Broadcasters Scramble to Change the Channel on FCC's Community Mandates

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

As U.S. broadcasters gather in Las Vegas this week for an annual meeting, a hot topic is a plan to make them do more to serve communities, from creating citizen advisory panels to sharing radio playlists with the government.

Under proposals published Feb. 13, the Federal Communications Commission would require television and radio station owners to reconnect with their markets at a time when technology allows remote broadcasting and shared programming. The industry doesn't like the idea.

How broadcasters serve the public interest in exchange for free use of public airwaves has been debated for decades. The stakes have increased as media consolidation and technology have allowed stations to operate without a local presence and with ownership far away. The FCC said it was rethinking its past reliance on "market forces" to decide programming.

"No one knows better than a broadcaster that localism is the lifeblood of our business," said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington. The trade group, sponsor of the Las Vegas convention, represents 8,300 local radio and television stations.

"Given the seismic changes and increased fragmentation in today's media world, we would respectfully ask how increasing mandates on broadcasters -- and broadcasters alone -- will serve the public interest," Wharton said. He noted that competing cable and satellite services don't have the same community-service obligations.

The NAB is also challenging in court a separate requirement that its members file on their Web sites detailed quarterly reports on their programming and their dealings with underserved communities. Currently, a paper log is available at the stations.

Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democratic commissioner on the five-member FCC, says the commission, which has been studying local issues for five years, is using the subject as "political cover to weaken broadcast-ownership rules and permit more media consolidation."

The commission should exert more oversight over the airwaves, especially in the license-renewal process he called "a postcard, rubber-stamp process."

"For over a quarter century, the commission has outsourced its obligation to ensure that broadcasters will address the programming needs and interests of the people in their communities of license," Adelstein said in a statement after the FCC approved the proposals Dec. 18.

Public-interest groups say modern radio broadcasters owned by big media companies have sacrificed local radio voices for homogenized playlists, local TV political coverage for sensational news of celebrities and a presence in the community with a distant headquarters and marketing agreements.

They are also unhappy with the lack of minority and female ownership.

Issues over media consolidation and its impact on local markets crystallized in 2003 when then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell created a task force to examine the relationship that stations have with their communities. The commission held six hearings around the country and got an earful. It heard testimony from 500 witnesses and took 83,000 written comments.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said media consolidation and low levels of minority ownership have caused a crisis in covering issues important to minorities. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 5.5 million farming families, said agriculture news has been curtailed or eliminated.

In December, the FCC voted to publish several possible changes covering what it called "broadcast localism." They include requiring television licensees to have a person in the studio during all hours of operation and locating main studios within an owner's "community of license."

Also under consideration is whether stations should set up and consult local advisory boards to determine "significant community needs" and whether radio playlists exclude local artists. Comments are due April 28.

"Broadcasters are given these licenses for free," said S. Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, a nonprofit group in Washington. "At the top of our list is a commitment to public service in their news operations."

Gene Kimmelman, vice president of federal and international policy for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said, "The question is, over time, have they served the needs of their community defined by the community or have they broadcast what they like to broadcast?"

The NAB response is that community boards would be a bureaucratic nightmare, content requirements might infringe on the First Amendment and many smaller stations wouldn't have the financial resources to comply with new staffing requirements and other rules.

The trade group said the broadcast industry donated $10.3 billion in air time for public-service announcements in 2005, raising money for disaster-relief campaigns after Hurricane Katrina, as well as public affairs programming. That's up from $6.8 billion in 1997.

NAB is encouraging member stations to write to regulators to oppose the proposal. Wharton said it's asking members of Congress to do the same.

Adelstein said he doesn't understand why broadcasters are opposed to the FCC plan. "It should be sleeves off the vest for them," he said, because they say they are already doing public service.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached

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