Gore panel plans to offer report without free-air-time mandate

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

A federally appointed panel charged with drafting new public-interest guidelines for the television industry as it enters the digital age will recommend that broadcasters not be required to donate free air time to politicians.

Instead, the panel, in a report to be delivered Friday to Vice President Al Gore, said broadcasters should strive to offer five minutes of free air time for political candidates in the 30 days leading up to each election.

A majority of the 22-member panel, surprisingly, called the recommendation “insufficient.”

Norman Ornstein, a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute who co-chairs the commission, said as many as 14 members of the panel want the government to require broadcasters to provide a “reasonable amount” of free time for politicians. They also asked for at least three hours of local news and three hours of locally produced educational programs per week.

But Ornstein said that broadcast-industry members opposed such stipulations, so they don't appear in the panel's final report.

Ornstein called the report “a platform on which we all found common ground.” He said those endorsing free air time “have indicated that there are some areas in which they would like to go further.”

The Gore Commission, officially called the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, missed its first deadline of June 1. But the commission now plans to hand over its recommendations to the vice president Friday morning.

Gore appointed the commission last year to develop new public-interest guidelines for broadcasters after Congress awarded television station owners a large chunk of the publicly owned airwaves. The FCC estimated that if the broadcast spectrum had been sold on the open market, it might have gone for as much as $70 billion.

As a stipulation of the 1996 federal law, broadcasters must use the expanded spectrum to introduce broadcasts of high-definition programs using digital technology. Over the next 10 years, broadcasters plan to switch from sending analog signals to digital ones.

Viewers, however, may not see changes soon because any recommendation will probably require either Congress or the Federal Communications Commission to act.

In its report, the panel recommends that broadcasters offering digital channels could choose from a number of public-interest obligations. They could pay a fee to the government or they could devote extra channels to public-interest programs.

In forming the commission, both President Clinton and Gore also challenged the members to come up with new requirements to give major-party candidates for public office free time on the air.

But the issue became a sticking point for the commission, which includes CBS Television president Leslie Moonves, the commission's co-chair, and Barry Diller, founder of the Fox TV network and now chairman of USA Networks.

While most of the members said they wanted the federal government to require TV stations to provide “a reasonable amount” of free time, industry representatives on the panel refused to endorse the idea.

Commission member Gigi Sohn, who serves as the executive director of the Media Access Project, told The Washington Post that the broadcasters played “a cat-and-mouse game” with the panel.

“A week before the last meeting, they said they'd walk away,” Sohn said. “They were never upfront. They played hide-the-ball on us. As a result, we were playing to a crowd that was not all there.”

Sohn did not return calls today. But Ornstein said The Post took Sohn's comments out of context. “She is quite supportive of the report, although she is critical of a few of the points in it,” he said.

“We provided opportunities for broadcasters to step up to the plate,” Ornstein said. “It ought to be clear to them that we could move to mandatory requirements if they don't do that.”

But the Public Interest Council, a group formed by the Media Institute after it claimed Gore failed to include panelists with First Amendment and journalistic expertise, warned that voluntary measures endorsed by the government aren't usually voluntary.

“That's so typical for Washington. It's like the National Lampoon cover that said, 'Buy this magazine or we shoot the dog.'” said member Robert Corn-Revere, a former FCC attorney. “It's you volunteer before we volunteer you.”

Although he declined to comment on the full report, Corn-Revere compared its free-air-time recommendation with Congress passing a law telling the FCC to draft television ratings if the industry didn't craft some voluntarily.

“The dirty little secret is: That ain't voluntary,” Corn-Revere said. The commission's free-air-time request “is exactly like with the television ratings, but the one key difference is the structure for television ratings was written into the law.”

The council plans to hold a press conference at 10 a.m EST Friday at the National Press Club soon after the commission delivers its report to the White House. Presenters will include Laurence H. Winer, professor of law at Arizona State University, and Robert O'Neil, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

But another critic, Paul Taylor, founder of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, deemed the report “very good … it's half full rather than half empty.”

Although a longtime advocate for mandatory free air time, Taylor called the commission's recommendation “a very attractive idea that deserves a chance to see if broadcasters take it and run with it. I think it can potentially go farther in transforming the political process than any standard passing through Congress.”