Many details of when any changes would take place are unclear, as are the questions of whether they would affect only those applying for digital channels or whether the FCC would look beyond political candidates to the general public service obligations of stations and networks.
Even FCC Chairman Reed Hundt admitted confusion at the president's announcement, con-ceding he didn't know exactly whether the FCC would look at free time for political candidates or more widely at public service requirements.
"Those are good questions," said Mr. Hundt, who like Vice President Al Gore has recently been critical of declines in network time for public service advertising.
PANEL TO REVIEW ISSUE
President Clinton was following Vice President Gore's advice to create the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, and said the panel would include representatives of "the advertising community." The group's report is due in June.
According to tracking by industry groups, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have increased the amount of time taken out of prime-time programming in recent years. While some time went to more commercial slots, most went to network self-promotion.
Public service time dropped substantially after 1993, according to a study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers.
PSA TIME DROPS
For instance, the survey found that during prime time, the average amount of time given to PSAs on ABC fell from 22 seconds per hour in May 1993 to 3 seconds in May 1996. It also found that Fox did no prime-time PSAs during several of the studied months.
Ruth Wooden, president of the Advertising Council, praised the panel's formation and noted that the dropoff in PSA time occurred after broadcasters no longer had to report time given to PSAs at license renewal.
Broadcasters argue the decline in network-aired PSAs is offset by local stations' increase and note that news programming and debates aren't included in the numbers.
"The circumstances are changing so fast there are bound to be issues on the table," Ms. Wooden said.
Hal Shoup, Four A's exec VP, worried that the push for free time could have ramifications on advertisers.
"It may be a free lunch for political candidates, but it sure isn't going to be a free lunch for advertisers," he said, predicting networks would try to make up any revenue losses from political advertising by raising rates to other advertisers.