Public affairs gap – Funder calls for new rules

Commercial broadcasters are forsaking local public affairs programming, the Benton Foundation finds in a major new study.

In a typical two-week period, only 0.3 percent of total commercial broadcast time is devoted to local public affairs programming, says the report, “Market Conditions and Public Affairs Programming.”

It says deregulated markets have not met local needs, and it urges the Federal Communications Commission to set rules defining the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters.

“Broadcasters’ abysmal performance providing coverage of issues of local concern exemplifies the need for a rulemaking to clearly define their obligations,” says Charles Benton, the foundation’s chair.

“The commission should begin that proceeding now and base the next generation of public interest obligations on a collection of principles that recognize the rights of viewers in American broadcasting,” he says.

Benton served on the President’s Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters.

The foundation suggests that the FCC adopt the Viewers’ Bill of Rights, a set of principles based on a 1969 Supreme Court ruling stating that the rights of viewers are the primary concern of broadcast regulation and that local concerns must be respected.

According to those principles, programming should serve the needs of children, education, democracy and diversity.

[In Raleigh, N.C., Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc. this month began airing free political spots for five major candidates for governor.

[The broadcasts, aired on the company’s stations in Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington, are an experiment established by Jim Goodmon, the company’s president and chief executive officer, and a member of the President’s Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Broadcasters.

[Goodmon, who also is president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, publisher of Nonprofitxpress, has recommended to the president’s committee a series of minimum requirements for public interest broadcasting.]

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