FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to make sure that parents get better ways to monitor and control the material their children can see on TV, computers and cell phones. Other issues of concern to the new chairman include the economic challenges facing broadcasters as well as completing the digital TV transition. One thing that looks unlikely is allowing broadcasters in small markets to own two stations.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is looking for ways to empower parents so that they can better control what their children see and hear on TV, computers and cell phones.
“It’s pretty clear to me that parents are concerned and confused when it comes to their kids and digital media, which now covers broadcasting,” he says in this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell.
“So the first thing that we’re going to do is get our arms around what’s going on — what are the trends, what are the tools, what are the things that can be done that will help empower parents and protect kids.”
(Genachowski’s comments dovetail with a report in TheWrap today that says the FCC is expected to release soon a report on media blocking technology and ratings to protect children.)
Also top of mind of the new chairman is TV and newspaper journalism whose economic underpinnings are eroding. He says that he is “open to ideas” on how to help, but stops short of endorsing fellow FCC Commissioner Michael Copps’ call for a formal inquiry.
Just two months into his chairmanship, Genachowski is not ready with any other specifics on his broadcasting agenda, other than a promise to follow through on the digital transition.
He says he recognizes that TV stations have fallen on financial hard times, but does not see that as cause for any immediate change in the regulation of stations. Stations still have a “special contract” to serve the public interest, he says.
And he provides little hope for broadcasters who want to own two stations in small markets. “I hear the concern of the people who worry about excessive consolidation in media and those concerns are at their greatest in smaller markets that have the fewest voices.”
An edited transcript:
Are you concerned about the viability of the TV station business in the face of the competition it’s facing and the fragmentation of its audience?
It remains essential for the country to have a healthy and vibrant broadcasting industry that serves the public interest and, yes, it’s hard to look at the broadcasting industry now and not see it as a challenging time. It’s, of course, a challenging time throughout the economy and some of what’s going on in the economy is particularly hard on broadcasters.
Do you feel any obligation to help them in some way by, say, lightening the regulatory load or extending new regulatory benefits to them.
I know you’ll remember that, when I was here in the 1990s, one of the things I worked on was the shift of broadcasters to digital. I completely acknowledge that it was expensive for broadcasters to do, but, at the same time, I don’t think that anyone would look at broadcasting today and say that the hope for the industry lies in analog. So, the FCC, in pushing the DTV transition, did something important in the long run for the economic viability of broadcasting. That’s No. 1.
No. 2 is I’ve made it clear to the Media Bureau that we should be working every day with broadcasters to work through the remaining digital television issues so that broadcasters can reach the maximum audience they can. One of the next big issues for broadcasters, of course, is how can they use the digital spectrum in a way that provides new economic opportunities.
Is there anything else you feel you ought to do or can do for broadcasters?
The door is open for ideas on the best ways to make sure that we have a broadcasting industry that’s healthy, vibrant and serves the public interest. The public has always had a special contract with broadcasters. There are multiple parts to that contract and American consumers expect broadcasters to serve the public interest.
There are still 10 to 15 million Americans who rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting. It’s their only immediate source of news and emergency information. Even in homes that have other video services, broadcasting is very often the leading source of news and information, so it continues to play an important role. Obviously there are big changes going on in the video marketplace that are creating big challenges that need to be tackled.
If stations are so important, shouldn’t you be easing up a little bit on regulation in their time of need?
I think it’s hard to tackle that in the abstract. In the abstract, we need a healthy, vibrant broadcasting industry that serves the public interest. I’m sorry to repeat myself, but this is what I think. So, we need a set of rules that promotes both aspects of that. Promoting the public interest piece with respect to an industry that isn’t successful doesn’t do anyone any good.
In your interview with John Eggerton of B&C, you said that the core justification for enforcing public interest obligations on TV stations is unchanged, but the core justification, I always thought, was scarcity and that has changed, hasn’t it? TV stations now operate in a world of video abundance.
There are a number of different rationales for particular regulatory actions. I’m convinced that the legal justifications for the rules that are in place are as strong as they were.
You must enforce the laws against broadcast indecency, but we have seen that FCC chairmen have a lot of prosecutorial discretion. Some like Sikes, Powell and Martin have been aggressive. Others like Hundt and Kennard not nearly so much. Which group do you think you’ll fall into?
Here’s where we are on indecency: Our general counsel is leading an effort to determine an appropriate course on the litigation. You know, the Supreme Court rejected one challenge. That case is back in the Second Circuit. And there is other litigation.
But would you agree that you have a lot of discretion on how far you go on indecency enforcement?
I’d like to think that there can be some certainty, clarity and predictability around enforcement in this area. It shouldn’t be what one person’s judgment is or five commissioners’ judgment is. So I would definitely have to think about that.
One of the things that broadcasters would love to have is the opportunity to own two TV stations in small markets. Can small-market broadcasters hope for any relief on that front?
The commission does have to review its ownership rules regularly. I think the next review is in 2010. There’s no question that the smaller the market, the greater the concerns about consolidation. But listen, we’ll be reviewing the broadcast ownership rules as we’re required to do. I will want the review to be fact-based, data-driven and realistic about what’s going on in the marketplace.
So you’re at least open on that.
The small-market duopoly question is not one that I’ve tackled since I’ve been here. I’ve been focused on other issues. I hear the concern of the people who worry about excessive consolidation in media and those concerns are at their greatest in smaller markets that have the fewest voices.
Do you intend to move forward with the local programming mandates proposed by the prior FCC?
That is not something that we’ve made any decisions on yet. That’s another thing that we talked about 15 years ago. Americans place great value on access to local news, emergency information. Broadcasters do as well and, generally, localism is a core principal of the Communications Act. We’re looking at the issue.
We just announced a new Media Bureau chief within the last couple of weeks, Bill Lake. His main priority right now continues to be the successful implementation of digital television, but he and the bureau will be looking at all of the issues.
There’s been some talk that the FCC might still scale back the enhanced disclosure requirements if only to head off getting them whacked by the OMB or the court of appeals. Is that possible?
As I have said, we’ve been here about two months and focusing on broadband, getting the commission up and running and bringing people in, so we haven’t announced anything on that. Right now, I can’t do more than talk about the principles that are important here — and the principle of localism is important.
Maybe this is the answer to your next question. I hear the concern of many about the future of journalism in the country — the future of local news on TV, the future of local newspapers, a vibrant, energetic news industry. I don’t think you can look at what’s going on in the marketplace and not be concerned.
I can’t tell you I know where the key is to unlock the problem, but it’s something that’s very important and the FCC will be open to ideas on that. We have got to make sure that we preserve news gathering abilities, particularly for local news and information.
So will you be going ahead with Copps’ idea of conducting a formal inquiry on TV journalism?
We’ll be looking into it, but haven’t decided exactly how or when.
You’ve talk quite a bit about children’s TV in other forums. Can you elaborate a little bit more about what you have in mind?
It’s pretty clear to me that parents are concerned and confused when it comes to their kids and digital media, which now covers broadcasting. When you and I were kids, parents only had to worry about the TV in the living room with a small number of channels. Now they have to worry about the TV with a lot of channels because of cable, as well as computers, the mobile phones they carry around in their pockets. They want to make sure that everyone engaged in this is thinking about how to empower parents and protect kids in a digital environment.
So the first thing that we’re going to do is get our arms around what’s going on — what are the trends, what are the tools, what are the things that can be done that will help empower parents and protect kids.
I have friends from different backgrounds, from different political parties, from different ideological points of view. Everyone I talk to with kids is worried about their kids and so the FCC trying to get its arms around what’s going on and thinking about ways to go about it.
We’ve announced one example of something that broadcasters have reacted to well so far, which is revamping the portions of the FCC Web site that has the information on what educational and informational programming broadcasters are airing. It’s already there. Broadcasters disclose it and they don’t object to disclosing it. It’s on the FCC Web site. It’s just impossible to find and it’s not presented in a way that’s useful to parents.
I’m an optimist about technology. I would hope that there’s a combination of information and the kinds of tools that technology provides that will lead to one broad agreement.
Broadband proponents are looking for all the spectrum they can get and some are eyeing the TV broadcast spectrum. Do you think that broadcast spectrum is currently being used as efficiently as it could be? Do you think some of that spectrum could be used for broadband deployment?
We’re at the beginning of looking at what broadcasters do with digital spectrum. Broadcasters may have their own ideas on how that spectrum can be part of the broadband solution. I very much encourage broadcasters to participate in the broadband process and to think very big and creatively about opportunities in that spectrum. That could be win-win-win for everybody.