The FCC began its first workshop on the future of media and
serving the information needs of the community March 4 with a series of
panelists outlining what they said was essentially a lack of any quantifiable
public interest obligations on broadcasters. Broadcasters countered that
serving the public with programming they needed and wanted was part of their
DNA, or in the case of news, RTDNA, and that there was no need for the
government to mandate more specific public interest requirements.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps began the proceedings with a
harsh criticism of consolidation and its impact on the public interest. Also
laying into broadcasters was former FCC General Counsel Henry Geller, who said
there had never been real standards, and there had been less guidance after the
deregulation of the 1980's, when the requirement that broadcasters list
programming in various areas was scrapped and renewals became essentially a
postcard to the commission.
He said that when the FCC did try to set standard for kids
programming, broadcasters skirted the requirement with shows of suspect
educational content, relegated to weekends, and during preemptable time. Geller said that he thought the FCC's attempt
to set quantifiable standards would never work because the FCC was working
against the driving commercial interests of stations and was doing so in a
First Amendment area.
Geller suggested that the FCC drop its public interest
standard and charge a 5% spectrum fee, then turn that over to public
broadcasting, which he said wants to do kids and cultural and other
programming. "The system we have now has not worked," he said.
FCC Media Bureau Deputy Chief Robert Ratcliffe was asked by
moderator Steve Waldman, who is heading up the FCC's future of media review,
how many stations had been denied renewal for not fulfilling their public
service obligations. Ratcliffe said only one in terms of programming, and that
the optimist's view was that broadcasters were doing a good job.
Ratcliffe said that the FCC did have to balance its interests
with the public's in what broadcasters were programming and the First
Amendment's protections of that decision-making. National Association of Broadcasters General
Counsel Jane Mago, during her time on the panel, said that NAB and its members
believe they do have an obligation to serve the public interest. She said that
while the specifics of that obligation have changed, the core obligation is to
provide programming, and not only news, which serves its public.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution or standard, she
said, nor should there be specific quantitative standards. She said stations
need to be free to adapt to their audience, rather than forced into
Broadcasters need the flexibility to find the programming
that audiences want and advertisers want to pay for, she said. The FCC must
recognize that its ownership structure must allow them to compete.
Mago touted broadcasting as a highly efficient, free,
universal, point-to-multipoint system (that last has become a drumbeat of
broadcasters arguing that they are a more efficient video delivery system than
mobile wireless). "And we don't create network congestion," she
added, taking a shot at the broadband-centricity of the current media
Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman said that
the best broadcasters do a "superb job," and said those are the ones
who testify at workshops.
He cited Allbrittion as an example. Allbritton executive Jerald Fritz was one of
the panelists. "If every broadcaster did as good job as Allbritton, the
country would be better off," Schwartzman said.
He also said broadcasters tend to trumpet their admittedly
magnificent work during emergencies. But Schwartzman said the FCC has to focus
on the worst broadcasters, who do not meet the needs of their communities. He
said some stations do absolutely nothing local, "but that is what the
He opined the end of minimum requirements for news and
public affairs and the lack of affirmative ascertainment by the FCC. "The
license renewal process is broken," he said. With license renewal cases
going back to 2003 still pending, he argued that the message to broadcasters is
that if you have a multimillion dollar deal to get done, the FCC will do it in
a few months, but that a license challenge will languish for years.
Schwartzman said Robert Ratcliffe had left a misimpression
by ticking off broadcasters affirmative obligations--EEO, kids TV, political
time--because it suggested the FCC was actually policing those obligations.
Schwartzman wants licenses shortened from eight years to three,
audits of 10% of the stations for compliance with public interest obligations,
and put teeth into those obligations. He also called on the commission to find
that primarily home shopping stations are not operating in the public interest.
The FCC has addressed that criticism before, saying that the
public interest could be served by home shopping stations because they
allowed seniors, for example, to shop from home more easily.
Fritz called feckless and ineffectual the attempts to create
structural diversity through rules like the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership
ban and said there are new attempts to regulate through indecipherable
indecency rules. He argued the marketplace was a much getter gauge of what the
real public interest is.
Fritz said that all his companies efforts to expand on
platforms including the NewsChannel 8 regional cable news net and its upcoming
Web portal--were done to serve the public and not in response to any
government mandate. In fact, he said, the national political
newspaper--Politico--was the result of something the government told them they
couldn't do: own a local newspaper and TV station in the same market.
He said Allbritton doesn't need the government to
tell it to add three hours of kids programming to a 24-hour political
channel that ought to meet anyone's standard of public interest programming. He
said he hoped the FCC would keep out of its way as it attempted to serve that
Barbara Cochran, president emeritus of the
Radio-Television Digital News Association, stood up for the importance of local
television news, pointing to a recent study saying it was the top source of
news in the country. But she said that while stations are producing more news,
they are trying to do it with fewer staffers being paid less. Still, she said,
stations continue to serve their communities with vital news, citing the
Washington TV stations' coverage of the recent blizzards.
The vast majority of TV stations are meeting their public
interest obligations, she said, and have done so in "spectacular
fashion," even in the wake of deregulation. She argued against any new regulations,
saying it was unfair to handicap any one platform. "Now is
not the time to impose new burdens and regulatory
regimes," she said.