TV Stations Asleep at the Wheel

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As much as John Laabs of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association complains about the University of Wisconsin NewsLab study (11/13, Airtime), the truth is that the broadcasting industry, led by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), has fought tooth and nail to prevent greater disclosure and information gathering about what TV stations actually put on the air.

A rulemaking on greater disclosure in the digital age has been pending before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for nearly six years. The NAB has resisted those efforts, trotting out its complaints about over regulation, burdensome reporting requirements and government intervention in the “free market.”

So when a group like UW-NewsLab actually tries to systematically study what is on the air, they immediately churn up broadcasters' complaints about methodology to discredit what is obvious to the viewer: that, when it comes to substantive coverage of our nation's political discourse, local television stations are asleep at the wheel.

Stations crow about the one or two long-format debates they offer, which are fine as far as they go but certainly have their own weaknesses, including the times they actually air and the audience they are geared to reach, i.e., people with enough time to sit down and watch for one or two hours. The truth is, TV stations don't do half of what they could—or should—given that they receive their licenses for free in exchange for serving the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

What Laabs neglects to mention in belittling the UW-NewsLab study of local election-news coverage is that the statistics he admits “look bad,” don't actually look any better in other studies utilizing the methodology he advocates.

In fact, a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs analyzing all locally produced English- language newscasts in Milwaukee in the month leading up to the 2004 election found that broadcasters devoted barely 5% of airtime to election coverage—and three-quarters of that paltry amount focused on the presidential race.

That failure was so profound that local organizations in Wisconsin utilized the findings as the basis for a complaint filed last year with the FCC challenging the renewal of the broadcast licenses of those stations for their collective failure to reach even the low bar of their public-interest obligations.

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