Back before I finished law school, my employer Media Access Project was arguing that broadcast stations that did nothing but air program-length commercials (aka the Home Shopping Network and its various clones) did not serve the public interest and therefore did not deserve one of the scarce licenses made available for broadcast television. This being back in the day when there was still some expectation that broadcasters needed to demonstrate that they served the “public interest, convenience and necessity” as required by the statute, you understand. i.e. a long time ago.
As part of the 1992 Cable Act, Congress forced the FCC to have a proceeding to determine if stations that did only home shopping served the public interest. Unsurprisingly, the FCC found that there is a vital public interest need for people who could not otherwise get zirconium diamonds or commemorative collectors plates.
And you wonder why we learned to treat the “public interest” as a joke?
Anyway, my boss, Andy Schwartzman, filed a petition for reconsideration after the FCC issued its decision in 1993. Under the statute, you must file a petition for reconsideration before going to court. So MAP filed, arguing that the Commission had not really done its job when it claimed that Home Shopping Network and other such stations served the local community, and that the Commission had failed to consider other valuable uses of the spectrum.
And there the matter sat — for fourteen bloody years! — with us unable to go to court until the Commission resolved the damn thing. It became something of a joke. Every year, Andy would have a meeting with the Chairman of the FCC, and every year would ask about this petition. Every time someone new got named as head of the FCC’s Media Bureau, we’d trundle over with our wish list of outstanding proceedings, and at the top of the list was always Petition for Reconsideration in Docket No. 93-8. And every time, the Chairman or the Chief of the Media Bureau would promise to look into the matter. And the matter sat….and sat…..and sat….
Until Kevin Martin, under pressure from the new Democratic Congress, started putting the squeeze on the FCC staff to get the damn backlog under control. And then — Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles! — the staff decided to address our pending Petition for Recon. Of course, by this time, the record had gotten a tad “stale” (more like “mummified”) so the Bureau issued a Public Notice soliciting comment to refresh the record.
Aside from my personal venting, however, why should anyone care? After all, how many home shopping channels are there at this point (not broadcasters who run infomercials from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., I mean broadcasters who only show home shopping)?
Because, as explained below, this proceeding actually provides an important opportunity to make two points. First, that the public interest really does matter. After years of neglect, there is (I hope) a body of very angry people ready to tell the FCC that the Commission cannot get away with treating the statutory requirement to serve the local community as a joke; that endless chances to buy adorable porceline figurines of kittens do not make up for the total absence of local programming and coverage of meaningful local news. Second, that there are plenty of more valuable uses for broadcast spectrum, like say opening it up for unlicensed use.
The Public Notice asks to refresh the record on whether stations broadcasting home shopping “comply with the Children’s Television Act of 1990 and licensees’ obligation to provide coverage of issues facing their community.”
Back in 1993, the Gods of the Marketplace were in full ascendance and nobody cared one iota about “media policy.” Folks in 1993 would have laughed themselves sick if I had predicted that a grass roots media reform movement would emerge to give the Commission an earful on how saying that non-stop 24-hour commercials for useless nick nacks and “collectibles” serves the public interest is not merely inacccurate; it’s downright insulting when we cannot get decent coverage of how we got suckered into a war in Iraq or coverage of domestic poverty. But hopefully, min 2007, there are people willing to make this point to the FCC — and to members of Congress who follow these things.
Because this is a chance to remind folks in Washington that the public interest really matters. That we rely on scarce broadcast licenses to provide us with local news and information so that we, as a people, can govern ourselves. And that letting stations get by with a wink and a smile, that pretending that a non-stop parade of consumerism fulfills the same public trust as coverage of the local community, no longer goes unnoticed. In a time when members of Congress, for the first time in two decades, talk openly of restoring the fairness doctrine, I think it’s important to take every opportunity to tell the FCC “We are watching, and you can no longer treat the public interest as a joke.”
As a practical matter, whatever value existed in home shopping died when the dial up internet became widespread. Certainly with home shopping available on cable and on broadband, claims that we must tie up valuable broadcast television licenses with this “programming” cannot stand.
Second, for those of us that support promoting open spectrum, particularly the pending proceeding on allowing unlicensed operation on vacant broadcast channels, this presents an opportunity to make the case for the value of open spectrum as opposed to this kind of broadcast “programming.” If nothing else, if the FCC gets a bunch of comments from people saying “I’d rather see this stuff used productively to bring us broadband than to bring me yet another collection of Disney figurines” it may start to register with them (and reaffirm for Congress) that people absolutely want to see more open spectrum.
I should warn that, even if the FCC finds these services don’t serve the public interest, the licensees get a chance to change to more valuable programming. But you know what, if the FCC comes out with a decision that says that open spectrum is more valuable than bombarding people with endless commercials, and that the wet dream of consumerism that constitutes home shopping does not serve the public interest, I’ll still consider it a victory even if these stations get another chance to do actual programming that does serve the public interest.
Stay tuned . . . .