FCC hears wrath of Senate Dems


WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats on Thursday pressured the five FCC commissioners to set programming requirements for broadcasters as part of the industry's mandate to operate in the public interest.

In the FCC's first appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee since the Democrats took control of Congress, the lawmakers weren't shy about voicing their objections to what appears on TV.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called television a menu filled with "junk, sex and scandals." Rockefeller and other Democrats -- most notably Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey -- complained that the FCC was abdicating its obligation to police the airwaves.

"I think TV is in the worst state it's ever been in," Rockefeller said. "I'm convinced the FCC has abandoned its core responsibility."

The lawmakers pushed FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, to commence a rule that would define exactly what programming constitutes the "public interest."

"It seems to me (that) the public-interest standards have been completely emasculated, and I'm hoping you will start a notice of proposed rulemaking on public-interest standards," Dorgan said.

Although Martin hasn't been shy about bashing broadcasters for their programming -- he has been aggressively pursuing them for violating the nation's indecency laws -- he expressed hesitation over a commitment that requires broadcasters to air certain types of programming.

"I'm not convinced yet that we need to have the kind of requirement some people have urged us to announce, which is that broadcasters would have an obligation to put on certain kinds of programming," Martin said.

He told the lawmakers that he did not object to a requirement that broadcasters prove they are operating in the public interest.

"I do think it's important, and I have supported more extensive reporting requirements," he told the lawmakers.

In exchange for getting the use of the airwaves for free from the government, broadcasters are required to operate in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." While there have been different obligations placed on broadcasters under that legal rubric, exactly what that is has never been explicitly spelled out.

Dorgan and the other lawmakers appear to want some regulatory certainty about it.

"This commission is about regulation," Dorgan said. "I always worry a little when I hear regulators shy away from regulation. The market from time to time needs a referee. That's the job of the FCC, in my opinion."