Watchdogs Irked by Localism Probe

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell’s inquiry into broadcast localism could become a regulatory nightmare for the TV industry, despite widespread initial efforts to downplay the significance of the proceeding, industry sources said.
In the immediate aftermath of the chairman’s announcement last week, watchdog group representatives dismissed the initiative as a transparent political attempt to sap momentum from the effort in Congress to overturn the FCC’s controversial June 2 decision to relax its media ownership restrictions.
“That’s the point here: to divert attention,” said Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America.
The National Association of Broadcasters even said it welcomed a review. “Commitment to community and public service remains the hallmark of local broadcasting,” NAB said.
But key industry sources warned that the chairman is on a major political salvage mission, both to shore up his image as the agency’s chief and to shift the perception of the GOP from lap-dog friend of the media giants to a watchdog of the public’s interest in localism.
The perception that Republicans were in cahoots with the industry on media deregulation is one that Democrats have been positioning as a presidential campaign issue.
Icing on the cake for the chairman, according to industry sources, is that the inquiry gives him a club with which to beat the broadcasters-chiefly the NAB and affiliates-who raised much of the ruckus over the deregulation by lobbying vigorously to overturn the FCC decision to raise the cap on national TV ownership from 35 percent to 45 percent of the nation’s TV homes.
“This is serious,” said one well-placed industry source.
“It’s a sincere effort that will get considerable resources from the commission,” added an FCC official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a briefing for reporters last Wednesday, Mr. Powell stopped short of promising that any specific new regulations would result from the inquiry, which is slated for an official launch next month. But he also said that issues to be teed up would include the FCC’s licensing renewal procedures and regulations governing the relationship between networks and their affiliates.
Critics have charged that the FCC’s existing license renewal procedures are so lax that they result in virtually automatic renewals.
“What this effort will do is help us understand more clearly … what broadcasters are doing or not doing and other more thoughtful and fundamental ways we can answer that question [as to whether they warrant renewal] in the affirmative when we are considering a license,” Mr. Powell said. “At the moment, nothing is off the table.”
In a statement, FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, a Republican, said she agrees that licensees have an obligation to serve their local communities. “Recently, concerns have been raised about whether certain practices do indeed serve local interests and whether the commission can do more to promote localism in television and radio,” Ms. Abernathy said. “Thus, I am pleased that the commission will consider whether changes in our rules, consistent with First Amendment principles, are appropriate and needed.”
At the press conference, Mr. Powell defended the June 2 media ownership ruling by the agency’s Republicans, making clear he has no intention of staying the regulations, which are scheduled to go into effect Sept. 4. But he also said the decision to launch the localism inquiry was spurred in part by the unusually heated outcry by the public against the deregulation.
“We heard the voice of public concern loud and clear that localism remains a core concern,” Mr. Powell said. “And thus, I think it is time the commission address it head-on.”
Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps blasted Mr. Powell’s refusal to stay the rules pending resolution of the inquiry. “What if we complete these studies and find out that localism is not served by consolidation?” he said. “It’ll be too late.”
“We should have vetted these issues before we voted,” Mr. Copps added. “Instead, we voted; now we’re going to vet. This is a policy of `ready, fire, aim.”’
Added Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., “It remains my intention to force the Senate to vote on the revocation of the FCC’s June 2 rules. The chairman’s statements today do nothing to remove the need to revoke those rules.”
Affiliates and other critics have long maintained that there’s a clear relationship between the national ownership cap-i.e., the right of major TV networks to buy more local TV stations-and localism.
But Mr. Powell said ownership rules are an indirect and “clumsy” way to address the concerns.
“[The inquiry] is an effort to address those concerns in a much more constructive way,” Mr. Powell said.
Taking his campaign to a personal level, the chairman took a public swipe at Cox Television and Post-Newsweek Stations, companies that have been leading the industry charge to roll back the national cap, in part on the argument that the cap is needed to protect localism.
“The idea that [only they are] uniquely positioned to make decisions affecting the local community I think is false, simply false, at least if the argument is you have to be locally based to serve localism,” Mr. Powell said. “If the broadcasters who fight aggressively to roll back the national cap really mean localism, no one should be afraid of looking at it more directly.”
While Mr. Powell confirmed that the inquiry would consider agency regulations governing the network-affiliate relationship, an FCC official said the agency has yet to decide whether to put on hold resolution of the long-pending petition from the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance alleging network abuse.
Alan Frank, NASA chairman and president of Post-Newsweek Stations, said it would be “unconscionable” for the FCC to postpone action on the petition while it considers an inquiry that could go on for years.
“If the FCC’s localism initiative is to have credibility, the FCC must promptly apply the network-affiliate rules that are already on the books to preserve localism,” Mr. Frank said.