Powell's Agenda for '04

FCC chief discusses initiatives on content, localism, indecency

Broadcasters could soon be saddled with a host of new public-interest obligations, thanks to a new initiative of FCC Chairman Michael Powell. A popular backlash against loosening broadcast-ownership limits prompted Powell last fall to launch a cross-country tour to find out how Americans really feel about their local TV and radio stations. Insight gleaned from the project will be incorporated into a formal inquiry into broadcast localism that will be issued soon.

Despite Powell's repeated calls for less government interference with what broadcasters put on the air, the result could be anything from mandates for new children's programming to revival of the old ascertainment requirement that once forced broadcasters to question members of the community to determine local needs. There's even talk that the FCC could propose local-programming quotas. Wednesday in San Antonio, the commission holds the second in a series of field hearings examining whether programming is serving stations' local communities.

President Clinton appointed Powell to the commission in 1997. When George W. Bush moved into the White House in 2001, Powell moved up to the chairmanship. There was much talk last summer that he would give up the post, but, in December, he quieted such speculation by saying he would stay on through the end of Bush's first term. In an interview with Assistant Editor Bill McConnell, Powell reveals his latest thinking on broadcasting content, localism mandates and indecency. An edited transcript follows:

Last year's fight over broadcast-ownership rules unearthed a lot of public discontent about programming on TV and radio—ranging from complaints about the lack of locally originated programming to increasing indecency. Are you about to clamp down on the industry with new mandates about what must be or can't be said on the air?

I'm not prepared to say yet, but I do think, within this commission, there is a will to do so if we decide they're needed. Trying to put those kinds of rules down in ink is what gets tricky. Defining what really is a violation—what would you fine licensees for—has been the difficulty of the commission for its entire history. It was that way with cigarette ads and later with children's-programming requirements and free ad time for candidates. It will never be clean. Nevertheless, the commission is not averse to considering new obligations.

The National Association of Broadcasters every year puts a dollar figure on stations' service to their local communities. The latest number is $10 billion; a good chunk is for sponsoring community events rather than actual programming. Do non-programming events fulfill broadcasters' local obligations in your book?

I applaud any corporation that makes a committed presence in the community. But the interest of government and its oversight of spectrum is what's on television. I don't think there's anything special about a broadcaster sponsoring a walk for breast cancer. I would hope Coca-Cola as a good corporate citizen would do that. I care about what a broadcaster does with the spectrum. I don't think you should go out and have complete garbage on TV and then buy your way out by sponsoring events in the community.

You originally promised to launch your localism inquiry by the end of 2003. What has caused the delay, and will we see it soon?

There's nothing nefarious holding it up. The commission got pretty busy with the News Corp./DirecTV merger. Within a month, you'll probably see it.

In your own opinion, are broadcasters meeting their local obligations?

We learned during the media-ownership proceeding that the public is concerned about something that can't be captured in ownership rules: perhaps that broadcasting is losing its character. I can only generalize about what we heard at our first hearing in Charlotte, N.C. That picture was mixed. In one sense, we heard a loud voice of concerns about certain products of certain companies. But, when you hear all of what a local community says, you get a broader picture. In Charlotte, we heard lots of positive things—more than I expected—about broadcasters working with community organizations and giving time for PSAs. It's easy to forget how much local community broadcasting goes on apart from the prime time TV schedule.

What about TV specifically?

The principal concerns are targeted at radio. The reaction to TV is more positive. I've always thought many of the negative arguments have more resonance in radio than in television, which sometimes gets combined in a big lump. People expect cable to be one thing, local television to be another and radio to be even more personalized. That's what has been emerging in my mind. The more dramatic arguments led with radio examples.

You mentioned specific companies' products. I assume you mean Sinclair Broadcasting's centralcasting of TV news and Clear Channel's voicetracking of radio DJs from outside markets. Is this what you mean when you say broadcasting is losing its character?

I'm not willing to say every instance of these products is bad for consumers, because the alternative might be getting nothing. But people should know what they're getting. You should not represent to people that you're down the street when you're really across the country.

A grassroots ruckus is being raised over raunchy broadcasts, particularly the FCC Enforcement Bureau's decision that the "f-word" aired during a Golden Globes broadcast didn't cross the narrow definition of what warranted punishment. There is talk that you have asked your fellow commissioners to reverse the bureau's decision, at least by spelling out that some words really are off-limits. True?

It is legitimate for a regulator to say some things are unacceptable regardless of the context or where the community is. I'm not comfortable if the government is represented as saying, everywhere and every time, some of these things are OK.

Do you have reservations about tightening indecency enforcement? In the past, you've warned that this is dangerous ground for the government to tread.

The trick is always balancing a free society and local community standards. We tend to err on letting things be said in our nation. I think that's generally right. But a society is often judged on where it draws the small lines.

Is "big media" to blame for the declining standards?

The attention directed towards indecency really tends to be cyclical. The envelope will be pushed until someone barks. Then, we recalibrate again and move forward.

No doubt TV affiliates will use the localism initiative as a forum for their fight to weaken the networks' say over programming lineups. How do you view the network/affiliate fight in the context of localism?

For us, the facts are not as clear as the rhetoric. The vast majority of affiliates have some preemption rights left over at the end of every season. But they have fair arguments that the rights exist in theory but not in practice. But we can't act like a particular type programming is universally good and another is universally bad.

On one hand, we talk about localism, and we also talk about the digital divide. Those two things are always in tension. What does digital divide mean other than "I want what they've got in New York?" People want local and
national programming. Network programming is a huge part of what people want to watch when they go home at night. Don't we all want to watch the Super Bowl? Don't we want to talk about West Wing
tomorrow at work?

Isn't there a concern that networks are pushing locally originated programming aside?

The way people define their communities has changed. What we typically call community is the broadcast definition: the geographic area of your signal. But that's not the only way to consider a community anymore. I live 30 miles away from here but feel I'm at home when I'm in Washington, D.C. I even think of Baltimore as part of the community. Even the Census has trouble with this.

Why do the localism review now?

We became convinced it would be useful and effective in the context of the current round of license renewals. In 1996, Congress extended license terms to eight years. That means this is the first time we've had a chance to go through the license-renewal process since passage of the 1996 Telecom Act.

Your critics charge it's too little, too late, especially if courts uphold last summer's ownership deregulation.

Then the government should never review anything, right? We have just as much responsibility to make things better as any commission that's gone before. Some of the criticism is just the scrum of debate over ownership rules, but that doesn't diminish the need for the commission's focus on localism. Implicit in the criticism is that we didn't consider localism in the rules. I reject that. We considered that enormously.