Published Online: January 13, 1999
Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Media

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Digital TV: Something good might be on the new digital TV for schools and public broadcasting, if the recommendations of a panel studying changes in the broadcast medium are followed.

Last month, the President's Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters recommended to Congress and the Federal Communications Commission that digital broadcasters pay for a permanent trust fund to support public broadcasting and that channels be set aside for educational programs and services.

After periodic hearings over 15 months, representatives of the television industry, public-advocacy organizations, and the general public agreed that broadcasters adopting digital technology should do more to address the concerns of the public and to unlock the educational potential of digital television, or DTV.

DTV enables broadcasters to use the same amount of broadcast spectrum to send out a vastly increased amount of information than is now possible under present analog technology. The extra capacity can be used to broadcast high-definition video with cinema-quality pictures and CD-quality sound. Or it can be used for providing multiple signals, more TV channels, subscription TV, audio signals, pay-per-view, and paging, data, or wireless-telephone services.

The agency set up a series of deadlines for implementing the digital standard, beginning in April 2003, when 50 percent of each station's current analog channel must be broadcast on its DTV channel.

But the advisory panel's search for consensus, which included an endorsement of free air time for political candidates, left many details fuzzy. For example, the panelists did not settle on the amount of air time to be devoted to educational programming, or decide if such programs should be on the station's main channel or be placed on a secondary channel.

The FCC currently requires stations to broadcast at least three hours of educational programming each week.

A coalition of media-advocacy groups criticized the report for its failure to set clear public-interest standards.

"These are the public's airwaves, after all," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Media Education.

The FCC is slated to begin a formal rulemaking process on public-interest requirements for digital broadcasters early this year. Congress is also likely to weigh in on the matter.

The panel's report is available on the World Wide Web at www.benton.org/PIAC.

--Andrew Trotter atrotter@epe.org

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 9

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