June 3 was a historic moment in our nation's history. But if you were watching broadcast television that night, chances are you never would have known it. After a seemingly endless, exorbitantly expensive, hard-fought primary in the first truly “open seat” presidential election in decades, the presidential candidates for the two major parties were decided.
The Democrat Party chose the first African-American to become a presidential candidate for a major party.
Only ABC cut away from regularly scheduled programming to cover for 14 minutes the speech by Sen. Barack Obama. CBS showed Obama's speech only on the West Coast where it was not yet primetime. Meanwhile, NBC, according to The New York Times, “offered brief cut-ins, encouraging viewers to watch continuing coverage on MSNBC.”
Instead of seeing Obama give his victory speech, or the speeches by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain or Sen. Hillary Clinton, the public was served the following: 48 Hours Mystery and reruns of NCIS and Without a Trace (CBS), two reruns of Law & Order: SVU and two episodes of Most Outrageous Moments (NBC), reruns of According to Jim, Samantha Who? and Boston Legal (ABC), and Hell's Kitchen and Moment of Truth (Fox).
In the vacuum left by the network broadcasters, cable news stepped in. The victory speech by Sen. Obama was seen on CNN by 4.73 million viewers. Another 3.45 million watched the speech on MSNBC. The New YorkTimes noted that this may be “only the second time in history that a cable network attracted more viewers than a broadcaster during a major news event.”
Because of the networks' decisions, the local broadcasters—who are given for free a license to monopolize designated parts of the spectrum in exchange for fulfilling public interest obligations—were AWOL instead of doing their crucial part in fostering our nation's political dialogue. In ceding “the news” to cable, the broadcast stations are violating the compact they have with the American people. At the heart of that compact is an understanding, reflected both in statute and in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, that broadcasters have a unique and critically important role to play in our democracy. The system is based on private interests running the broadcast stations and making a profit. But that license also comes with a responsibility.
We are now caught in a self-perpetuating downward spiral that the stations and their corporate owners are fueling. Since the 1960s, television has been the major factor in not just signaling but determining for Americans what is important. If something isn't on television, it must not be important and vice versa.
Increasingly, broadcasters are failing to provide information essential to the functioning of a vibrant democracy. As the D.C. Circuit has emphasized, “The regulatory scheme that Congress envisioned for the broadcast industry was a unique hybrid of private sector ownership of the broadcast licenses tempered by public service responsibilities; in return for 'the free and exclusive use of a limited and valuable part of the public domain,' broadcasters were to be 'burdened by enforceable public interest obligations.'”
It has been more than two decades since the FCC decided to repeal a number of regulations designed to ensure that broadcasters fulfill public interest obligations, and to instead rely on “market forces.” An evaluation of that experiment with the “free market” is long overdue. The FCC's current rulemakings on disclosure requirements for digital broadcasters and on broadcast localism provide critical opportunities for the FCC to reevaluate those decisions. A range of ownership rules have been relaxed, huge corporate conglomerates have increasingly replaced local ownership, and rules governing political discourse have been repealed. Meanwhile, the Internet has blossomed, newspapers are dying and cable has become commonplace.
But as the Project for Excellence in Journalism found, while news consumers “may have had more choices than ever for where to find news in 2007, that does not mean they had more news to choose from. The news agenda for the year was, in fact, quite narrow, dominated by a few major general topic areas.”
Most Americans spend most of their time watching the local affiliates of the major networks. Americans look to their local broadcasters to define what is important for them to know about. Broadcast television remains where our national conversation takes place. The broadcasters and the national networks should have recognized the importance of June 3. This moment when the broadcasters were AWOL should be Exhibit 1 of why the rules for broadcasters need to be rewritten.