No News Can Be Good News
By Barry M. Faber -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/6/2008 8:00:00 PM
In 1983, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC's decision to deregulate the broadcast radio industry by eliminating several obligations, including quantitative guidelines for non-entertainment programming and formal community ascertainment procedures.
Although the court's decision recognized the obligation of broadcasters to serve the public interest, it nonetheless ruled in favor of the FCC's deregulatory scheme, explicitly holding that no legal requirement exists obligating a broadcast licensee to offer a particular type of programming.
Remarkably, Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Campaign Legal Center, used a quote from this decision by the D.C. Circuit (“Does Local TV Care About the News?” B&C, June 23) in an attempt to bolster her support for additional regulations requiring broadcasters to do precisely what that court decided was not necessary 25 years ago.
The impetus for McGehee's ill-advised call for a return to greater regulation was the failure of the broadcast networks, other than ABC, to provide live coverage of a speech by Barack Obama after he secured the Democratic presidential nomination.
That the networks and their local affiliates presumably covered this event in their regularly scheduled news programming apparently did not satisfy McGehee's “inside the Beltway” thirst for political news coverage. Nor did the fact that, as noted by McGehee, live coverage of Sen. Obama's speech was readily available to the more than 8 million viewers who chose to watch it live on CNN and MSNBC.
In the 1983 decision quoted by McGehee, the D.C. Circuit noted with approval the FCC's conclusion that an increase in media outlets had eliminated the need for certain content-based policies that had been necessary in the early days of radio. Clearly, 25 years later the means by which consumers can receive news and information have grown exponentially. Moreover, not only have the growth of cable television (which, contrary to a statement by McGehee, today attracts more than 50% of the viewing public) and the emergence of new technologies such as the Internet and satellite radio provided more choices for consumers, but they also fragmented the audience for television.
With fragmentation has come economic stress on the broadcast industry, particularly news programming. While McGehee would apparently have broadcasters ignore the economic reality of a shrinking broadcast television audience in order to provide duplicative news programming, venerable broadcast companies such as Granite Broadcasting, Communication Corp. of America and Pappas Telecasting have been forced to seek the protection of bankruptcy laws just to stay on the air.
While McGehee is trumpeting her view that broadcasters were given spectrum for free, in a world where most stations are no longer owned by the original entity that launched them, the only thing free about the licenses purchased by most licensees is the free programming that they use these licenses to broadcast.
McGehee's thesis simply ignores today's marketplace. We no longer live in the 1960s, when three television networks dominated the presentation of news to the public. Contrary to McGehee's statement, we no longer live in a world (if we ever did) where for something to be important, it must be on television. Instead, we live in a world where a plethora of choices exist for our nation's citizens. We live in a world where Websites like YouTube and MySpace can emerge from nowhere to attract hundreds of millions of views each day. Increased competition has caused many broadcasters to struggle to maintain profitability.
Most importantly, we live in a world where the failure of the broadcast networks to simulcast a speech readily available on multiple cable channels reflects not a failure to meet public interest obligations (as McGehee would characterize it), but rather a recognition of the need and the ability to serve all viewers, even those who might want to watch a rerun of Law and Order: SVU rather than a political speech.
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