Broadcasters are touting their good works. TV and radio stations, they say, more than fulfill their statutory public-interest obligation by covering news, tracking tornadoes and hurricanes, airing public-service announcements, and raising funds for charities and disaster victims.
In fact this week, the NAB is hand-delivering a colorful 92-page booklet to a who's who of lawmakers and regulators. The booklet catalogs nearly $9.6 billion in good deeds that TV and radio stations say they performed for their communities last year.
The booklet says broadcast stations aired $7.3 billion worth of public-service announcements (PSAs) and helped raise $2.1 billion for national and local charities and disaster relief. The latter figure includes $158 million for victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods.
"There are those at the FCC and Congress who may not appreciate the totality of public service offered by local broadcasters day in and day out all over America," says the NAB's Dennis Wharton. "This is a way to highlight that public service."
On June 14, the NAB hosts its Service to America symposium and black-tie dinner, sponsored primarily by Bonneville International, a prominent TV- and radio-station owner. The annual event draws top industry executives, but it is really meant for the policymakers who attend and sometimes participate in the programs. B&C
is a co-sponsor.
One symposium panel, on broadcasters' handling of political debates, features former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. The other addresses broadcasters' role in encouraging citizens to vote. At the dinner, NAB will present awards to stations for outstanding public-service efforts. The NAB will also honor Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
The Service to America symposium is a showy way to display NAB's power and public interest.
But not everybody is impressed by NAB's public-service record. The unconvinced include key FCC officials. Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein believe that the broadcasters' public-interest standard has, as Copps puts it, "weakened and withered" and the agency may need to require stations to seek out opinions of community leaders and provide specific amounts of public-affairs programming.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell hasn't gone that far yet, but he has promised an inquiry into local broadcast programming that will raise the same questions, and he has been dismissive of some of the NAB's public-service claims. He is also conducting public hearings, which have served as lightning rods for criticism of stations.
FCC officials and other critics acknowledge broadcasters' disaster coverage, but many say the good deeds that NAB dutifully lists just don't count. "I don't think there is anything special about a broadcaster sponsoring a walk for breast cancer," Powell told B&C
in January. "I care what broadcasters do with the spectrum."
Andrew Schwartzman, of the Media Access Project, dismisses the fundraising as cause-related marketing. "It's no different than what Giant supermarket does in conjunction with Toys for Tots," he says. "It's not something that is unique or special to broadcasting and would justify the free use of the public spectrum. That stuff to me is just feel-good marketing. Sending Bozo the Clown to the hospital doesn't count. It's got to be programming."
Wharton has heard it all and doesn't like it. "That is the most outrageous assertion you can make," he says. "To them, going on the air and raising money for breast-cancer research is not as important as offering a political debate for dog catcher."
Schwartzman also says NAB inflates the value of PSAs. "The numbers they tote up," he says, "are a source of great amusement and merriment all around."
The broadcasters generally use unsold time for the PSAs, he says. The value of such time is minimal, yet, he suggests, broadcasters assign it the highest possible value in calculating their PSA contribution.
According to Schwartzman, broadcasters have to go beyond the PSAs and the fundraising and begin offering "more and better" programming that addresses the needs of the community regardless of its commercial attractiveness. "What we are looking for is vastly increased service to the community in light of the value that broadcasters have been receiving since 1996 when they received a second digital channel and greater protection from competition."
Wharton gives no ground. Broadcasters' public service is second to none, he says: "You can look at the amount of money that is raised by foundations, and nobody comes close to the billions and billions of dollars that broadcasters raise. Does the oil industry produce $10 billion in charitable fundraising?" he asks. "I don't think so. Does the cable industry generate $10 billion in charitable fundraising? No. But local broadcasters do."
Just over half of commercial TV and radio stations participated in the survey from which the NAB extrapolates its grand total. But, Wharton says, "even if the 47% of stations that did not fill out the survey did zero public service, we would still have something more than $5 billion, and no other industry in the country can claim that kind of public service."
The NAB has tabulated the value of its public service every two years since 1998, when the total was $6.8 billion. It jumped to $8.1 billion in 2000 and hit a high of $9.9 billion in 2002 due to the outpouring of donations for 9/11 victims. The totals reflect activity in the year prior to publication.
Those totals are not as fat as they could be, says Wharton. Not included is the value of the time that news anchors, disk jockeys, and other broadcasters spend giving speeches and hosting community events. Also not included, he says, is the value of network time for PSAs, free time provided to political candidates, and advertising lost when stations "blow out" regular programming to cover natural disasters and other emergencies. He says, "It's a very conservative estimate."
NAB is printing 16,000 copies of its public-service booklet, enough to send to most commercial radio and TV stations. According to Wharton, sending copies to stations is a way of encouraging them to participate in future surveys and to stay active in community affairs.
On yet another front, the NAB has also been running a mini ad campaign for the past two months. The spots—one for TV, one for radio—portray broadcasting as the go-to medium during emergencies. They have been airing on the Sunday-morning TV talk circuit, Imus in the Morning, and other programs that draw the Washington crowd.
"It's all broadcast purchase: radio and TV," Wharton adds. "No cable."