Speak Up, Sweet Charlotte
FCC gears up for earful on both sides of localism issue
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/19/2003 8:00:00 PM
The FCC has scheduled public hearings on local broadcasting in a half dozen cities over the next year, kicking off with this week with an Oct. 22 gathering at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, N.C.
|Local Programming in Charlotte|
|Commercial TV stations, per week|
|*Produces news for WJZY
SOURCE: B&C research
|WBTV(TV)*||CBS||24 hours 30 minutes||Jefferson-Pilot|
|WSOC-TV||ABC||32 hours 13 minutes||Cox|
|WWWB(TV)||WB||1 hour 30 minutes||Capital**|
It is one element of a broader inquiry into localism and diversity that Chairman Michael Powell pledged in August.
That effort is partly in response to Senate Commerce Committee hearings, in which broadcasters were beaten up over everything from the Dixie Chicks boycott to centralcasting. It was also to signal that this inquiry, not the national-ownership-rule changes Powell is trying to preserve, is where the localism questions and criticisms should be addressed.
Powell says the FCC will use the information gleaned to determine whether any changes need to be made in public-interest obligations or the FCC's license-renewal procedures to help ensure broadcasters that are serving their local communities. All the hearings are timed to precede, or in Charlotte's case coincide with, rounds of license renewals in the host cities.
A balance of views
The FCC was still finalizing details at press time, but the 3½-hour hearing will be an even mix of panelists and open comment. The FCC wasn't saying which commissioners were going, but Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, both vocal consolidation critics, plan to attend. Republican Commission Kevin Martin will not attend due to a previous engagement. The rest of the Republicans were still firming up plans at press time.
According to FCC spokesman David Fiske, the hearing will feature a balance of views. He also said the commission is already working on the next hearing.
So what do critics of "Big Media" think about what is billed as another effort to listen to the vox populi, perhaps toughen public-interest standards and even teach citizens how to complain about stations at renewal time?
A mixed reaction
"A waste of time," said Jeff Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy. He sees more politics than populism in the hearings: "[Powell] must have been reading a history of Stalin's show trials and come up with the idea of doing these hearings." Chester concedes that he is less focused on Charlotte than on Philadelphia, where he is helping lead a court challenge of the FCC's media-ownership rules.
An FCC spokesman responded to the criticism by offering this quote from the Nov. 6, 2002, Los Angeles Times, about the media-ownership review: "The consumer group criticized the extension as inadequate. 'The FCC should have granted much more time, including an agreement to hold field hearings,' said Chester. 'This FCC proceeding makes a mockery of what should be the model of an informed debate.'"
Consumer Federation of America's Mark Cooper is just as unenthusiastic as Chester. "The chairman sort of sends this stuff out, makes it up as he goes along trying to keep up with the political winds. Nobody has told me about the format, and I have not seen a lot of details."
Cooper isn't planning to attend, but he didn't attend the ownership hearings either. "These are supposed to be field hearings, for real people to testify, not Washington types."
'Real People' set to testify
One of those real people, according to consolidation critic Common Cause, is David Smith, a Raleigh, N.C.-area lawyer and member of Common Cause's state governing board. He ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature, and the FCC is expected to ask him to speak about how he was covered during the campaign.
Other Charlotte TV stations owned by Jefferson-Pilot Communications, Belo and Cox Communications all plan to send news crews to cover the hearing. At press time, spokespeople for the parent companies said they had not been asked to participate as panelists. Although, Jefferson Pilot spokesman Paul Mason said the Greensboro, N.C.-based company expects to have a representative at the meeting. Fiske said event will be audio-streamed over the FCC's Web site. C-SPAN is interested but had not committed to covering the hearing at press time. Charlotte's government cable channel (ch. 16 on Time Warner, 20 on Adelphia) was planning to carry it.
The other localism hearings are scheduled for San Antonio in December; Santa Cruz/Salinas, Calif., in March; Rapid City, S.D., in April; Portland, Maine, in May; and Washington in June.
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