I had a little unintended hiatus for the last 8 weeks or so. Hopefully, I’ll be back to more regular posting.
To catch up on the news. Media Access Project, where I work, has filed challenges against the licenses of the commercial television stations in Chicago and Milwaukee. You can read the press release here. You can follow the links to the Chicago petition and the Milwaukee Petition. Or you can see my quick analysis about why you should care below.
So now that the Jewish holidays are over and I am mostly caught up, I can try to catch up on some significant news in the media and telecom policy department.
So I’ll start with the Petitions MAP filed Novemeber 1. Every television (and radio) station operates under a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The licensee does not own the license. They own the cameras, equipment, etc., but not the license — without which all the cameras and other equipment don’t mean squat, since you can’t broadcast.
To remind licensees that they do not own these public licenses (since Lord knows they certainly forget regularly), the Communications Act requires that every broadcast license gets renewed on a regular basis. This used to be every 3 years, and the tv or radio station would have to come in with lots of evidence demonstrating that they had provided programming that served the community, addressed local issues, and otherwise served the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” (as the statute requires). In the period from 1966 (when the United Church of Christ won its landmark license renwal case against WBLT until the Reagan administration, license renewals provided an important tool by which viewers could hold local stations accountable for how they programmed and managed their stations.
After the Reagan folks took over, that changed. The FCC removed most of its official rules requiring balance in reporting and local content, and gave ever greater discretion to broadcasters to determine what sort of programming served the “public interest.” This hurt the production of local news and the ability of local viewers to hold broadcasters accountable. The FCC essentially adopted a standard that as long as someone provided local news, then a broadcaster could decide to run other programming instead. This allowed broadcasters to deflect any complaint that they failed to cover local issues of importance to the community, since broadcasters could always say “someone else did that” and require those challenging the license renewal to prove them wrong. Given the increasing hostility of the FCC to using license renewals to hold broadcasters accountable, fewer communities were willing to invest the time and effort needed to mount a challenge. As a result, renewals became a joke. “Post card renewals,” people called them, as a mere post card saying “renew me” had taken the place of any real evidence that a station served its local community.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters lobbied Congress to extend the time between renewals. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in addition to relaxing the rules on ownership, Congress also extended the time for renewals to 8 years, and set the country on a schedule. Beginning in 2004 and running until 2006, all the broadcasters in a particular set of states would file their renewal applications at the same time. (The FCC has the schedule and other information on the process.)
As we’ve seen over the last 9 years, the combination of increased concentration of ownership and no oversight has produced a toxic mix. This generated so much ill feeling by the public that when the FCC tried to relax ownerhsip restrictions further in 2003, it produced a storm of outrage. In response, then Chairman Powell promised to use license renewals and other tools to make sure that the purposes of localism (as we the FCC likes to call accountability to the community of license) is served.
So here we are, in the middle of the first window since the 1996. And, conveniently, we just had an election. this time around, there is sufficient interest for folks to actually invest in recording programming from entire markets in the 2004 election. And guess what, coverage really did suck as much as you thought.
Turns out, in Chicago and Milwaukee, there was virtually zero coverage of any political race or ballot initiative other than the presidential campaign. And while sure, the presedential campaign is important, people rely on local television for local news. The little coverage given by TV to local races was brief and of the “horse race” variety (“Candidate X now leads Candiate Y in the polls by 55% to 45%,” with no substantive coverage of candidates or issues. This complete lack of coverage almost guarantees that the majority of electorate, which still depends primarily on broadcast TV and radio for local news, had no substantive information on which to make a judgment.
So we’ve argued that if the public interest standard still means anything, it has to mean that an entire major urban market gets at least some local news on broadcast television. We’ve submitted market-wide evidence, so broadcasters cannot point to other broadcasters to pretend someone else took care of this need while they served the public by showing an endless loop of the Michael Jackson trial an Runaway Bride coverage.
The licensees get their Opposition to our Petition to Deny the Renewal, and then we file a Reply to Opposition. Then we see whether the FCC takes any of this stuff seriously or not.
Stay tuned . . . .