The Federal Communications Commission pushed aside the concerns of local broadcasters yesterday and approved a new television service: direct satellite-to-home broadcasting.
By a unanimous vote, the commission decided that the time had come for the new service, which would bypass existing local television stations completely in delivering television signals to homes across the country.
What's more, for the first time in its 48-year-history, the commission approved this service without directing broadcasters to offer programs that meet the needs of local communities they serve.
FCC Chairman Mark Fowler argued that it should be up to the public, and not the commission, to determine what types of shows they want to watch on television. If the public wants to watch the direct-broadcast satellite systems with national programs instead of locally originated shows by existing stations, "Who are we to say we shouldn't?" Fowler asked.
The commission yesterday also proposed relaxing two 12-year-old financial restrictions on the nation's three networks--ABC, CBS and NBC. Saying that competition in the television programming industry may have increased significantly, the commission proposed lifting its rules that bar the networks from syndicating any programs they produce or from acquiring any financial interest in any program in which they are not the sole producer.
The proposal is highly controversial, with movie producers and officials of independent television stations arguing strongly that the rules maintain competition in the television programming market and prevent the networks from gaining unhealthy control over the programming industry. The networks, however, argue that the rules are unfair and prevent diversity in programming because they have the resources to take greater risks in programming.
Aware of the controversy, the commission noted that the proposal is a "neutral" one designed only to collect information, not to indicate which way the commission will vote.
As a result of this clarification, both sides were pleased with the commission's proposal yesterday.
However, broadcasters were far from pleased about the commission's decision on the direct-broadcast satellite system. Immediately after yesterday's vote, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement charging that the commission "has abandoned the interest of the public." The new service not only could drain audience and revenues from existing stations, but it could stifle the development of high-definition television, which by more than doubling the number of scanning lines on the current television screen, promises to bring viewers clearer, crisper and larger pictures.
The industry was hoping to transmit high-definition television on the same frequencies the FCC has decided to give to the direct-broadcast service, or DBS.
However, the commission contended that DBS would provide great benefits to the viewing public, especially in rural areas where conventional reception is poor and limited.