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Policy

Seeking A Safe Harbor

4/05/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Like their secular counterparts, religious television programmers have put more and more of their video on the Web in the past several years. Now, political winds could blow even more faith-based fare onto the Internet as programmers look for a safe harbor.

One reason: the Fairness Doctrine. Some media attorneys believe that although President Obama's nominee for Federal Communications Commission chairman, Julius Genachowski, will initially focus on such hot-button issues as the digital TV transition and network neutrality, it's only a matter of time before potential reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine moves off the agency's back burner.

The Fairness Doctrine — which required broadcast license holders to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner the FCC deemed to be honest, equitable and balanced — was abolished in 1987.

“He will get to it later this year, if not directly then in the context of moving the pending localism proceeding,” said Colby May, senior counsel at the American Center for Law & Justice, who frequently advises religious networks.

Congress, meanwhile, continues to debate the Fairness Doctrine, most recently through amendments to legislation such as the Omnibus Spending Act. The upshot is uncertainty: No one is sure whether the doctrine will be revived and, if so, in what form — such as whether it would be applied only to broadcast outlets or also to networks that are distributed primarily over multichannel providers.

Under one scenario, the government requires religious networks to carry viewpoints opposite theirs — for instance, a pro-life program following a sermon against abortion, or a minister from another faith.

Some networks already have programs that include viewpoints from other denominations, often as a way to build bridges between different faiths. Shalom TV's Faith to Faith and Faith Journal series feature leaders of other religions, and the network also runs interviews and roundtables with Christians and Muslims.

“Overwhelmingly, these discussions are welcomed by our audience, both for the educational content and the additional perspectives offered by guests,” said Shalom TV's CEO, Rabbi Mark Golub.

MOVING CONTROVERSY ONLINE

Networks that want to avoid any new regulations could shift programming that's likely to trigger Fairness Doctrine regulations to their Web site, leaving their broadcast and multichannel outlets to carry their least-controversial content.

“It would be only natural for much of that to move to the Internet, where it would be free and unfettered,” said Eternal Word Television Network CEO Michael Warsaw.

If that migration happens, it could have a profound effect on pay-TV providers.

“It's just emphasizing that content is going to become king, not distribution mediums,” said Trinity Broadcasting Network chief of staff Paul Crouch Jr. “We're moving to the Web regardless of the Fairness Doctrine.”

So is Daystar, which currently offers on-demand streaming video on its Web site.

“We continue to look for ways to reap the benefits of all that the Internet offers to broadcasters,” said Daystar president and founder Marcus Lamb.

Yet another wild card is whether the Web would be only a temporary safe harbor.

“When interim FCC chairman [Michael] Copps says that he thinks the idea of public interest should be enforced against the Internet, as well as broadcast, we see that as a call to arms for broadcasters to look to the future,” said Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel at the trade group National Religious Broadcasters. “If this overexposure of this regulatory arm continues, there will be no hiding place, no safe harbor for vigorous debate on public issues without worrying about hitting some tripwire.”

The Fairness Doctrine isn't the only proposal that faith-based networks are keeping an eye on.

“Religious broadcasters were concerned about bills proposed in the last Congress that might have criminalized certain categories of speech as 'hate speech' if directed at a protected class,” said the ACLJ's May.

Although no hate-speech bills are currently before the 111th Congress, networks remain concerned that new legislation is a matter of when, rather than if.

“It could have a stifling effect on the freedom of our programmers to speak about what they perceive as biblical truths or traditional values,” said Jim West, president of MyFamilyTV (formerly FaithTV).

THE DTV OPPORTUNITY

The transition to digital broadcasting is creating another outlet for religious networks. Secular stations are considering such programmers as a means to monetize their multicast slots.

Although the size of the over-the-air audience is still anyone's guess, multicasting could put religious programmers into millions of additional households, including those that have cable but don't subscribe to tiers that include faith-based programming.

“That's an important place for us to be,” said The Inspiration Networks chief operating officer Bill Airy. “We have some distribution now in digital broadcasts. From the standpoint of secular broadcasters looking at it, yes, we're in negotiations with some.”

Added MyFamilyTV's West: “We are speaking with many secular stations. Since our programming is mostly family fare, it appeals to a wide cross-section of viewers.”

EWTN also sees opportunities in DTV.

“There have been discussions on an informal basis with [over-the-air] broadcasters about that idea of using secondary channels to create an OTA version of EWTN,” Warsaw said. “That's certainly something that we may see beginning in the coming months.”

DIGITAL DIVERSITY

Despite their concerns about onerous new regulations, DTV is one area where faith-based nets potentially could benefit from laws aimed at increasing diversity.

A secular station might see multicasting faith-based programming as a way to meet diversity benchmarks. Then there is the matter of multicast must-carry.

“With the widespread deployment of converter boxes, the OTA audience is significant,” said MyFamilyTV's West. “Must-carry would ensure a wider audience could readily enjoy the benefits of our programming.”

West also believes that must-carry for low-power, class-A stations would be a step toward both the goal of diversity and toward a wider audience for some faith-based networks.

“Networks like ours, and many new networks launched by minority groups, depend heavily on distribution from those platforms,” West said. “If the Congress and the FCC truly believe in diversity, then they should help us obtain sufficient households to make our businesses viable.”

September