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Statement of Harold Furchtgott-Roth
Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
before the Nevada Broadcasters Association
April 29, 1998
Las Vegas, Nevada

It is a great honor to be here in Las Vegas for the Nevada Broadcasters Association.

I have always had a fondness for Nevada. Nevada has always struck me as a place where, at least relative to other states, individuals do a bit more regulating than governments. In most states if you want to set up a casino or many other types of business, the government, not the individual, says you cannot. In Nevada, it is the individual as much as the government that says you can.

Some would say that Nevada needs more rather than less regulation. Some would say that Nevada is a godless place. That a place where "Anything goes" is a place where "Nothing worthwhile goes."

Casinos are not everyone's cup of tea. I assure you, they are not mine. Much that goes on in this city is not exactly my cup of tea. But I would rather that individuals, not governments, make decisions about what is appropriate. At all times, Nevada has been a state of quiet courage. People don't boast about doing things a little differently. They just go ahead and do it.

Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. The growth is only in part from the gaming and tourism industry. In part, the growth comes from manufacturing businesses fleeing excessive taxes and regulation in a certain neighboring state. In part, the growth comes from retirees flocking here for the good climate--both weather and business.

Tourism, manufacturing, and retirement have at least one thing in common: individuals not government make location decisions. And when individuals make decisions, they are attracted to Nevada.

There is much to commend Las Vegas and its growth. But it was not always this way. I have in my office an atlas from the early 1920s. Back then, in the days before there was a broadcasting industry, Nevada was still a business-friendly place, but technology and the American economy had not advanced far enough to take full advantage of the State.

Las Vegas was far from the largest city in the State. Reno was. Las Vegas was not even second. Tonopah was. Then came Sparks and McGill in rank before Las Vegas. Henderson, which is now the third largest city in the State, did not even exist. Mining and ranching, railroads and desert defined Nevada in the early years of the century.

Nevada's growth has mirrored the broadcast industry growth, particularly the post-World War II television growth. I certainly grew up watching lots of TV and movies. And many of them referred to Nevada in general and Las Vegas in particular. It was a different place. A little wilder. A little less under government regulation. And those are characteristics that apply equally well to TV and broadcasting as to Nevada.

There are those in Washington, D.C. who do not see Nevada as a place free of federal regulation. To many inside the beltway, Nevada evokes images of the federal government, of military bases, of nuclear waste sites, of federal lands.

It is true that the federal government has its finger prints all over the state. But the growth and the viability of Nevada is not the product of federal ownership or federal programs, rather, it is the manifestation of the human spirit, unteathered by regulations of Washington, and left to assume forms chosen by individuals -- some good, some not so good.

It is all too fitting to be here today addressing the Nevada Broadcasters. Broadcasting is to America much like Nevada is to America: a free spirit, an escape for those who seek escape, an opportunity for those who seek opportunity. Like the state of Nevada, broadcasters are at their best when they choose their own way based on the public interest of the local people rather than when they define the public interest only as seen in Washington, D.C.

There are those in Washington who seek to tell you what to do, whether you are a Nevadan or a simple broadcaster. There were probably those in the only part of the country who sought to tell the State, don't allow gambling. Nevada did not listen. You had courage.

Many of you may have reason to suspect me, or anyone else from the FCC. After all, it is the FCC, and not Nevada authorities, that exercise the legal authority to regulate most broadcasting services, even local broadcast services.

It would be easy to imagine an FCC Commissioner enthralled with power, eager to tell you what to do and what not to do. Doubtlessly, there have been such Commissioners. Commissioners who say: "I am from the FCC and I am here to help." These Commissioners tell you to listen to Washington. They will tell you that Washington knows best how to regulate you. That Washington knows best what the public interest. Just listen to Washington and you will be all right.

I am afraid that if you are looking for that sort of Commissioner, you found the wrong fellow. I have not come to talk as much as I have come to listen.

But perhaps most important of all, I want you to understand that I believe deeply in the public interest, and I believe that the public interest is to be found in local people, whether in Nevada or Massachusetts, not from the regulators in Washington. And I believe that you as the broadcasters of Nevada are best positioned to determine what the public interest is for your Nevada audience, far better than anyone in Washington. And I want to be sure that it stays that way.

There is a movement afoot in Washington to require broadcasters to provide free air time to politicians. And some have even suggested that the FCC acting alone should make this a requirement for all broadcasters.

This proposal is seductively placed in the context of such noble-minded ideas as "campaign finance reform" and "the public interest."

Who could possibly be against "campaign finance reform?" So obviously, you must be in favor of free air time for politicians.

Who could possibly be against "the public interest?" So obviously, you must be in favor of free air time for politicians.

Well let me tell you, there is plenty wrong with the idea of free air time for politicians.

To begin with, there is no such thing as "free air time." All air time is valuable. The only way to make it "free" is first to take it from someone who has it and then to ration it away, because once you set the price to zero you will have a lot of takers.

So, if the FCC wants to give away free air time, from whom are we going to take it? From you of course, the local broadcasters. Call it campaign finance reform. Call it gentle coercion. Call it a tax. Call it a fee. Call it excessive regulation. In the end, it is still the federal government coming in and taking from you the only resource you have -- air time.

Under the FCC program, you may be made twice poor. First you may lose a substantial amount of advertising time. Second, some of your most eager advertisers -- politicians -- may not be needing as much of your services anymore.

Taking the air time is only half the fun. There still is the issue of how to divide it up. No, that is likely to be too important an issue to leave to local broadcasters. Instead we will need some Washington bureaucrats to make those decisions. And it won't be easy. When air time is free, you suddenly will have a lot of takers. New politicians. And why not.

Consider Joe Smith's car dealership. Today, Mr. Smith pays you for a short spot that says: "Hi, I'm Joe Smith. I am an honest man. I have a car dealership. I treat my customers well. Come buy a car from me." Tomorrow, you will give him the air time for an only slightly modified spot: "Hi, I'm Joe Smith. I am an honest man. I have a car dealership. I treat my customers well. Come vote for me in November."

Personally, I don not believe that free air time for politicians is a good idea. It would radically change the broadcast industry for the worse. It would radically change politics in America.

Making all of those bad decisions is a pretty tall order even by Washington, D.C. standards. And for an independent agency with unelected bureaucrats, it is an overwhelming responsibility.

There is one additional problem. We at the FCC do not have the authority to mandate free air time. You won't find it in statutes. It isn't there.

Some apologists for free air time will point to Section 4(i). It is the catch-all section that apologists for FCC advocates always cite. There is just one problem. Section 4(i) cannot possible apply. Section 4(i) requires that Commission adventures outside the narrowest interpretation of the Communications Act are "necessary." It seems to me that the statutes governing the broadcast industry with local broadcasters determining the public interest have worked remarkably well for decades without FCC-mandated free air time for politicians. It was not necessary before. Why today is it suddenly necessary?

Free air time for politicians is too big of a bad decision for the FCC to make alone and without legal authority. If it really is a good idea, let Congress make the decision. Most members of Congress seem to think that it is their decision, not the FCC's, to make.

And even if the FCC does not implement new rules for free air time immediately, what is wrong with a little study? We at the FCC call it a Notice of Inquiry, or NOI. There seems to be a groundswell of support for an NOI in Washington.

What harm could come from an NOI?

I believe that there is a lot of harm that could come from an NOI. First, the Commission can only conduct studies on matters over which it has legal authority. Nuclear waste storage facilities are matters of national importance and federal responsibility. But if FCC launched an investigation into nuclear waste sites, everyone could agree that it was a waste of taxpayer money. Why study an issue if you do not have the legal authority to do anything about it? Similarly, we should not study free air time for politicians because we simply do not have the legal authority to do it.

Conversely, if we conduct an NOI, we are implicitly asserting authority to implement rules. This is a treacherous precedent.

Second, what are the possible results of an NOI? That the FCC has no jurisdiction? That the FCC has jurisdiction, but free air time really is not necessary? Or that the FCC has jurisdiction, and the world will end tomorrow if we do not provide free air time for politicians?

What do you think?

Free air time for politicians may come up in many guises. It may appear as a call for new public interest obligations in a digital age. Frankly, I think that the current practice of allowing local broadcasters to determine local public interest standards has worked well. I know of no evidence that it needs to be changed.

Another guise may be so-called "voluntary standards" promulgated by the FCC.

Let me be clear. I don't believe that there is such a thing as a truly voluntary standard when it is applied by a government agency that has discretionary authority in many unrelated areas to impose enormous costs on you. Suddenly, voluntary looks all too mandatory.

Just ask NBC and BET what is so voluntary about rating schemes.

In the world of movies, and television, and American culture, Nevada stands out. It is different. It is a little bit on the edge, a little ahead of the rest of the country. The individual triumphs a little more clearly in Nevada.

In all of the world, the United States is the leader in personal liberty and personal expression. The public interest is celebrated in America every day, and it is celebrated in the triumph of the individual.

Let me conclude by urging you to be strong and firm when it comes to excessive and possibly illegal regulation from Washington. Let America know this is Nevada. Don't be duped. Don't be hoodwinked. Don't be coerced into bad standards, either voluntary or involuntary.

Do what Nevadans have done at all times. Have quiet courage. You don't have to brag about it. Just go ahead and do things your own way.