Copps identifies his public interest priorities for the FCC

by John Eggerton, Multichannel News

An 'Exit Interview' With Federal Communications Commission's Acting Chief

Federal Communications Commission commissioner and former Acting Chairman Michael Copps talked to Multichannel News Washington Bureau chief John Eggerton last week about getting the broadband plan right, the push by Ion Media for digital cable carriage and more.

MCN: A spectrum inventory bill is being marked up this week. Do you ever see a time when broadcasters are asked either to give back their spectrum or pay a user fee?

Michael Copps: I think the first thing to do is to get that inventory-I think that is highly important--and find out what at [looks at his watch] a quarter to 12 on the seventh of July what spectrum in the United States is actually being utilized. I don't have a very good idea of that and I don't know that anybody does.

So, I think it is very difficult to envision what the future is going to be. I have said that over the course of time a lot of broadcasters will migrate to the Internet. It might be a very different world. I don't think that is just around the corner, but if you take the long view of things, that will present all sorts of new challenges.

MCN: Is one of those how you regulate TV content as it moves to mobile and the Web.

MC: It is a huge question and we need to start a serious national dialog on it. .I know some of the questions. I don't know a lot of the answers to it. There has to be in any society a keen interest making sure the media serves the public interest. We have regulation that gives us different regulatory authority over different kinds of communications, radio and TV or cable and satellite, so you have different policies that pertain.

MCN: So, I guess somewhere down the line you have to look there legislatively, but before we do that we really need to tee up the issue.

MC: As you know, I have worried a lot about what the nature of our civic dialog is and is it being adequately served. Now, if we are going to move, looking farther ahead, broadcasting from the world it is in to a different world that basically has been an unregulated world, and we prize that openness and dynamism of the Internet, at the end of the day you still have the interest of the people and the need for a civic dialog to undergird your system of government.

I would like to see a blue-ribbon commission, or some kind of forum or dialog. I would like to see many of them spring up and discuss it. .I think that would be part of the future of journalism, which is a discussion that seems to be burgeoning right now. I think you could have a good national dialog on a lot of these issues.

MCN: Is the report on content control technologies due to Congress next month a way to tee that up?

MC: No, I am talking about something that is going to take some time. We have been working on a notice of inquiry on the future of broadcast journalism. Maybe that would be one venue for it.

But I think this is something to take a little while. You are going to need to assemble the best brains, and people from different sectors of the communications world and let them come and reason together and see if they can help us chart a path to a media future.

MCN: So, you expect the August report will be more of a status report?

MC: Yes, I think so. With a changing commission right now and the new commissioners coming in and all, I think we have to get our bearings on something like this and get the dialog going. I expect the August report will be responsive to the questions that got it going but not range terribly far into uncharted territory.

Ion Media, which has been pushing for some help from the government in getting its multicast channels carried on cable, took heart from your suggestion that the DTV transition would not be complete until those channels were used to diversify the national conversation. They say that would require some form of modified must-carry for diverse programming.

I have said that for years when we had the must-carry debates. I think if a station is producing some really good local broadcasting that is serving the public interest and all, that there is a good case to be made for that going on cable. .

I have never bought into constitutional arguments that that is not allowed or anything like that. But there are very practical problems. Obviously, the cable folks are going to say, ‘well, show us the programming before we carry it." And broadcasters are going to say, "well, we can't produce the programming and spend the money until we have the carriage rights,' and along comes somebody like Ion that has got some good programming that might as well fit into that paradigm.

But I think there are a range of issues that go beyond just ‘is it local, is it public interest," and raises some other issues, too, that the commission will be looking at.

MCN:Let's talk about the broadband rollout for a minute. How could the FCC get that wrong and what would the consequences be?

MC:We could get it wrong very easily. The trick will be to get it right. We have a huge amount of information coming in. There is going to be lots of other information coming in. We have 20 forums in August. The trick is going to be, with all that information coming in the funnel, how does something come out of there that is really practical, achievable and can be translated pretty quickly into a workable strategy to start getting broadband deployed.

Some real hard calls are going to have to be made. You can't open up every facet of the telecommunications act of 1996 without getting into more of the endless debates we have had since 1996.

On the other hand, you have take up some of these things, like universal service, that maybe we do separately or part of that. So we could get it wrong very, very easily. But I am happy with the new team. The new chairman obviously has a commitment to broadband and to getting this right.

If broadband is job one, what is job two and three that shouldn't get lost in that focus.

I continue to be interested in talking about and acting on some kind of public interest guidelines. I would very much hope that in the world we live in now and the new folks in Washington running the government will really step up and engage in a conversation with my friends in the broadcasting industry..

MCN: On the cable side?

MC: We have teed up program carriage and program access in the past and gotten almost there. We are getting close to consensus on a number of items before us.

If you are going to have a [complaint] process then you have to have a predictable and a relatively expeditious process. You can't do these things overnight, but you can't let them go on forever.

PEG channels is a big issue as well. We need to take a good look at that. We put out in my "actingship" petitions from cities and others to try to get a handle on what is going on. They [PEG channels] are a wonderful bastion of localism, diversity and all sorts of interesting programs. More people watch them than you might think. I think the commission needs to move with some expedition on PEG.

article originally published at Multichannel News.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey