By examining the need for specific public-interest obligations on broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission is walking down a path that is "unlawful, unnecessary and fraught with peril," the National Association of Broadcasters said.
Unlawful because those obligations could violate First Amendment protections by mandating certain speech.
Small and low-rated stations would suffer most, particularly if saddled with the extra cost of mandated newscasts. "The current economic realities of the broadcasting business" make it extremely difficult for some stations to produce local news, the industry's largest trade group maintains.
NAB's comments were filed in response to an FCC inquiry into the possibility of mandating specific obligations for broadcasters in return for using the public airwaves.
The FCC has questioned whether stations should be required to air specific quantities of news, public affairs, locally originated and children's programming. Supporters of the idea say corporate consolidation has led broadcasters to increasingly neglect their obligation to serve local audiences.
NAB maintains, however, that broadcasters can discern local needs on their own. Those that fail their communities will have low ratings and will go out of business. Mandates, however, can only drive up stations' operating costs.
Going against the grain of the industry is Capitol Broadcasting, a Raleigh, N.C.-based station group supporting very detailed programming obligations. For starters, Capitol suggests that stations be required to ascertain their communities' needs, interests and problems by holding face-to-face meetings with members of the community or through "town hall" web casts.
At a minimum, Capitol says stations should be ordered to air two hours weekly of non-news public affairs programming, including one hour that is locally produced. The programming should air between 6-11 p.m. Also, stations should be required to air 110 to 150 PSAs per week on each analog station as well as each digital multicast channel. Finally, Capital says stations should have the obligation to preview network programming before airing those shows.
Local stations are the best judges of whether violent or sexually themed programming violated their communities' standards, Capitol says.
Although most stations oppose new mandates, Capitol says the obligations would rejuvenate public support for the industry and help stations differentiate themselves from cable and satellite TV. Capitol is owner of WRAL and WRAZ both in Raleigh, WWWB Rock Hill S.C. and WILM-LP Wilmington, N.C.