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The Public and TV: Viewer and Citizen

What is the relationship between the owners of television stations and the public? Most of us think of ourselves as consumers of television, but in fact we are much more. We are citizen-owners of the resource that makes broadcasting possible.

The valuable airwaves used by the broadcasters to send programs to our TV's belong to the people. Those airwaves are only licensed to the broadcasters. The broadcasters get that license for free. And, for free, the government protects the broadcasters exclusive use of the frequencies they are assigned. In return for this free use and free protection, the broadcasters are supposed to serve "the public interest." That's the deal the broadcasters argued for and won in the early days of broadcast regulation.

A few broadcasters still honor this deal. Others do not. Some broadcasters have argued that the public interest is only what the public is interested in. . .whether it's Jerry Springer or Mister Rogers, they say, television's only obligation is to entertain the public. That is not what the term public interest means. Acting in the public interest is an old term for acting in the public good.

Though some broadcasters take their responsibility as corporate citizens to heart, it is not surprising that others are only really concerned with making money. Commercial broadcasting is one of the most profitable businesses in the nation, and broadcasters should be expected to do what they can to protect their ability to make money. In the protection of their business, broadcasters have created one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. They spend millions of dollars to influence Congress and the FCC.1 This is part of their job as responsible businessmen.

Part of our job as responsible citizens-owners is to protect our public property by telling the FCC and Congress what we think is in the public good. And by saying whether our local stations are earning the right to the free license to serve us.


1Common Cause, "Channeling Influence: The Broadcast Lobby and the $70 Billion Free Ride," 1997


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