To Rep. Ronald M. Mottl (D-Ohio) goes this year's Charge of the Light Brigade award, presented annually for acts of derring-do and conspicuous futility. Mottl plans to introduce legislation today that would require every TV and radio station in the country to make its now-secret profits public.
Stations submit annual reports of revenues, expenses and profits -- form 324, it's called -- to the FCC, but the commission locks them away, and most are unavailable to you and me. All the FCC lets out are market-by-market aggregate figures and a national tally.
For instance, last year, the 15 TV stations owned and operated by the three television networks alone reported profits of $186.3 million, up 25 percent from 1977.
The total for all TV stations combined was a pretax profit of $1.3 billion -- according to Mottl, a 47 percent return on expenses, with the average station showing a profit increase of 25 percent over the previous year.
"Licensed broadcasters are, by federal law, trustees of the public airwaves," says Mottl. "Yet, particularly on television, a mint is being made from this national resource while the public sees new lows in tasteless, mindless and shallow programming."
"Mint" may be putting it mildly, my dear Mr. Mottl. It's as hard to bottom out in the TV game as it is for an OPEC nation. For years one of Washington's pet cliches has been almost literally true, that the right to operate a TV station is a license to print money. It's the feds who give out those licenses, allegedly "in the public interest, convenience and necessity."
"Financial disclosure," Mottl says, 'would help an audience analyze station performance vs. profits. Viewers and listeners could for once discuss programming with their station managers from a position of knowledge about the financial feasibility of more varied, better programming."
Say, this does sound like an interesting idea! Maybe too interesting to be true. One source on Capitol Hill suggests Mottl might be doing a little "grandstanding," since the bill wouldn't have much chance of passage any time and CERTAINLY NOT prior to an election year. Members of Congress are hardly eager to irk the powerful broadcast lobby or their local TV stations in such a sensitive period.
Those stations will have time to apportion to candidates and time, in television, is not only money, but power.
On the other hand, Mottl himself is up for reelection next year and so he has as much to lose as anybody. Financial disclosure isn't totally new as an idea in television, either. The FCC has discussed it in the past -- with current chairman Charles Ferris reportedly in favor of it -- and it was kicked around during closed-door Democratic caucus sessions of the House Communications subcommittee earlier this year.
That was when chairman Lionel van Deerlin's (D-Calif.) rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act was still a spring chicken and not a dead duck. The broadcasting industry sensed a threat to the goose laying its golden eggs and gave it the ax (the bill, not the goose), although subcommittee staffers like to think of the bill as in a state of hibernation until all the elections are over.
Naturally, broadcasters will denounce the Mottl plan as the most pernicious swindle since Yalta. "There've been such proposals at the FCC before, and we've always been opposed to making information submitted on a confidential basis available to the public," says Irwin Krasnow, general counsel to the National Association of Broadcasters.
If the FCC enacted such rules, "we would take them to court," Krasnow says. But you can't take Congress to court. So the NAB would fight passage of the bill.
The Mottl bill would not affect the networks, which are not regulated by the FCC (but whose five owned stations apiece are) or public television, where there is great reluctance to divulge such information as how much Dick Cavett makes on his talk show and how lavishly Big Bird has been able to feather his nest from the proceeds of "Sesame Street," produced by the nonprofit Children's Television Workshop.
"We feel the real problem is in the commercial area," says Mottl aide Glenn Waggoner. "We think that these TV stations, especially the VHF ones, are making an awful lot of money for what they're putting back into programming."