FCC chief Michael Powell said last week that he plans to travel nationwide to meet viewers and, along the way, to instruct them how to initiate a petition to deny a station-license renewal.
Broadcasters, surprisingly, appear very casual about the prospect of Powell's tutorial.
As worries about media consolidation garner increasing public attention, the FCC project could prompt a flood of petitions to block renewals in the next few years, especially against stations owned by some of the country's largest broadcast groups.
But broadcasters contacted last week insisted that they had nothing to worry about, in part because the FCC's hurdle for actually launching a license-revocation hearing is extremely high but also because they are proud of their record of service to local communities.
Powell told reporters that he and his fellow commissioners are planning to hit the road to hold public hearings examining whether the government should do more to ensure that broadcasters are meeting their obligation to serve local audiences. As part of the hearings, the FCC will explain to local citizens how they can petition the agency to deny license renewals and what types of information the agency will consider.
"I don't think any of our licenses would seriously be put at risk," said Pat Mullen, president of Tribune Broadcasting.
Last week, Powell told reporters he will incorporate Commissioner Michael Copps's call to conduct just such a roadshow during the current license-renewal period into the localism initiative Powell unveiled in August. The localism initiative is aimed at making sure TV and radio stations meet the programming needs of their local communities. The hearings are being announced just as the FCC is reviewing radio renewals in the first of 18 regional radio groups. TV renewals start a year from now.
Broadcasters can't ignore threats to toughen a renewal process that was transformed into little more than a rubber stamp by the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996. During congressional hearings this summer, Copps and his former mentor Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) lambasted "postcard" renewal procedures that require stations to submit little more than a few forms every eight years.
Some of the hearings will be in cities undergoing renewal reviews while others will be held prior to the reviews. The hearings will also be used to gain public input on potential rule changes.
The FCC will continue reviewing radio-station applications from different regions through 2006. Television renewals begin October 2004 and run through 2007.
Powell wouldn't disclose what ideas would be included in an inquiry that will be floated to commissioners this month. In the past, the FCC has required stations to hold meetings with community members to ascertain local programming needs.
He said it's too early to determine whether new rules will be needed. "I am not predisposed to say broadcasters are not living up to their obligations, and I'm not predisposed to say they are," he told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.
Copps earlier criticized the localism initiative as a "ready, fire, aim" tactic designed to divert attention from fights over media-ownership deregulation, but he is more conciliatory now that his roadshow idea has been adopted. "I am pleased," he said. "Hearings will provide the American people with the opportunity to tell us how well license holders are doing in meeting their public-interest responsibility to service local communities."
"I don't think too many broadcasters are worried," said Jerald Fritz, senior vice president for legal affairs at Allbritton Communications. "This will show communities how well broadcasters are doing. Everyone will be astonished."