UCC Challenges Miami Licenses


The United Church of Christ has asked the FCC to yank the licenses of CBS' WFOR-TV and NBC's WTVJ-TV, both Miami, charging that they unreasonably refused to air a UCC ad and because they and their parent networks do not air enough programming reflecting "the full range of religious expression."

NBC says the ad violated its policy on controversial ads, though it has suggested changes that would pass muster. CBS says its station was never approached to run the ad in question.

In fact, neither station is being targeted for its own actions. The UCC ad buy was national, with the CBS and NBC networks not taking it due to standing policies. The two Florida stations were targeted because they are network owned and because their license renewals have come due and can be challenged up until Jan.2. UCC Office of Communication Managing Director Gloria Tristani called it "the luck of the draw."
Although ABC did not take the ad either, it was not targeted for challenge. Tristani says that is because it has a standing policy against not taking any religious ads, while CBS and NBC take other kinds of religious ads. "I'm not sure the ABC policy is right, said Tristani, "but at least it is consistent." Fox accepted both ads.
.UCC also launched a Web site Thursday, accessiblemedia.org, that it will use to encourage Web surfers to file informal objections to the license renewals or officially join the petition. The site also features the ad in question.
"There is substantial and material question” as to whether the stations’ parent companies, Viacom, Inc., and the General Electric Company, have operated the stations in the public interest, UCC said in its petition.

UCC said the ads "welcome diverse, even marginalized segments of the population, while CBS and NBC consider them issue ads, which they have a standing policy against accepting.

But the complaint went beyond simply the ad issue to a general knock on network programming.

In a statement accompanying the petition, UCC President the Rev. John H. Thomas, said: “The religious, ethical and moral right of members of UCC churches and other citizens to have access to diverse programming has been harmed by the refusal of NBC and CBS to carry [the ad], as well as by their failure to carry programming reflecting the full range of religious expression in the United States on their networks and on their owned-and-operated stations.”

The petition was filed by lawyers for the Media Access Project and the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University.

NBC did accept one of the church's ads, according NBC spokeswoman Shannon Jacobs, but the church has not asked it to run that ad. According to Jacobs, the church proposed two ads, NBC accepted one but. rejected the other because it "violated our longstanding policy against accepting ads dealing with issues of public controversy."  The controversy, said NBC, stemmed from the ad's suggestion that "other religions are not open to all people."
Specifically, NBC said it rejected the ad not because it featured a homosexual couple, but "based solely on the fact that it suggests that gay couples, African Americans, Hispanics and people with disabilities are not welcome in some churches, which constitutes a controversial issue." 
Tristani says it is not against any other churches, but for including alientated people who, for a variety of reasons,  may not have felt welcomed by other churches.
NBC has suggested ways to modify the ad to meet its policy, and Jacobs says it is willing to revisit the issue if the changes are made. In the meantime it is ready to run the other ad as soon as the UCC gives it the go-ahead. Tristani says that the suggestions amount to censorship that is unacceptable to the church.
CBS spokesman Dana McClintock would not comment beyond saying that WFOR "was never approached to run the ad." CBS' stations are allowed to make their own call about what local ads to take.

Georgetown's Angela Campbell in a statement took the issue beyond the ad and the alleged lack of diverse religious programming to the issue of not airing controversial ads.

“The viewing public is harmed when powerful networks can label an ad ‘controversial’ and refuse to air it. Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine was supposed to result in the airing of more, not less, ‘controversial’ programming,” she said. "It is time for the FCC to re-examine whether some sort of  public right of access is required under the Communications Act and the First Amendment.”
Tristani, a former FCC commissioner, said: "NBC and CBS and their stations must be accountable to the communities they are licensed to serve. How can it be in the public interest for television stations to exclude a church's message of inclusion?"

In September, Tristani's office filed a petition to deny  the licenses of two television stations serving  Washington, area for "failing to serve the educational needs of children."

A number of "big media" opponents have vowed to use the TV license renewal challenge--station licenses come due for renewal over the next three years--as a means of making their concerns heard.