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Report: Help Public TV

10/03/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Put public, educational and government channels in the basic tier and allocate more money for public broadcasters and media — but not until after they reform the system.

Those are just some of the recommendations for preserving and protecting local news and information in the digital age, according to Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, a report released Oct. 2 by a bipartisan committee that includes a couple of former Federal Communications Commission chairmen, one Republican (Michael Powell) and one Democrat (Reed Hundt).

The 17-member Committee on the Information Needs in a Democracy was created by the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute to help figure out how to keep the flow of community information alive and thriving in a digital age that is remaking the rules and unmaking the traditional media’s longstanding economic models.

The panel’s recommendations will be presented to a number of officials, including FCC chairman Julius Genachowski — who was in attendance when the report was unveiled at the Newseum here last Friday — as well as U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra and National Telecommunications & Information Administration head Larry Strickling.

“We hear loud and clear the assessment of the Knight Commission that this is a critical juncture requiring new thinking and aggressive action,” Genachowski said at the Newseum, adding that he hoped the private sector would meet “many of the challenges” the report identified, but that he expected the FCC would play a “positive and constructive” role as well.

The FCC is planning an inquiry into the health of the news business, though Genachowski has set no timetable for the effort proposed by his predecessor, then acting chief Michael Copps.

“Many people are now losing the information sources they have relied on, as newspapers, TV and radio reduce news coverage to survive financially,” the report said. “In a democracy, the very idea of second-class citizenship is unacceptable; yet, for many, second-class information citizenship is looming.”

The commission wants more support for public media, but said that journalism driven by marketplace incentives will still do the bulk of “original and verified reporting.”

“The health of the private media sector is an important public-policy goal,” the report said. “So too is the independence of private media from governmental intervention on content grounds.”

But the commission went further. It said that targeted deregulation may be necessary to help struggling operations. “Agencies should regularly re-examine whether rules serve the proper ends of public policy in light of changing economic and technological conditions. This includes rules regarding property rights, ownership limits, and the legal obligations of media firms,” the report concluded.

The committee, citing Powell as presiding over the creation of the FCC’s four Internet-openness principles, concluded that the Web has created a wealth of new tools to keep people informed and connected, but said that can only happen if the broadband gap is bridged.

That means that the government’s definition of high-speed Internet is too slow, and too many people lack access, the commission said. The FCC this week estimated that between 3 million and 6 million Americans don’t have high-speed connections.

The commission concluded that the government needs to set “ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability,” which means wireless whenever possible and enough bandwidth to download — and upload — high-definition video programming.

The Knight group also recommended funding libraries and other institutions as digital literacy centers and a national campaign to promote digital literacy.

On the network-neutrality front, the commission recommends “maintain[ing] the national commitment to open networks as a core objective of Internet policy,” which it defines at baseline as Powell’s four openness principles. It does not mention Genachowski’s recent proposal to expand those principles, though it does say that “it is critical that network practices do not undermine the overall environment for innovation.”

Among the government officials getting the report is Corporation for Public Broadcasting board chairman Ernest J. Wilson. Wilson, who was just elected chairman two weeks ago, told Multichannel News in an interview he thought CPB was ideally positioned to help fill what he saw as a community media gap.

“At a time when the legacy print media is literally disappearing before our eyes, and the legacy broadcast media is cutting back on investigative reporting and long-form reporting, now is a tremendous opportunity — and I would say obligation — for public service media to help fill that gap, especially at the local level,” Wilson told MCN.

The recommendations are the result of seven public forums and meetings, plus input from the public via the PBS Engage Web initiative.

September