real contribution to the public good, and to become effectively engaged in this effort.

The first goal of the campaign is to make certain that the Federal Communications Commission holds a public proceeding to determine what the broadcasters must give back to the public in exchange for the use of the public airwaves. We are calling on all Americans to join us, and to say how they think their public property must be treated. We urge the FCC to begin to protect the public by establishing clear, specific, and enforceable standards for digital television broadcasters to serve the public interest.


1999 People for Better TV 818 18th Street, NW | Suite 505 | Washington, DC 20006 1-888-37-4PBTV (1-888-374-7288)

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