NewsMarch 22, 1996

FCC Commissioner Susan Ness Exhorts West Virginia Broadcasters
to Support Meaningful Standards for Implementation
of Children's Television Act

Based on recent discussions with individual broadcasters, Commissioner Ness told a state convention of broadcasters she is encouraged that, "at long last, progress is being made" in the search for agreement on how to implement the Children's Television Act.

In an address to the West Virginia Broadcasters Association, she observed that this is "the first year in which license renewal applications will be judged on the basis of a full license period under the Act." Absent appropriate guidance from the Commission, she warned that the renewal process could be "very long and uncertain" both broadcasters and for the financial community.

Commissioner Ness believes the Commission must establish a clear level of expectation regarding broadcasters' responsibilities to serve the educational and informational needs of children. She believes the Commission should instruct broadcasters that they must broadcast a specified number of hours per week of core programming or demonstrate in other ways a comparable level of commitment to educational and information needs of children.

This "safe harbor" approach, she commented, is "the most First Amendment friendly" of all of the possible ways of evaluating compliance with the Act, because it provides clear guidance regarding expectations of broadcasters' performance but also allows broadcasters needed flexibility. Moreover, it "gives meaning to the Act."

She encouraged her audience to join with other broadcasters in support of this proposal.

Commissioner Ness also discussed ways in which the Telecommunications Act has changed the market environment for broadcasters. In this regard she focused particularly on changes in ownership rules and in license renewal procedures.

Finally, Commissioner Ness discussed the "digital revolution," noting that digital television, digital audio radio, DBS, MDS, LMDS, open video services, and the Internet may affect broadcasters even more than the recently enacted legislation. "How broadcasters position themselves to do battle in this multimedia, interactive world will determine whether broadcasting thrives or just survives at the turn of the century." She also emphasized that decisions about the transition from analog to digital television should "be rendered on policy grounds rather than budgetary considerations."

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

March 18, 1996

Thank you Don for your kind introduction.

It is a great pleasure to be with you today. When my schedule allows, I enjoy attending conventions of state broadcasters' associations. I like to discuss issues directly with individual broadcasters -- to hear what is on your minds and to get a real sense how our policies and decisions affect your businesses.

I have always had great enthusiasm for broadcasting. As a college student, I spent the bulk of my time at our fledgling AM radio station, covering stories and preparing broadcasts.

I even was the station's "international correspondent" credentialed to cover the opening of EXPO'67 in Montreal, side by side with Walter Cronkite, and Danish Television. It was a pretty heady experience for a young college student. While I remember Cronkite from that assignment, I doubt that he remembers me. Nor, admittedly, did my coverage have quite the reach and influence his had.

The training I received at my college station has had a lifetime impact on me. That's why I'm so pleased to see that you have scheduled sessions for college broadcast majors to prepare them for the workplace.

Broadcasting plays a critical role in our society. When natural disasters strike -- such as the floods earlier this year -- your stations mobilized relief efforts in everything from food and clothing to fundraisers and blood donor appeals.

Radio and television are unsurpassed for galvanizing people to help where needed. And individuals throughout the mountains and valleys of West Virginia have been joined together by broadcasting.

It is a medium with enormous potential to do good.

Potential -- sometimes it falls short of the mark.

Children's Television

Take, for example, serving the needs of children.

I'm sure that we can all agree that, as a national community, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that our children are given the best possible foundation for success. After all, our children are our future. And broadcasters have a special responsibility -- as licensees with public interest obligations in exchange for free spectrum.

For better or for worse, television is one of the dominant forces in our children's lives. It is 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.

I won't focus on the issue of violence on television. That subject has been given "high level attention" elsewhere.

I do want to offer a brief comment on the proliferation of trashy talk shows which air during hours that kids are home from school. For a while, reading a synopsis of the day's talk show topics in the TV listings was akin to reading a tickler list for perversion and promiscuity.

The public sounded the alarm for producers and station owners to take greater responsibility for the product they produce and air. No response.

Along came former Secretary Bill Bennett and Senators Joe Lieberman and Sam Nunn. They berated broadcasters for producing and airing these shows. All to no avail.

But then Bennett, Lieberman, and Nunn focused the spotlight on the advertisers that sponsored these programs. Like magic, many shows were dropped from station lineups.

It would be a pity if broadcasters were to rely solely on advertiser pressure to do what is right by our nation's youth.

I also think that the broadcasting community, as a whole, has missed an opportunity to show leadership on behalf of children. The Children's Television Act requires every broadcast licensee to serve the educational and informational needs of children. But many broadcasters have fought efforts to put meat on the bones of that statute.

The vast majority of broadcasters take their responsibilities under the CTA very seriously. They are airing more quality children's education and informational programming. Others are not.

But here's our problem. The Children's Television Act of 1990 requires at license renewal time that the Commission "consider the extent to which . . . the licensee has served the educational and informational needs of children . . ."

This is the first year in which television renewal applications will be judged on the basis of a full license period under the Act. During the previous cycle, which ended in 1993, much of the renewal period either predated the Act or occurred shortly after rules were approved.

Thus, there wasn't sufficient lead time for the market to create and produce, and for broadcasters to purchase and air, quality educational programming. So back then, it would have been unreasonable for the Commission to expect broadcasters to have obtained and aired programming to meet the Act. But that is not the case today.

So how do we evaluate compliance? What should our standard be?

As I see it, there are three choices:

  1. Leave it up to the Commission to determine on a case-by-case basis what level of performance meets the statutory requirements;
  2. Set a hard-and-fast rule that "X" number of hours be aired per week of shows that meet the definition of core programming; or

  3. Establish a level of expectation of "X" number of hours that would be a "safe harbor," but which also would permit the Commission staff to consider the station's other activities that enhance children's programming.

In my judgment, the status quo -- Option One -- flies in the face of 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!

To apply this approach could be a very long and uncertain process for broadcasters and the financial community.

Option Two has the virtue of certainty, but I think it's too inflexible. It could sacrifice quality for quantity, resulting in the least expensive offerings being aired at the least attractive time.

I favor the last option because it is the most First Amendment friendly; it gives broadcasters the flexibility in deciding how best to serve the needs of children; and it gives meaning to the Act.

Under Option Three -- which the Independent Television Association suggested in 1994 -- broadcasters have 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 sixteen years and younger. But this isn't your only choice.

That minimum number of hours -- say, three hours -- would be the "safe harbor" or the guaranteed passing grade. You would know even years in advance that you have met your obligations under the Act.

But you could choose instead to air less than the specified number of hours of core children's educational programming, if you demonstrate a "comparable commitment to educational programming" -- 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, just as they do today. It would not come up to the Commissioners for routine approval, because the staff would know the "level of expectation" against which to measure your performance.

What do I mean by "comparable commitment?" For example, a station that has spent a lot of extra time and money producing and syndicating a quality educational program, and airs more great interstitials than most stations, but had slightly less than the three hours of core programming because of the additional expense, would in my view be making a sufficiently "comparable commitment" to children's educational programming. Even some non- programming activities that enhance the educational value of the station's programming fit well under this framework. Creativity and offerings tailored to your market work well.

I am encouraged by recent discussions, in which several broadcasters have expressed their support in principle for the Third Option. While details need still to be ironed out, I believe that -- together -- we can find a solution that works for the industry, for the Commission, and for our children. At long last, progress is being made.

In addition to setting a "level of expectations" in the amount of core programming, we should take two other steps to improve performance under the Act.

First, we should tighten the definition of core children's educational programming to include only those programs where a "substantial purpose" is education or information. I believe, however, that most of the programs the networks have designated would meet a tightened definition.

Children cannot benefit from programs they do not watch. I repeat: children cannot benefit from programming they do not watch. We should strive for shows that children will want to see -- shows that capture and enrapture, entertain and educate. There are ample examples of such programs.

Second, we should require broadcasters to designate which programs they believe meet the core programming definition, and make that information available to newspapers and other program listing guides. I hope that newspapers will prominently feature these listings. If families can find programs, audiences will grow, advertising will flow, and more good programming will be produced. That's the marketplace at work.

Let's try to make television a more family-friendly medium. Again, I believe that together, we can find a solution that works for the industry, for the Commission and, most importantly, for our children.

Another good reason to get this issue settled is that Congress has just assigned us a vast new set of responsibilities.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

Passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 just 45 days ago was a major feat. Many said it couldn't be done.

For twenty years or so industry groups fought aggressively for competitive advantage. Finally, battle-weary warriors laid down their pens and agreed to a compromise omnibus bill -- an equilibrium had been achieved. And most players perceived that the time was ripe to make way for marketplace competition.

The Act heralds competition -- It sets forth a framework to open all markets to competition, thereby accelerating private sector development of advanced telecommunications and information technologies and services for all Americans. And it mandates deregulation, whenever possible, in the public interest.

At the same time, it recognizes that, in promoting private sector solutions, we must help bridge the gap between the information haves and have-nots. Thanks to Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller -- schools, classrooms and libraries will be connected to the information network at affordable rates.

Monopoly providers -- the local telephone and cable companies -- will experience a profound change in the services they can offer, the way they compete, and how they are regulated.

The Act does not fundamentally change the regulatory structure for broadcasting. However, it does significantly relax ownership limits, which may have a ripple effect through the industry. It also revises the process by which license renewals are granted.

The changes in ownership rules properly differentiate between national and local caps, and also between television and radio.

I favor moving from Grade B to Grade A contour for determining TV duopoly; and I have not yet made up my mind regarding other modifications of television duopoly. But the burden is on those who want the rules changed to demonstrate why additional concentration and reduced diversity is in the public interest.

The changes in license renewal are ones I am sure you will like. First, for applications after May 1995, a licensee who has filed seeking renewal must stand on its own record, and cannot be judged by whether a would-be competitor could do a better job.

Only if the Commission finds that the broadcaster should not have its license renewed does the process open for others to file. Second, radio and television licenses may now be renewed for eight years instead of five or seven.

The Digital Revolution

Important as the new legislation is, the digital revolution ultimately may have a more profound impact on the broadcast industry than legislation. I am talking not just about advanced television and satellite digital audio radio.

I am also talking about new competitors for advertising dollars -- companies providing multiple programming streams from many sources: DBS, MDS, LMDS, open video services (the Act's answer to telco video-dialtone) and, yes, the Internet. These distribution systems did not exist ten years ago.

How broadcasters position themselves to do battle in this multi-media, interactive world will determine whether broadcasting thrives or just survives at the turn of the century.

I personally believe broadcasting will remain strong. Your emphasis on local service should stand you in good stead with your audience. But you may need to embrace new technologies that expand your capability to serve the public.

Traditional radio and television are facing new challenges as all communications media rely increasingly on digital technologies.

This spring, the Commission is scheduled to finalize the specifics of digital satellite radio broadcasting. I know that this matter is of concern to many radio broadcasters. Without prejuding any of the issues, I think that some limited type of satellite broadcasting should be permitted. The Commission must not stand in the way of new technologies or the introduction of innovative services for the public.

But I am also mindful of the invaluable service that local broadcasters render to their markets. We will try to design a regime for DARS that will maximize its unique benefits to the public yet minimize its impact on terrestrial broadcasting.

More importantly, I stand ready to consider and to expedite any feasible method of permitting current radio broadcasters to also initiate digital broadcasting. An EIA/NAB committee has studied various proposals that would permit this, and I look forward to having a proposal submitted to the Commission later this year.

We have an ongoing proceeding looking at the service related to digital television. We plan to go forward with our consideration of the proposed Grand Alliance digital standard and to consider specific channeling plans.

Congress has been considering whether existing licensees should be provided a transition period to switch over to the new digital technology, or whether the digital channels should be auctioned initially. The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on this issue last week. We at the Commission will be guided by any Congressional decision.

I hope that this decision can be rendered on policy grounds rather than on budgetary considerations. The issue is far too complex and its impact on the American people far too great. At this point, I believe that current broadcasters should be permitted to transition to digital technology, as all other services are doing.

But it must be made clear and certain that the analog channels will be returned and auctioned after a reasonable transition period. Because digital technology is so efficient, I would support repacking of the digital channels to free up as much contiguous spectrum as is possible.


I know that many of you are going to Capitol Hill tomorrow to meet with your legislators. I hope that those meetings are productive.

I also hope that you will agree that meeting the programming needs of children is an important goal for our national community. Please join with other broadcasters who are working for an appropriate solution to the issue of a children's television renewal standard.'

Let's also work together to enable broadcasters to meet the challenges of this new digital age.

Thank you.