FCC proposes test for broadcasters

by Jim Longworth

In March of this year the FCC finally got around to holding a workshop on how to reform local television. At the event, Commissioner Michael Copps berated broadcasters for “dropping the ball on public-interest programming.” The FCC also invited testimony from industry spokespersons as well as media analysts such as Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, who noted, “Some TV stations do absolutely nothing local.” Schwartzman called on the FCC to conduct audits of TV stations to make sure they are in compliance with their public-interest obligations. Schwartzman, Copps and others also recognized that so-called “local news” is no longer very local, and that broadcasters try and pass their newscasts off as public-affairs programming (which it is not). Clearly, corporate greed and a lack of federal oversight had failed the American viewing public, which still owns the airwaves but no longer has any input as to what is transmitted over them.

I was encouraged by the rhetoric, but many months went by and no one was acting upon the proposals and concerns put forth at the workshop. Then, earlier this month, Copps stepped up his crusade for localism by proposing that the FCC conduct a “public value test” of every broadcast station at relicensing time. Under his proposal, any broadcaster who failed the test would lose his license. Copps floated his revolutionary idea during a speech to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. But no sooner had he left the stage then the internet was abuzz with maniacal criticism from tea party-like columnists and bloggers whose rants incited virtual riots. Sites like MRC and Democracy Now skillfully took the commissioner’s words out of context, and warned real Americans to oppose a government takeover of television. These were typical Palinesque attacks that conveniently ignored the facts in order to pander to a disenfranchised populace. The irony is that the populace has been disenfranchised by the very corporations who Copps seeks to reform.

In his speech the commissioner noted that the FCC was guilty of having endorsed a kind of “consolidation mania” where fewer and fewer companies are allowed to own more and more broadcast outlets. As a byproduct of that mania, 35,000 members of the local news media have lost their jobs in the past three years alone. Collaterally, local TV coverage of state government has been slashed by one third. And Copps also cited a recent Annenberg report which found that the average 30-minute local TV newscast only contains about 30 seconds of local government coverage. Meanwhile, as Schwartzman had noted, local public-affairs programs have all but disappeared from the broadcast landscape.

Copps’ proposed public value test would help to restore localism to local television. And despite what you may read on the internet, the commissioner’s proposal will in no way allow government to interfere in the content of local programming. Just the opposite. The PVT will force corporate owners to better meet the needs of viewers in each local market by requiring them to make “meaningful commitments to news and public-affairs programming.” According to Copps, “Increasing the human and financial resources going into news would be one way to benchmark progress. Producing more local, civic affairs programming would be another.” In fact, the commissioner would like to see 25 percent of the prime-time schedule produced locally or independently, and that means more programs like “Triad Today,” which is sadly still the only locally produced public-affairs program on commercial television in the Piedmont.

TV-station owners and their lobbyists are already lining up to fight the kind of reform Copps is advancing, but how are they going to convince the public that spending money on public service is a bad thing? After all, the PVT would, as the commissioner said, simply “uphold the original licensing bargain between broadcasters and the people,” a bargain that allowed TV stations to lease public airwaves in exchange for producing programs that serve the local community. It’s time for us to hold station owners to their part of that bargain.

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).