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Tuning in (cautiously) to neighborhood TV

The coming weeks would be a good time for the whole country to have that experimental two-way TV which lets the public easily make its wishes known. For public input is needed to ensure that the latest proposal by the Federal Communications Commission fulfills the promise and avoids the pitfalls of opening the way to thousands of new TV stations in the United States.

These stations would be relatively low in power to avoid interference with existing stations and to be affordable by broadcastes of modest means. They would offer broadened choice for viewers and broadened access to the airwaves by minority, nonprofit, rural, and other non-network broadcasters. As FCC chairman Charles Ferris sees it, low-power TV "offers the same intriguing possibilities as the advent of commercial television broadcasting in the late 1940s."

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However, if the best prospects are to be realized a number of questions have to be answered. One place where opposing opinions intersect is on the very matter of low-power operation. A spokesman for the broadcasting industry, which has reportedly been resisting the proposed expansion of competition, raises the potential problem of interference with established stations and the disadvantage to a new broadcaster of coming in with less power. On the public-interest side there is the query of how much effective additional access can be provided by stations whose power is kept lower than the competition. They might be switched off because they "don't come in as well," losing audience and thus advertisers.

So far the FCC has agreed only on a proposal for the UHF spectrum, to which access is already widely available though viewers tend to be fewer. A proposal for low-power stations on VHF, on which the major networks broadcast, has raised greater controversy and was postponed for possible consideration next week. At the same time there is the question of adding "dropped in" VHF stations -- at full or close to full power -- separated by less distance than normally specified. These have recently been authorized in four cities, and by one estimate some hundred could be allocated under modern technology without interfering with present stations.

What has to guarded against is the use of the FCC's proposals as a kind of window dressing to make it appear that suddenly so much variety and access are being offered that the need for regulation of the public airwaves in the public interest is gone. Also to be watched out for is the possibility of hate groups or other propangandists gaining control of a network of small stations. Or of commercial exploitation defeating the purpose of increased access to poor and minority groups. It is said, for example, that one "community" scheme for black TV would include financial backing by a large company in exchange for the use of prime-time hours for pay-TV.

Wisdom about such aspects of the proposed changes should bolster the prospects for fruitful use of the low-power broadcasting.

In a Washington neighborhood with a significant Spanish-speaking minority, a low-power UHF station is in the midst of an experiment in TV directed to this minority. A bigger station would not be necessary. Such a small one probably could not survive without the exemptions from some time- and money-consuming requirements of present legislation that the FCC proposal would grant.

Various ethnic, community, or other groups could benefit from TV service too specialized to be included on a general-audience, high-power station's schedule. Handled conscientiously, a new world of neighborhood TV could be a brave new world indeed.

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