Broadcasters should be accountable to the public and allow local and religious programming in exchange for their free use of “tens of billions of dollars worth” of publicly owned airwaves, said the U.S. bishops in an Oct. 14 letter to a Congress committee.

The bishops have recommended that public interest obligations for broadcasters must be included in several bills that are scheduled for debate Oct. 19 and that would update the country’s communications laws.

“Today, even as the broadcasting industry continues to benefit from its subsidized use of the public airwaves, broadcasters’ observance of meaningful public interest obligations has declined,” wrote Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Communications Committee, in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK).

“We ask that, in exchange for the use of tens of billions of dollars worth of new spectrum rights, broadcasters be required to put forth a substantial effort to provide programming that better serves the public,” he wrote.

According to current law, broadcasters are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to use the airwaves for free in nominal exchange for serving the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

A defined set of “public interest obligations” were rigorously enforced by the FCC in the past but since the early 1980s, the bishops observed, Congress and the FCC have pursued a much more deregulatory approach.

“The rapidly growing consolidation of the media industry has allowed companies to ignore their obligations to serve the public interest,” Bishop Kicanas said. “As a result, there are fewer broadcast stations that are willing to provide local and religious programming.”

The USCCB has collected anecdotes from “a significant number” of dioceses, which have found it increasingly difficult to place their programming on local stations, the bishop noted.

“The bishops are concerned that local broadcasters’ programming decisions regarding religious and educational programming are more deeply rooted in their desire for commercial gain, rather than in serving their communities’ interests,” Bishop Kicanas said. “I respectfully urge you to reconfirm broadcasters’ obligation to serve their local communities of license with programming that responds to the religious needs and interests of the local community.”

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