Washington

Localism Divides Religious Groups

At issue: fast-track renewals, questions of 'acceptable' programming 5/03/2008 02:00:00 AM Eastern

The FCC's proposals for increasing public interest reporting requirements and other steps to promote broadcast localism have drawn a flood of comments from understandably worried broadcasters. But they have also revealed a potential new battleground in this issue: a schism between religious groups.

In December, the FCC proposed closing out its media ownership rule review by a combination of loosening newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership caps and suggesting a change in the license-renewal process to require more from broadcasters.

The commission is proposing the creation of advisory boards to counsel stations on what community programming to air, further requiring broadcasters to inform the government about the types of programming they are airing and how much.

In the past, such proposals would have had a hard time getting past a Republican majority, but times have changed. Republican Chairman Kevin Martin has said he heard the complaints from anti-consolidation forces loud and clear during the 18-month ownership review, and the commission's two Democrats want even tougher regulations on renewals than those that currently concern broadcasters.

If a vote is held while Martin is still in office, says one communications attorney with a host of station clients, some or all of the proposals are likely to be adopted.

TWO SIDES OF THE COIN

That concerns various religious groups. On one side of the faith divide over the proposals are the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Church of Christ, which support some form of new licensing guidelines tied to a fast-tracked renewal process. On the other is the National Religious Broadcasters, which represents some 1,400 members, primarily radio and TV stations. Evangelical in nature but nondenominational in makeup, the NRB argues the proposals could “strangle” Christian media and create an “official orthodoxy” on what is acceptable local programming.

“We support the idea of meeting public interest obligations and we treat the whole idea of localism very seriously,” says Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for the NRB.” The problem, he says, is in the approach.

Even though the FCC has said the advisory boards would only be able to advise, not dictate, Parshall says the reality would be different: “My experience in the world of bureaucracy after more than 30 years of law practice, and seeing this happen in other agencies, is that whenever you have these councils, you create a massive sort of tsunami effect. The rule will be following them, and the exception will be not following them.”

BEARING THE BRUNT

Parshall says that religious broadcasters will feel the brunt of this because of the nature of their programming. “I think the burden that all these regulations place on us is several times more onerous than on the general market media,” he says. Religious broadcasters are afraid that the preaching of their faith could be seen as failing to make a good-faith effort to listen to the boards.

Jessica Gonzalez, one of the lawyers representing the Catholic Bishops and the UCC, says they are not looking for the FCC to mandate its localism proposals, but instead make them a carrot for better public service by tying them, voluntarily, to a fast track to license renewals, a track that currently can take years.

“UCC and the Catholic Bishops are not concerned that that will be the effect of the guidelines,” Gonzalez says. “This is not telling people what to air. Many broadcasters suggest they are already comporting with the guidelines, so this would give them expedited renewals.” Martin has also pitched the proposals as a way to better chronicle what broadcasters are already doing.

DELAYS ON WAIVERS

Parshall strongly disagrees. “We have seen a number of broadcasters who have filed petitions for waiver of the moratorium on construction permits saying, 'Look, I need to get a construction permit waiver so I can build this thing and meet the digital conversion date.' The FCC has these petitions stacked up a mile high. I can see the potential delays and uncertainty that might create.”

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