Text Version

Remarks by
William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
35th Annual NATPE Conference
New Orleans, LA
January 19, 1998

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you, Brian, for that kind introduction.

Well, it isn't even dinnertime. But I'll bet there isn't a person in this room who hasn't already seen a clip of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering the speech that made him famous -- the speech that reminds us, so vividly, why, as a Nation, we celebrate his life on this day.

Seeing those clips reminds us that television was there during the March on Washington.

Without television that event might very well have been a footnote in history -- even in the history of civil rights.

But by late afternoon that day in 1963, ABC and NBC had cut away from the soap operas to join CBS in full live coverage. Up atop the Washington Monument, a CBS camera showed the country the masses of people lining the reflecting pool. Seeing and hearing King for the first time were millions of Americans, black and white, from New York to California.

One of them was President Kennedy. He had never heard King speak. But sitting in the White House, he watched the whole speech on television. At one point he leaned over and told one of his aides, "He's damn good."

Which, of course, he was.

And on this day, when we remember Martin Luther King's accomplishments, we should also remember how your industry helped him to change the world.

I certainly remember how it changed my world.

Because to look back at TV in the days when I was a kid is to see how far we've come as a Nation, and the role that television has played in changing the Nation.

I remember as a kid growing up in the 1960s, a black face appearing on television was an event in my household. People would literally run out of bedrooms to the living room to see those first, fleeting images of black people on television. Usually we arrived too late, because the images were almost always just passing ones. But they had an impact. I remember once when the Bank of America had a black teller in one of its commercials, my mother was so excited that she changed the family's bank account.

Then there was "I Spy." Not a great show. But it had a great black co-star: Bill Cosby. This was big news in the black community in the 1960's when Bill Cosby became a pioneering presence on prime time TV. And 25 years later, he continued to pioneer the reflection of black Americans on television with The Cosby Show.

And then there was the news. Because of TV, my family could see events in Birmingham, Little Rock, Selma. And, 30 years ago, we gathered in my grandma's house -- because she had a color TV - - and watched Martin Luther King's funeral.

I became a news junkie as a teenager; awed by the power of communications to change our world.

It was the 70s. And like many college kids who watched the Watergate Hearings, I wanted to be a tough investigative journalist. I went to Stanford University and majored in Communications, but most of my time was spent at the student radio station. Every college with a radio station has a group of students who spend more time at the radio station than in the library. I was one of them. And looking back, it was the joy of my college years. I had a hard-hitting public affairs show. At the time I believed that it would prepare me for a stint my 60 Minutes.

When the one of the network affiliates in San Francisco gave me a summer internship, I figured that I was on my way. Toward the end of the summer, I told the General Manager that I wanted him to hire me to be the station's the investigative reporter. I even pitched him on my first story.

He was very kind. He didn't laugh. He said, "Well, San Francisco is a pretty big market. You gotta start in Paducah or someplace. Besides, you look too young to be an investigative reporter. Why don't you go to law school. Then come back and we'll talk."

So I went to law school and wound up as Chairman of the FCC. And some people say I look too young to have this job.

But the point is, that television has had a transforming effect on all of our lives, and on the life of our Nation. Television made it possible for an unknown 29-year-old minister in Montgomery, Alabama named Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a movement that changed the world.

And, of course, television will continue to have a transforming effect, and this will be even more true as you convert to digital.

When the history of communication in this decade is written, it will be a story of how communications technologies -- all technologies -- telephones, cable TV, cellular and broadcasting -- converted to digital technology. This is truly a transforming event of our times.

And people will exhibit all of the reactions which typically accompany transforming events: confusion, optimism, pessimism, denial, fear. And some people in your industry will embrace this change. And they will be the pioneers.

The point to remember here is that you are not alone. Every communications technology is undergoing this transition. Different from yours in many ways, to be sure. But all equally imperative. Because digital technology allows us to do things unimaginable a few years back. Consumers are waking up to that fact. Digital TV offers versatility and capacity that will transform your medium. This is many magnitudes more significant than the transition from black and white to color, because it has the power to much more fundamentally change what you can offer to your audience.

Your six megahertz channel is a stream of 20 million bits per second. That's enough capacity to deliver the product that you currently provide your audience in high definition. Or you could provide your current product in standard definition, plus a movie, a Spanish language program, a news documentary, a live sporting event, a dozen audio channels, and the Wall Street Journal.

And once your audience sees the benefits, they will never want to go back. Just like the transition from black and white to color. Consumers never want to go back.

This conversion to digital will revolutionize and revitalize television. Embrace it.

Of course, there is lots of uncertainty and many unanswered questions. How quickly will consumers embrace digital TV? And how much will the sets and converters cost? What will the competition do? And who is going to produce programming in high definition, anyway? How quickly will cable companies convert?

I don't have definitive answers to any of these questions. No one does yet. And ultimately, the marketplace, not regulators, will supply answers to these questions. But I am very confident that we are in the midst of a transforming event, and the best reaction is to embrace it. And I do think that this is happening.

One recent Harris study reports an increasingly upbeat industry attitude about the pace of the build-out. (By the way, that's Harris the pollster, not Harris the equipment manufacturer.) The Harris study reports that nearly all U.S. TV stations expect to convert to digital by the end of 2002, and that the number of broadcast executives who believe conversion is affordable is up significantly. This was very evident at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas last week.

By all accounts, DTV will be on the air and in homes in the top markets by the end of the year. TV manufacturers plan to put the first HDTV sets on sale starting in August or September, and the first broadcast stations plan to begin their DTV broadcasts at the start of the fall season.

The November status reports contained very good news from those broadcasters who volunteered to be the first to convert to DTV: they expect to meet their rapid build-out commitments. This is terrific news, and I want to praise those broadcasters who are embracing this transition -- the pioneers who are at the forefront of the DTV revolution. I thank them for their vision and hard work.

You can't expect the FCC to tell you when the marketplace will fully accept digital television. But you can and should expect the FCC to resolve the fundamental regulatory issues necessary to make this transition go smoothly. The FCC has a responsibility to set forth a clear framework so that at least you can eliminate regulatory uncertainty from your business plans.

First and foremost, we must finalize the DTV Allotment Table.

The Commission is working hard to do that and to create the best possible overall DTV allotment plan. We plan to resolve the allotment issues, along with all the other issues that were raised on reconsideration, at our Commission meeting on January 29. That's just ten days from now.

There are other key pieces of unfinished DTV business.

We will have to decide how to apply must carry to the digital environment. And to do that, we need to answer the related questions of compatibility of transmission standards and timing -- tremendously important issues to broadcasters and cable operators.

Fees for ancillary services. The Commission proposed rules on this in December, and we're moving forward so that you will have the flexibility to use the spectrum in a variety of ways. We need to adopt clear and simple ground rules that will provide a common-sense framework so that the industry can plan and invest.

And we need to make sure that the licensing process works for DTV. Before I came to the FCC, I spent a dozen years representing broadcasters before the agency. So I know the frustration when you can't get quick action on your application, or when the filing requirements seem more burdensome than necessary. I have horror stories I can tell on this. I worked on one licensing application for ten years. I have begun an aggressive effort at the FCC to streamline the application process.

Part of this effort is an ambitious project to convert to electronic filing. Electronic filing of applications will make it easier for you to interact with the Commission and your applications will get granted faster.

And I'm not just making promises here. Under Roy Stewart's leadership, the Mass Media Bureau granted the first DTV construction permit on September 3, 1997. We've introduced a simple checklist to keep processing times to an absolute minimum, so that you get the quickest action possible. So far, nine grants have been made -- including one in the New York City market --- all two or three days after we received them in the office. The FCC staff is gearing up to turn these applications around as quickly as possible.

Then there is the critical issue of tower-siting.

I have talked to people on both sides of this issue. On one side, broadcasters need to build towers, and build them quickly, if they are going to roll out DTV quickly. On the other, local governments argue -- legitimately -- that they need to protect their communities, as they have always done, by deciding where these new towers will be built.

The common-sense approach is to figure out a way to create a win/win situation. And the only way for that to happen is for the industry to work with local government. You need to reach out to local government. Work with them. And understand that I believe that federal preemption of local government should be considered only as a last resort.

I'm confident that the broadcast industry and the local governments can develop strategies to achieve workable solutions. And I want to do everything to bring both sides together. One promising suggestion was proposed by the FCC's Local and State Government Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee suggested that the Commission set up a "strike force" of Commission staffers to help local governments work through technical questions that they might have about what broadcasters actually need in terms of height, location, power requirements, and the like.

So far, I've talked a lot about what we can do at the FCC to speed this transition to digital television. I want to talk for a moment about what you must do to make sure that our country realizes the full benefits of this wonderful technology.

Perhaps the greatest promise of digital television is its potential to allow you to expand on your service to the public. I know that broadcasting has a long tradition of public service. I grew up as a lawyer representing broadcasters. I know that most of you take your public interest obligations seriously. I doubt that the networks gave much thought to ratings when they covered Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, or the Watergate hearings or the Persian Gulf War. And I know that you are doing much to serve your communities every day, and in many ways. You should be proud of this tradition of service.

In fact, I believe that is the very reason Congress decided that the American people should make such a huge investment in your industry by giving you the spectrum you need to broadcast digital television. And this is a huge investment. It has made broadcasters the envy of other industries starved for more bandwidth.

I believe that you have an obligation to the public to make this new investment work for them. And so does the FCC. At the FCC, we have an obligation to make sure that as broadcast technology changes in fundamental ways, our definition of the public interest keeps pace.

That is why the Commission committed in April of last year to begin a proceeding on the public interest obligations of broadcasters in the digital age. I look forward to beginning that proceeding soon.

I want to have a real conversation on this topic. This rulemaking shouldn't be something the Commission does to the broadcast industry. We need to work together. But at the end of the day, we must develop a framework to ensure that the public interest remains vibrant and meaningful in the digital age. Broadcasters have been given new ways to expand into the digital age, so it is only fair to expect that they provide new ways of serving the public interest. I believe that this industry, consistent with its best traditions, can work with the FCC to develop that framework.

I am interested in what members of the President's Advisory Committee on Digital Television are thinking as they grapple with these questions. I hope that their process will yield useful suggestions for the FCC.

And I hope that many others join in this dialogue. I want us to determine how digital television will create new opportunities for the country. . . for improving the political dialogue in our country . . . for improving opportunities for unserved communities to have access to programming that serves their unique needs.... and for ensuring that this industry reaches out and provides employment opportunity for men and women of all colors. I hope we can work together on this.

It has been over thirty-five years since your cameras captured those first compelling images of civil rights protesters putting their lives on the line . . . forcing America to confront racial inequality. I hope we can work together to make good on their sacrifices.

You know, after Dr. King finished his speech, and the march was over, he came to the White House. President Kennedy shook his hand and said, "Dr. King, I have a dream." He had watched the speech on television.

Thanks to television, the events of that day transfixed and transformed the Nation. And in the years since, television has done this many times. And those events become a part of our collective consciousness. The first man on the moon. ABC's broadcast of Roots. Coverage of the Vietnam War. The funeral of Princess Diana.

In fact, we saw an example last night on ABC. Disney took the story of Ruby Bridges, the girl who integrated a school in this very city, 37 years ago, and made a movie that poignantly captured the very best and worst of the American character.

Well, of course now, thirty-seven years later, we know that some dreams -- not perfectly, not overnight -- can come true.

In the past, you have opened up the world to viewers, by allowing them to go places and see things they would never have seen on their own. I'm confident that while the nature of your business will change in unforeseeable ways, you will continue to distinguish yourselves in the way that you serve the public.

You're poised at the brink of a tremendous opportunity.

You will embrace it and you will grow. You'll create opportunities.

Just as you created opportunities for me, you'll create opportunities for others. And just as you keep in our memories the image of the man we celebrate today . . . you will help create the Martin Luther Kings of the next generation -- those who have dreams our Nation has yet to fulfill.