Beyond Media Ownership, FCC Passes Package of Items

Federal Communications Commission Addresses Initiatives for Small Businesses, Women, Minorities; Broadcast Localism; Product Integration

The Federal Communications Commission Tuesday passed a package of items that could be labeled the corollaries of the vote earlier in the day to loosen newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.

One was a package of initiatives to make it easier for small businesses and, by extension, women and minorities to own broadcast outlets. The other was a series of proposals addressing broadcast localism, including tentatively requiring broadcasters to demonstrate that they are carrying a minimum amount of local programming.

Those, combined with the cross-ownership decision, effectively closed the FCC’s media-ownership-rule review, although court challenges and congressional pushback loom large in the picture.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the conclusion that broadcasters must air a certain amount of local programming was central to what it meant to be a local broadcaster, but most broadcasters were already doing the minimum.

He has said before that he thought the upshot would be that broadcasters would simply have to better demonstrate what they are already doing. The commission last month adopted new rules that require broadcasters to report quarterly on public-interest programming and to put that and other public files on their Web sites.

Martin got some portion of all five commissioners' votes on both items, although Republican Robert McDowell dissented in part from the localism item and the two Democrats dissented in part from the small-business proposal and had concerns that the localism items did not go far enough. "]T]he fine print shows that the real beneficiaries will be small businesses owned by white men," said Copps of the small business item.

The small-business initiatives would modify current FCC rules to make it easier to sell stations and permits to build stations to small businesses as defined by the Small Business Administration.

Commission Democrats had wanted the definition to more specifically address women and minorities, but the majority pointed to Supreme Court decisions on race-based criteria as circumscribing their definition, with Martin calling that a high hurdle. However, the commission called for comment on how a different definition might be crafted to pass muster.

The localism items proposed -- it established no final rules -- that broadcasters be required to better demonstrate their local programming service to the community at renewal time, including forming community advisory boards to help them determine programming of local import. 

Specifially, the localism item looks at nine areas: 1) communications between the community and the station; 2. the nature and amount of local programming; 3. the nature and amount, specifically, of political programming; 4. underserved audiences, i.e. are the communities whose needs have not been addressed?; 5. disaster warnings and whether, say, there is someone physicall at the station to relay them; 6. the relationship of network and affiliate, and whether that can an impediment to local decisionmaking (preemption of programming, content issues); 7. payola and sponsorship identification (radio pay-for-play rather than TV product integration); 8. the adequacy of license renewal procedures; and 9. additional spectrum allocations that might increase the diversity of voices.

It is a laundry list that has broadcasters fearing the kind of regulatory heavy hand cable has long complained of from this commission.

Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein generally supported the localism initiatives but said they wished they had been final rules rather than proposals. They worried that the final rules might be watered down and were concerned about the commission's willingness to enforce them.

"We need to put meat in the sandwich we deliver," Adelstein said. "Why not a final order," Copps added, "rather than just good ideas?" He said he was skeptical but would work with the chairman to "try to move these things along.”

McDowell reiterated First Amendment concerns about the government trying to dictate the type or amount of programming a broadcaster airs. He saw it as a return to the programming-ascertainment standards an earlier FCC (in 1984) jettisoned, citing marketplace changes.

He said the FCC was heading back in time, in the wrong direction, and that the commission should not "foist on local stations" categories of programming they have to carry. He had similar concerns about the item toughening reporting requirements that was adopted at the last meeting.

Critics of that 1984 decision to drop programming-ascertainment requirements, including Copps, complained that the renewal process has essentially become a pro forma "postcard" renewal. McDowell pulled out a thick sheaf of paper that he said was only part of a renewal application, adding that if this was a postcard, it would need more postage.