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Ads OK for public DTV

Oct 15, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Public broadcasters will be allowed to sell commercials on their digital TV frequencies under a landmark ruling by the Federal Communications Commission last week.
Under the new rules, which FCC officials said were intended in part to help public stations underwrite the cost of launching DTV operations, the PBS stations will continue to be required to offer at least one noncommercial channel free over the air.
But the regulations, approved by a 3-1 vote, will also permit public broadcasters to use set-top boxes or other new technology to earmark some of their remaining DTV channels for subscription TV services that include ads. (A single DTV channel can offer five or more TV signals at the same time.)
In a quid pro quo for Uncle Sam, public broadcasters would also have to turn over 5 percent of the gross revenues from the ads or other commercial offerings to the federal treasury.
John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, said public stations would use the revenue to “to provide a new generation of digital educational services.”
But FCC officials made clear that nothing in the agency’s rules would prevent them from offering sitcom reruns, detergent commercials or whatever other programming fare they might prefer.
The only major limitation under the FCC regulations, according to the agency, is that a “substantial majority” of public broadcasters’ DTV frequencies are supposed to be devoted to nonprofit, noncommercial educational services.
In a statement, the FCC also said commercial operations of public broadcasters need not be limited to ads but could also include such non-TV services as audio, paging and data transmission.
At deadline, the National Association of Broadcasters had no comment on the initiative, which invites public broadcasters to share ad revenues that commercial station members once had to themselves.
But one commercial TV industry source alleged that so-called “enhanced underwriting” credits that public stations already use to acknowledge program sponsors on air are essentially commercials anyway.
“So what’s the difference?” this source said.
Meanwhile, some of public broadcasting’s strongest advocates in Washington were expressing fear that the new commercial freedom could erode key industry support.
“The FCC’s decision in my view may have the effect of accelerating the creeping commercialism in this national treasure, undermining its financial support with viewers and with congressional appropriators,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, the agency’s only sitting Democrat and sole dissenting vote on the issues, said: “Permitting advertisements on the digital spectrum of public television is contrary to statute, contrary to the will of Congress and contrary to the mission of public television.”
Added Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Media Education, “This is to be expected from this kind of FCC, where money talks and the public interest is missing in action.”
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, defended the agency’s new regulations: “Public television will continue to do in the digital age what it has done so well in the past: serve the public interest by producing superb noncommercial educational programming.”
Added Roy Stewart, chief of the FCC’s Mass Media Bureau, “We don’t think the substantial majority of the public broadcasters are going to turn around and go bananas on us.”
Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said that lawmaker is also concerned that the FCC ruling opens the door to “creeping commercialism” and may ask the agency to tighten its rule to limit the commercials to “one or two channels at most.”