Remarks of
FCC Commissioner Susan Ness
Federal Communications Commission
before the
Oklahoma Broadcasters Association

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

February 16, 1996

Out of Many, One

Thank you for your warm welcome. It's good to be here with you.

I try to attend several state broadcasters' conventions each year. I enjoy the opportunity to meet with rank and file broadcasters to hear what is on your minds.

In Remembrance of April 19, 1995

But your convention has a heightened significance for me. I'm here to share my deep sorrow for the personal losses so many of you suffered in the tragedy here last April 19th. I know that the wounds for many are still fresh, the horrible scenes of destruction seared in your minds.

Last year's bombing in this city left all Americans shocked, frightened, and saddened. Throughout the nation, we turned on our television sets as soon as we heard the news.

Broadcasters brought us the information we so desperately sought. You enabled the entire nation to grieve together.

In the best American tradition of citizens stepping forward in times of crisis, you harnessed your medium to help:

In these and countless other ways, Oklahoma broadcasters served as a bridge, linking as one, our local and national communities, our hearts and our prayers.

So I am here to salute you for the way in which you rallied as citizens and broadcasters to cope with this catastrophe.

And to offer on behalf of the employees of the FCC, counterparts of the federal workers in Oklahoma City, our heartfelt thanks.

The Role of Broadcasting

I have always held a special affection for broadcasting. As a college student, I spent the bulk of my day at our fledgling AM radio station, covering stories and preparing broadcasts. Later, as a communications lender, I expanded our portfolio into broadcast lending. I spent a lot of time visiting stations. Now, as a policymaker, involved with a wide range of communications industries -- telephone, cable, cellular, satellite, and the like -- I still hold a special regard for broadcasting.

It is broadcasting that wields the greatest power to unite the American people. Throughout my lifetime, we have shared moments of sorrow -- or of joy -- together in front of the "electronic hearth." In this fashion, broadcasters serve to rekindle our patriotism, illuminate our common heritage, and spread the warmth of friendship, mutual understanding, and tolerance.

In short, broadcasters have played a central role in the realization of our national identity. E pluribus unum. "Out of many, one."

However, the role of broadcasters in the national community is increasingly the subject of national scrutiny and debate. Legislators, research institutions, educators, parents, and others have voiced strong opinions on this topic. The President himself has called broadcast industry leaders to the White House on February 29th for a major conference on children and the media.

In our time together this afternoon, I want to explore with you the role of broadcasters in today's society and how that impacts decisions on children's television and broadcast ownership.

Children's Television

As part of a national community, I think we can all agree that we have a collective responsibility to ensure that our children are given the best possible foundation for success. Our children are our future.

One of the most powerful influences on our children is television, a singularly pervasive, persuasive, and powerful medium. Children watch an average of 27 hours of television a week. Television can educate, illuminate, and entertain. It can also annoy, pollute, and debase.

Today, television does too little of the former -- and too much of the latter. Consider:

The message is clear: the national community is calling on broadcasters for sober self-assessment and improved service to tomorrow's adults.

The urgency of renewal is illustrated by the National Television Violence Study, which was just released by the Universities of California, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin after a comprehensive review of TV and cable programming. The findings are troubling:

I hope those of you in television will read this report and then ask yourself how the programming you air on your station measures up. Some of you may have exemplary records at your own stations, but we all should care about what the industry as a whole is doing.

I am heartened by press accounts that the networks are working hard to come up with a voluntary system for rating violence in programs in preparation for the television industry's meeting with the President.

In a related vein, I think the broadcast industry has missed an opportunity to step forward and show leadership on behalf of children. The Children's Television Act requires that every licensee serve the educational and informational needs of children. Yet, most broadcasters have vehemently fought efforts to put meat on the bones of that statute. Absent a clear level of expected performance, the Act offers children a hollow promise.

Certain parts of the equation are easy to solve.

First, we must tighten the definition of educational programming. No one can seriously believe that "Batman" is what Congress meant when it said "educational."

We should limit the definition to programs for which education is a "significant purpose" and which are so designated in advance of airing.

And I might add this -- although this wouldn't be part of the Commission's definition -- I believe educational programming, to be successful, needs to be programming children will want to watch. It needs to capture and enrapture, to entertain and educate. There are ample examples of programming that succeeds on all these levels.

Second, oversight should rely as much as possible on the community, not the FCC. Broadcasters should be required to designate which shows they deem educational and to make this information publicly available for use in program guides. If "America's Funniest Home Videos" were included, broadcasters might get an earful from the community.

I hope newspapers will choose to prominently feature lists of family-friendly fare -- as identified by broadcasters -- and that advertisers will support this effort. Then, children and their parents will be better able to find these programs, audiences will grow, advertising dollars will flow, and more good programming will be produced. This is the marketplace at work.

Third -- and this is the tricky part -- broadcasters and communities need guidance about the quantity of children's educational and informational programming that is expected. This is a critical piece of the puzzle, but it must be approached with care, and reverence for the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy, and the foundation of our national community.

Some parties have attempted to portray our current proceeding as presenting a choice between First Amendment values and children's programming. That is a false choice. We must pursue a path that is true both to the First Amendment and to our responsibilities to our children.

In my judgment, it is the status quo that is antithetical to the First Amendment. How can anyone defend an approach where broadcasters are told, "You must air some educational programming, but we won't tell you how much. Your license renewal is on the line, but we won't tell you what standards we'll apply."?

It's like driving down the road when only the traffic cop knows what the speed limit is.

How do we solve this problem? We could establish a quota, a fixed requirement for, say, three hours of educational programming a week. But I believe that's unnecessarily restrictive and could have the unintended result of sacrificing quality and creativity for quantity.

The approach I favor was originally suggested by the Association of Independent Television Stations. It would offer broadcasters a choice: You can safely meet our expectations by airing a specified number of hours of core programming per week -- that is, full-length, regularly scheduled educational shows for kids 16 years old and younger. But this isn't your only choice.

A minimum of three hours would be the "safe harbor," or the guaranteed passing grade, for broadcasters. But you could choose instead to air less than three hours if you demonstrate a comparable commitment to education -- one that weighs "about the same" in its contribution to the educational and informational needs of children.

And Bureau staff would assess whether you met your obligations under the Act, as they do today. It would not have to come up to the Commissioners for routine approval, because the staff would know the level of expectation against which to rate your performance.

What do I mean by "comparable commitment"? For example, a station that spends a lot of extra time and money producing and syndicating a quality educational program, and maybe airs some great interstitials, but has less than three hours of core programming because of the extra expense, would in my opinion be making a sufficiently comparable commitment. Interstitials and even nonprogramming activities designed to educate children fit well under this framework.

I hope that the broadcast industry will seize the opportunity to rededicate itself to serving our nation's children -- both by increasing the availability of high- quality educational and informational programming and by recognizing the negative effects of violent programs and just plain "trashy" talk shows.

Television can be -- and should be -- a family-friendly medium.

Broadcast Ownership

Now let me turn to broadcast ownership. Again, I see a close link between these issues and our strength as a national community.

Why do we have ownership limits for radio and TV broadcasting? To foster competition and to insure a diversity of voices in the marketplace of ideas. These are principles I care about.

Having diverse sources of news and informational programs within a local market is important to an informed citizenry. One of the underpinnings of our democracy is that ownership of our media outlets is widely held, and one or a handful of individuals cannot control information flow.

Only through a diversity of voices can we nurture our shared freedom, our common bonds, our national community. Again, E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Some argue that the proliferation of multichannel providers of video programming -- cable, wireless cable, and DBS -- has eliminated the concern over diversity of voices. I disagree.

Radio and television are still the only free, universally available anytime- anywhere means of communication. The special status of broadcasting is reflected in the cable "must-carry" requirements and in the FCC's proposal to lend incumbent broadcasters -- temporarily -- an additional six megahertz for digital TV conversion.

In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress carefully considered national and local ownership limits. The law changes some existing rules and leaves the Commission with discretion as to others. Congress recognized that greater freedom should be allowed on a national level, while certain limits should be retained on the local level to preserve diversity.

In the case of radio, the new law removes all national ownership limits. The only restrictions are at the local level, where various combinations of stations are allowed, depending on the number of competing voices in the market. In the biggest markets, a single entity may own up to 8 radio stations, five of which may be in a single band. We will issue an order in March adopting these congressional directives.

Time will tell whether this leaves adequate room for the smaller broadcasters, particularly if one player can control the eight strongest stations in a market. Though I believe local duopolies have been good for radio, it would be unfortunate if everyone must combine into multi-station groups to have a chance of competing successfully.

In the case of television, the new law wisely eliminates the national cap on the number of stations that may be commonly owned and raises the present audience reach from 25 percent to 35 percent. Again, diversity issues arise more in the local marketplace.

At the local level, the new statute wisely does not require any change in our existing rules but permits the Commission to consider whether it makes sense to allow a single entity to control more than one TV station in a given market.

I am comfortable with our proposal to shrink the coverage area used to apply multiple ownership limits from a 55 mile radius to a 35 mile radius. But I haven't made up my mind yet on other duopoly situations. In general, I believe that those promoting a change have the burden of showing how increased concentration -- decreased diversity -- would serve the public interest.

We plan to take up TV ownership this Spring, with a final order by the end of the year.

Finally, as we adjust ownership caps, it is important to clearly define "ownership". Our attribution rules for radio and television need to be realistic and sensible. Sensible, as I define it here, means avoiding unnecessary restrictions but not overlooking marketplace realities.

I would prefer to raise ownership limits directly, rather than allowing them to be circumvented through various kinds of nonattributable "alliances." We plan to review attribution in the second quarter, with a final order by yearend.


Diversity, as I have said, is fundamental to democracy. Dispersed ownership also means intensified competition. It often means closer ties to the local community as well.

We've all learned something about the importance of community over the past year.

I hope we all agree that meeting the needs of children and promoting a diversity of voices are worthy national goals.

I encourage you to participate in the national debate on these issues. I especially urge that you bring to this process the same public spiritedness that you applied to your broadcasting operations during recent times of crisis. If we keep the interests of the public front and center, we can't go wrong.

Let's all work together, for the common good. Out of many, one.

Thank you. If time permits, I will be happy to answer your questions.