A Primer on the Public Interest Obligations of Television Broadcasters

Prepared by

United States Department of Commerce
National Telecommunications and Information Administration

for the

Advisory Committee
on the
Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (PIAC)

October 22, 1997


A Primer on the Public Interest Obligations of Television Broadcasters

Part I - The Principal Public Interest Obligations of Television Broadcasters Today

Part II. Historical Evolution and Constitutional Basis for Public Interest Regulation of the Broadcast Medium


A Primer on the Public Interest Obligations of Television Broadcasters


In exchange for the exclusive right to use the public's scarce electromagnetic spectrum, broadcasters are obliged to serve the public interest.(1) A broadcast licensee serves as a trustee of the public's airwaves with a fiduciary responsibility to use the spectrum not just for private gain, but also for the public interest. While most of the provisions discussed herein pertain to radio as well as television broadcasters, this primer focuses upon television.(2)

Since the inception of commercial television broadcasting in 1941, the parameters of public interest obligations have periodically been altered in response to re-evaluations of the public interest by the Federal Communications Commission (Commission, FCC), statutory measures taken by Congress and rulings by the federal judiciary.(3) In some instances, the Commission's re-evaluation of public interest obligations has been prompted by persistent features of the television landscape that required policy attention such as insufficient children's educational programming.(4) On other occasions re-evaluations of the public interest responsibilities have been spurred by a recognition of economic and technological changes in the media environment. This includes assessments of the impact of cable, video cassette recorders (VCRs), direct broadcast satellite (DBS) and other new technologies for the delivery of video programming services to consumers.

Sometimes Congress acts through statute to specify particular broadcasting obligations or to prohibit certain conduct. These statutory initiatives remove a degree of discretion from the Commission in determining the ambit of public interest obligations. The ban on tobacco advertising,(5) access provisions for political candidates(6) and a statutory effort to increase the amount of educational and informational television programming for children(7) exemplify particularized Congressional efforts in the area of public interest obligations. Most recently, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which amends the 1934 Act, adopted the public interest principle as the touchstone for the assignment and operation of the digital television broadcast spectrum.(8)

Today, many policy makers -- led by the President of the United States -- believe that the emergence of digital television (DTV) is cause for reconsidering the dimensions of television broadcasters' public interest obligations.(9) The novel technological features of DTV give cause to re-examine the public interest responsibilities of television broadcasters to determine whether the public interest lies in the retention, repeal or addition to these obligations.

While the statutory and regulatory broadcasting measures in the public interest include both structural restrictions and programming obligations, the scope of public interest obligations given consideration in this primer are only those that are exclusively oriented towards the content that the licensee can broadcast and the conditions upon which the licensee can do so.(10) This set of obligations is the focus of the Executive Order and President Clinton's public statements pertaining to the purpose of the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (PIAC).(11)

The public interest obligations presented in this primer apply to commercial and noncommercial educational (NCE) television broadcasters, unless otherwise indicated.(12) Part I of this primer provides an annotated enumeration of the most significant public interest obligations that apply to television broadcasters. Part II discusses the Constitutional basis for public interest regulation of the broadcast medium drawing upon key judicial interpretation of the Constitution as applied to statutory and regulatory actions.

Part I - The Principal Public Interest Obligations of Television Broadcasters Today

[1] Programs Responsive to Community Needs - Generally: Each broadcaster has an

obligation to provide programming that is responsive to the needs of the community of

license. Toward this end, the FCC requires that the licensee file quarterly reports which

enumerate a list of programs that have provided the station's most significant treatment of

community issues during the preceding three month period. This list must be accom-

panied with a brief narrative describing what issues were given significant treatment and

the programming that provided this treatment. Air date, day part, as well as

program length and title must be included in the report to the Commission;

[2A] Educational and Informational Programming by Commercial Television Licensees:

A licensee must provide a minimum of three hours per week of educational and informational programs which "furthers the positive development" of children 16 years of age and younger if the television licensee wants expedited license renewal approval of its children's television programming obligations. In order to qualify the licensee must provide educational or informational programming that (a) airs between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.; (b) is part of a regular weekly schedule; (c) ensures that each episode is at least 30 minutes in length; (d) identifies each educational and informational program at the beginning of each episode; and (e) supplies publishers of television program guides information about which forthcoming program broadcasts are educational and informational for children, including the age group for which the program is intended.

Licensees must also file a quarterly Children's Television Programming Report describing efforts made in previous quarter and plans made for the forthcoming quarter to fulfill educational and information programming obligations for children

[2B] Educational and Informational Programming by Noncommercial Television


Noncommercial television licensees must serve the educational and informational

needs of children 16 years of age and younger through overall programming including

that designed specifically for children's informational and educational edification.

Obligations may be met, in part, through non-broadcast efforts or effort to support such

programming at other television stations.

[3] Parental Choice in Television Programming Television Program Ratings:

In order to give parents greater control over the television programs viewed by their children, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 included provisions for: (1) the

design of a rating system in tandem with (2) technology built into television sets that

would enable parents to screen out programs containing sexual, violent, or other indecent

material. The "Parental Choice in Television Programming" provision of the 1996 Act

(Section 551) encourages the television content providers and distributors to develop a

voluntary rating system, and directs the FCC to oversee the television receiver industry's

development of technical standards for blocking technology. This technology is to

function in conjunction with the rating system.

[3A] Television Program Ratings:

For programs designed only for children

TV-Y: Program appropriate for children of all ages.

TV-Y7: Program appropriate for children ages 7 and older.

For programs designed for the entire audience

TV-G: (General Audience) Most parents would find this suitable for all ages.

Little or no violence, No strong language, no sexual dialogue or situations.

TV-PG: (Parental Guidance Suggested) This program contains material that

parents may find unsuitable for younger children. Theme itself may be cause for

parent guidance and/or the program contains one or more of the following:

moderate violence (V), sexual situations (S), infrequent coarse language (L), or

some suggestive dialogue (D).

TV-14: (Parents Strongly Cautioned) Program contains some material that many

parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Includes one or

more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong

coarse language (L), or intensely suggestive dialogue (D).

TV-MA: (Mature Audience Only) Program is specifically designed to be viewed

by adults, and therefore, may be unsuitable for children under 17. Contains one or

more of the following: graphic violence (V), explicit sexual activity (S), or crude

indecent language (L).

* Industry proposes that icons and associated content symbols appear for 15

seconds at the beginning of all rated programming, and that the icon

size will be enlarged.

U.S.C. §303(w), (x)); see also, Federal Communications Com'n, Public Notice,

CS Docket No. 97-55, FCC 97-34 (February 7, 1997).

[3B] V-Chip: blocking of video programming based on program ratings

[4] Indecency and Obscenity:

[5] Television Advertising: Since the inception of broadcasting the federal government has

regulated the business of selling time to sponsors of programming and purchases of

advertising time. This section of the television public interest obligations primer

discusses the requirement to provide sponsor identification to the television audience, the

freedom to refuse to sell time (with the exception of candidates for federal political

office), as well as limits on the amount of advertising during programs directed

principally to children, the prohibition on tobacco advertising and the recent discuss

over whether to regulate alcohol advertisements beyond the general restriction enforced

by the Federal Trade Commission that, like all advertisements, they not be false or


[6] Access to Broadcast Facilities by Candidates for Elected Political Office:

Through statute and regulations promulgated by the FCC, broadcast licensees

have obligations to provides access to candidates for federal office, and to provide a right

of reply if the licensee endorses an opposing candidate or provides discriminatory access

to its facilities. Licensees are also subject to price regulations for the sale of time to

candidates for elected political office.

The FCC relies on the "reasonable good faith judgment of licensees to determine what constitutes reasonable access." Broadcasters must make available a wide array of day parts to legally qualified federal candidates, but do not have to include advertising spot time in the course of news programs. Licensee can only create a special class of spot time for "news adjacency" if (a) no candidate is sold time during a news program and (b) if the lowest unit charge is provided to candidates vis a vis commercial buyers in that day part.

Broadcasters are required to apply the same policies to candidates with respect to access the weekend before election day that they applied to commercial advertisers during the preceding year, and licensees are prohibited from discriminating among candidates seeking access during the weekend prior to election day. Depending upon the particular facts, a licensee's ordering deadlines will have to be more flexible for candidates than commercial customers in order not to be in violation of the statutory reasonable access provision."

[10] Main Studio Location and Local Public Inspection File: