Federal Communications Commission Chairman Charles D. Ferris yesterday challenged the broadcast industry to experiment with new technology and new service instead of retreating into a protectionist shell and opposing innovations by others.
"Young industry exists because of those who saw things that never were - and it will not prosper now by explaining why not to advances in communications technology," Ferri told the National Association of Broadcasters in his maiden speech since taking office six months ago.
Referring to the predictions of "chicken Littles" that the new technological developments in communications may make the broadcast industry obsolete, Ferris warned, "that could happen - if you regard change as an adversary and resist the chance for experimentation."
Instead, he told them, they could provide a richer diversity with more convenience than any other medium by:
Offering weather, sports and new on demand and give consumers the capacity to sue their television sets to retrieve other data, without waiting for cable television or fiber optics.
Making wider use of satellites to permit viewers more program options, rather than permitting cable systems to gain the lead in the field.
Supporting the development of improved television sets to bring better UHF reception and more channels to more viewers.
"Commercial broadcasting can and must represent more than the survival of the tired, the timid and the imitative," Ferri ezhorted the broadcasters in remarks prepared for the closing speech of their four-day convention in Las Vegas.
He was particularly critical of the "iron grip" the program ratings have on the commercial television industry. Noting that a former FCC chairman worried about them in 1961, Ferri complained that "today the tyranny of Nielsen's numbers has strengthened its hold.
The only palce in our republic where points and point-spreads are given greater urgency than here in the casinos of Las Vegas are the corporate headquarters of the three networks in New York," he said.
"That arrangement cannot be acceptable to the American people and must not be acceptable to professional broadcasters. For as we have all learned," he added, "quantity is not synonymous with quality."
Ferris had special praise for the noncommercial publis television and radio services which he said, can increase viewers' choices and meet specialized needs not satisfied by the commercial and advertised-based system.
"You should recognize the contributions public broadcasting has made, and can make in the future, to stimulate a healthy national communications service and freer broadcast marketplace," he said.
Although he pleadged not to exceed his authority by intervening directly in specific program decisions, Ferris noted that a well-funded system of noncommercial television and radio could the pressure for content regulation of broadcasting in general. It could also, he noted, provide "a useful marketplace yardstick and a competitive prod" to commercial broadcasters to strive for excellence and experiment with new ideas and formats.
Ferris told the group that five principles would guide his regulatory action over the next six-and-a-half years at the FCC:
Independence from the industry regualted by the agency. "No industry we regulate will be regarded as a 'consituent,'" he said. "By law, the commission's only constituency is the public."
Evenhandness in dealing with small and large licensees and in protecting the public. In the past, he said, the FCC sometimes has been more attentives to abuses against the broadcasters' commercial clients than it has with the abuses of the medium suffered by the public.
The encouragement of controversial issue discussion and viewer feed back.
Increased reliance on competition where possible. "I reject the myth that the consumer's interest and increase government intervention are identical." Ferris said. Less regulation can mean better broadcasting by letting the marketplace stimulate innovation, reduce costs, diversify audiences and raise the quality of the medium. He suggested, as had former FCC chairman Richard Wiley, that it might be time to reduce regulation of radio.
Support for new technology and services, not protection of the status quo. "It is the competition of ideas and program asources that can help us begin to errect a new regulatory philosophy based upon abundant - not scarce - resources," he said.