FCC poised to reform local TV

by Jim Longworth

Compared to rising unemployment and a healthcare system gone wild, the business of television may seem insignificant to most Americans. But since we own the airwaves from which broadcasters profit, all of us should be concerned by the lack of service most TV stations provide to our communities.

Last week the Federal Communications Commission held a long-overdue workshop in which the agency and various media analysts outlined the alarming lack of quantifiable public-interest obligations on the part of local broadcasters. FCC Commissioner

Michael Copps berated broadcasters for “dropping the ball on public-interest programming”. He blamed consolidation and, “three decades of horrendous decisions” by regulators for the “evisceration or outright elimination of just about every public-interest obligation or public-interest guideline we had”. Copps also concluded that, “the result has been less news and information, a dumbed down democratic dialogue, diminished civic engagement and the absence of meaningful public-interest oversight.”

Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, also came down hard on television broadcasters, saying, “some stations do absolutely nothing local, but that is what the system tolerates”. That system is supposed to include consequences for broadcasters who fail to serve their community, but as Schwartzman noted, “ The license renewal process is broken. There are still license renewal cases going back to 2003 still pending… the [FCC] is sending a message to broadcasters that if you have a multi-million-dollar deal to get done, the FCC will do it in a few months, but a license challenge will languish for years.”

Commissioner Copps then wondered aloud how to guarantee that “minorities, women, the disabled, the poor, the non-affluent and the non-elite have an equal chance of being heard” in this era of corporate absentee ownership and consolidation. And Schwartzman responded by calling for new regulations. For starters he wants the license period shortened from eight years to just three years. He also wants the FCC to conduct audits to make sure TV stations are in compliance with their public interest obligations and to put teeth into those obligations.

Schwartzman is right on track by demanding newer regulations and better enforcement, but shortening the licensing period alone will not fix the problem. If Copps and his colleagues at the FCC are serious about restoring local public service to local broadcasting, they must also require a minimum number of hours of locally produced programming per week. A fair number to start would be three hours, none of which could be aired in the middle of the night, or during easily pre-emptible time slots. And, despite pleas from lobbyists like the National Association of Broadcasters, news programs would not count toward fulfilling the minimum requirement for community service.

Commissioner Copps used a basketball analogy when he accused broadcasters of “dropping the ball” on public service, and as the referee he has the power to blow his whistle and enforce the rules. That’s why, with remedies easily available, if the FCC fails to enact meaningful reform this year, then they will have succeeded in giving violators nothing more than a big assist.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).