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Public Television Stations in the Digital Age


In October 2001, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted rules governing public television stations’ use of digital technology.

Digital technology allows public TV stations to provide even more educational programming than they now offer. Digital technology also permits transmission of programming with higher resolution for dramatically better picture and sound quality. Digital technology includes “high definition television,” or HDTV, which has theater-quality pictures and CD-quality sound. Additionally, digital technology enables public TV stations to transmit several different programs at once in standard definition format. This transmission is called multicasting.” When the DTV rules were being developed, the FCC decided to give public broadcasters a great amount of flexibility to encourage their development of innovative services. The FCC rules require public broadcasters to provide at least one free video programming stream.

Beyond that, public broadcasters may offer a wide range of services that are “ancillary or supplementary” to their free video programming service. If they provide certain types of ancillary or supplementary services, like subscription channels, they must pay a fee of five percent of the gross revenues generated by those services to the U.S. Treasury.

The FCC has concluded that this flexibility must not be allowed to jeopardize the noncommercial and educational mission of public TV.

Therefore, in addition to having to provide at least one free video programming service like all TV broadcasters, public TV stations must use all of their digital capacity to provide a primarily non-commercial, nonprofit, educational broadcast service. This requirement means that a “substantial majority” of a public TV station’s digital programming must be non-commercial. In addition, public TV stations may not air advertisements or commercials during any of their free video programming service. Like commercial broadcasters, if they choose to provide ancillary services that generate revenues, they must pay a fee of 5 percent of those revenues to the U.S. Treasury.

For More Information

For more information about DTV, visit the FCC’s DTV website. For information about other communications issues, visit the FCC’s Consumer website, or contact the FCC’s Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554.

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Public Television Stations in the Digital Age Guide (pdf)

Updated: February 24, 2014

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