Broadcasters: Be wary of FCC official’s proposal

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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Those concerned about the future of broadcasting probably should add the “public value test” to their list of worries.

Introduced on Dec. 2 by Michael Copps, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, the public-value test would make a broadcast licensee’s renewal dependent on whether the licensee has used the license to serve the public good. The seven criteria suggested by Copps include whether the station has made a meaningful commitment to news and public-affairs programming, developed sufficient disclosure of its programming and political ads, and reflected diversity. Under Copps’ plan, a station that failed to demonstrate measurable progress toward these goals would lose its license “to someone who will use it to serve the public interest.”

It’s difficult to know how much to worry about Copps’ proposal. Copps, after all, is only one of five FCC commissioners, and his previous efforts to shorten license renewal periods and impose more specific public interest obligations on broadcasters so far have gained little traction. On the other hand, broadcasters ignore at their peril a government official’s desire to involve himself more deeply in stations’ editorial decisions.

Copps bases his proposal on what he calls “the original licensing bargain between broadcasters and the people: in return for free use of the airwaves that belong exclusively to the people, licensees agree to serve the public interest as good stewards of a precious national resource.”

The spectrum-scarcity rationale underlying this “bargain,” however, has been rendered obsolete by technological advances, and broadcasters’ programs now are delivered in myriad ways not imagined when the bargain was struck. While Copps admits the broadcasting environment has changed, he continues to embrace the bargain because he says it will help broadcasters survive today’s challenges.

Those challenges, Copps told his audience at the Columbia University School of Journalism, are of both private and public creation.

“Our traditional media — newspapers, radio, television — have long since fallen victim to the excesses of a new Gilded Age,” Copps said. “Media started earlier than most businesses down a suicidal road of hyper-speculation, creativity-stifling consolidation and Wall Street pandering that gutted journalism’s ranks and resources, cutting deep into the bone… . The ethos had changed; old ideals of stewardship were pushed aside and too often demolished; and the speculative fires burned on — at heavy and destructive cost to journalism, to the businesses themselves and, most of all, to our democracy.

“Making it a perfect storm,” Copps continued, “this private sector debacle was aided and abetted by the public sector. This is the saddest part of the tale. The place where I work — the Federal Communications Commission — blessed it all, encouraged the consolidation mania and went beyond even that to eviscerate just about every public interest responsibility that generations of reformers had fought for and won in radio and TV.”

Citing the loss of 35,000 news jobs and the closings of hundreds of newspapers and magazines, Copps claimed that the result of this storm was that the “news and information journalism we depended upon is fast disappearing from old media and has not found the sustaining resources it requires in the new.” Though acknowledging the FCC cannot solve all these problems, Copps said the Commission, “by taking the kinds of actions I am outlining here today, can play a vital role in catalyzing change and fostering a renewed commitment to serious news and journalism.”

The action most specifically urged by Copps was the adoption of the public-value test. Of the seven criteria envisioned by Copps, the most significant would be the licensee’s commitment to news and public-affairs programming.

While claiming this criterion “would be quantifiable and not involve issues of content interference,” Copps described it in a way suggesting otherwise.

“Increasing the human and financial resources going into news would be one way to benchmark progress,” he said. “Producing more local civic affairs programming would be another. . . . At election time, there should be heightened expectations for debates and issues-oriented programming.”

In addition to examining whether a licensee was devoting what the FCC considered to be sufficient resources to news and local coverage, the public-value test would require enhanced disclosure about what a station aired, insist on additional disclosures about the purchasers of political ads, analyze diversity hiring, examine the licensee’s community involvement, measure local prime-time programming and require each station to have a detailed plan to remain on the air in the face of man-made and natural disasters.

Despite the sweeping nature of Copps’ proposal, the most immediate response came from Congress, not broadcasters.

On Dec. 6, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote Copps to express his disapproval of the public-value test.

“I do not believe the subjective opinions of five unelected officials should hold sway over the content broadcasters air or the licenses they hold to air it,” Barton wrote. “Although your concern for providing American citizens information they need to ‘make intelligent decisions about the full direction of their country’ may stem from the very best of intentions, increasing the federal government’s role in the composition of the information Americans have at their disposal — in an information marketplace that is bigger and more easily accessible than ever before — is unwise policy and raises serious questions of constitutionality.”

Some, including Barton, wondered whether the public-value test was a Trojan horse for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine — the policy that required licensees to present all sides of important issues — that the FCC abolished in 1987. On Dec. 10, Copps denied seeking to reinstate the doctrine, saying, “the Fairness Doctrine is long gone and it’s not coming back.”

Even if it does not incorporate the Fairness Doctrine, the public-value test requires watching. Most would agree that the public would benefit from more news and local programming. But few could argue that the need for such programming warrants a government takeover of the airwaves.