In Depth

FCC Wants Broadcasters to Increase Commitment on Local Programming

The Federal Communications Commission is quietly unveiling a major new proposal to require broadcasters to step up their commitment to local programming and around-the-clock staffing, while attention focuses on its media ownership vote.

In a report and rule-making announced Tuesday, the FCC for the first time suggested its study of some of the problems stemming from media consolidation and loss of local ownership demonstrated a need for changes, including some in station licensing.

The FCC concluded that all local stations must air local programming, and that better ways are needed to track that local content is being aired, including both local bands on radio and local political debates and coverage on TV. It asked for comments on how to do so.

The proposal is aimed at concluding an FCC examination of issues stemming from broadcast consolidation. Former FCC Chairman Michael J. Powell began a study of the impact of losing local ownership on a community but never finished it, despite congressional criticism.

Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin, the FCC has held six hearings on media ownership and two on issues involving local ownership. At both sets of hearings, the agency heard complaints about local issues not being aired, local groups not getting air time and local radio stations not playing local bands.

FCC officials said today the localism proposal makes a series of conclusions based on the hearings, and asks for comment about ways to achieve the goals.

While the detailed proposal wasn’t immediately published, FCC officials said the conclusions would require all stations to demonstrate they are offering local content when seeking license renewals. Also, it recommended that all stations establish permanent advisory boards that include representatives of underserved communities and said stations need to at least publicly make available the amount of time they spend airing content about local elections and politics.

It also asks whether the FCC should require stations to have staff on hand 24 hours a day. Senators have criticized the FCC for allowing broadcasters to program stations remotely, leaving no one on hand locally to act when emergency information must be broadcast.

Mr. Martin said the proposal is intended to offer viewers and listeners more local content. “The changes we propose are intended to promote localism by providing viewers and listeners greater access to locally responsive programming,” he said.

Democratic commissioners, however, suggested the proposal didn’t go far enough and was no answer to the problems being created by media consolidation. They said any action to step up requirements should have come before allowing more consolidation.

“We learned from our localism hearings that there is far too little coverage of local issues voters need to know about in a way that prepares them to make educated decision,” said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “We heard that ‘breaking news’ is being replaced with ‘breaking gossip.”

The National Association of Broadcasters in a statement expressed some concern about the proposal, warning that the proceeding “carries grave First Amendment implications and stems from a false notion that radio and television stations have abandoned our commitment to serving communities or have stopped offering distinctive local programming.”

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Comments 6

Ernie Anderson

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I've tried to convince our local stations to bring back my high school quiz "High Q" which was on 19 years until 1998 and was unceremoniously canceled by our local CBS affiliate. Marshall University brought it back for 1 season in 2006, but wouldn't fund it for a return. I'm attempting to get private funding to return it to the airwaves. It's a shame that, if it's sports, it's aired. If it's something of this quality, featuring two competing high schools, it's "well, we don't have room on our schedule." Any generous companies that would like to sponsor it here in the West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio tri state?

Dick Wiley

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This was all well and good back in the days when television was still a curiousity and before there were the plethora of choices.

These days, a show like High Q will get trounced in the ratings as viewers with hundreds of choices flee to cable or the Internet. And sponsor money will follow.

Marshall's probably looking at buying the local avails on ESPN where their target audience is watching sports.

Rick Vogel

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Following the move on cross-ownership that displayed a thorough disregard for the public interest by reducing the number of potential voices heard by the public, Martin actually revisits the public interest mandate on broadcasters.
Suggestions of reinstating a version of ascertainment and/or the fairness doctrine is so contrary to everything the FCC has tried to do the past decade or so. Broadcasters will claim that their first amendment rights are getting trounced again. The reality is that they will again return to their roles as fiduciaries of the public trust and have to earn their licenses once again.
A number of my students have lost their radio jobs to voice tracking. The local areas lost a local voice while Clearchannel and others cut costs and imported a DJ from another state.
After being wrong so often, Martin may do something right. I guess the rumor of him seeking an elected office someday might be true.

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