The vote was a stunning 400 to 21 -- one of most overwhelming rebukes by the U.S. House of Representatives of a regulatory policy in the history of American broadcasting. Though the bloody fight over media ownership is far from over -- the fat lady has yet to sing -- few would argue all is well in TV land. Fact is, there's trouble, big trouble, in River City.
First the public, a vocal 750,000 of them, expressed a resounding "no" on what was widely considered a dull policy issue. Then came the fury from a usually broadcaster-friendly Congress. President Bush is now threatening his first veto over an issue that benefits only a very few broadcast conglomerates.
The backlash to the FCC's new media ownership rules, adopted June 2, has blossomed into the most important TV broadcasting story of the year. Its resolution could dramatically influence the future direction of over-the-air broadcasting.
Veterans in the terrestrial broadcast industry, from station and network owners to equipment vendors, had counted on the new rules to bring clarity to an increasingly unfocused business. The revised ownership rules, which would chart new business models for digital television, were expected to jumpstart a sluggish, stagnant industry into a new period of economic growth.
Now broadcasters, with their once-powerful political lobbying efforts in shambles, can count on nothing except more government scrutiny and mounting questions on their stewardship of the publicly owned spectrum they occupy and use at no cost. The last thing anyone expected was the explosion of ill will that's being targeted toward broadcasters on Capitol Hill.
THE SLEEPING GIANT
It appears a convergence of events awoke this sleeping giant. Many media consumers, finally made aware of the ownership issues through the grassroots town meetings of dissident FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, rose to make their opinions known. Despite all the cooked reports and suspect data offered to the contrary, the average listener could easily see what media consolidation did to their local radio stations. Few wanted to see local television become more homogenized than it already is.
Members of Congress, who have to deal with local media in a different way, do not want fewer media outlets in their districts or home states. No one wants to find public officials in the same boat as recording artists who have to jump through a corrupt payola-like system to get airplay on radio. In short, upon a closer look at the new FCC rules, everyone got scared.
The FCC's new policies "would make Citizen Kane look like an underachiever," quipped Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), referring to the dictatorial media magnate depicted in the classic 1941 film by Orson Welles.
In addition to such issues as station ownership caps and the cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations, another hot button issue is emerging from the media debate: What are the public service obligations of terrestrial broadcasters in the digital age?
Not since former Vice President Al Gore took on public service issues during the Clinton administration have broadcasters had their feet held to the fire on what they are obligated to give back in exchange for free use of the public's spectrum. That's about to change.
KEY DRUM BEATER
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, one of the key drumbeaters against the FCC's new ownership rules, has announced he will hold a series of town meetings "to give concerned citizens the opportunity to express their views on whether their local radio and television stations are serving the public interest and should have their licenses renewed."
Broadcasters who think they own the airwaves had better watch out.
"As we begin the next round of license renewals for radio this fall and for television in 2004, I intend to hold a series of town meetings in regions where renewals are due in order to hear from communities how their airwaves are being used," Copps said in a statement that no doubt brought a sense of dread to station owners who haven't had to defend themselves in years.
Copps reminded broadcasters that the American people, not broadcast corporations, own the public airwaves. "Congress grants broadcasters the right to use the spectrum in exchange for their commitment to serve the 'public interest.' Every eight years, the FCC reviews the performance of each radio and television station and only renews a station's right to use the public spectrum if it meets its public interest commitment. But today, the FCC grants so-called 'postcard' renewals after a minimal review and no public outreach to local communities.
"Most people do not even know that they can challenge the renewal of a local radio or television station if they believe that the station is not living up to its obligation due to a lack of local coverage, a lack of diversity, excessive indecency and violence, or for other concerns important to the community," Copps continued.
A SIMPLE TRUTH
Within all the turmoil over media ownership and public service is a very simple truth that broadcasters seem to miss. People want localism from over-the-air media in their community. Local owners, local on-air talent, local news and local content. The listeners have heard big on their radios and know it is not better. They don't want to see the same phony automation happen to local television.
Premium national programming has now moved to multichannel subscription services and the viewers have decided they are willing to pay for it, thank you. Now, they want their local stations to stay local.
In the beginning, the major television networks needed local stations for over-the-air program distribution. That era is now over. The networks are moving toward business models with multiple income streams. Let them go to cable and satellite. In a few years, all network programming will probably premiere on pay media. It's time to break the networks and affiliate stations apart from obsolete relationships.
If the FCC truly wants to save "free, over-the-air broadcasting" -- as the politicians like to call it -- the commission should create rules that bring television and radio stations back to their local roots. Ownership and operation of any broadcast station should be local-no caps, no group owners, no operating agreements. Station owners should live in the town where they broadcast and have daily involvement in the operation of their station.
As steward of the public's airwaves, the station's license should be based on the quality of its locally produced programming, not syndicated fare or network re-runs. Over-the-air television would become local programming for local communities -- not distributors of national programming.
Yes, of course, there would be a shakeout of stations. Far fewer terrestrial broadcasters would remain on the air. And that would be good. It would free up valuable spectrum for more small-scale community broadcast stations and other local uses that serve the public.
Without such a radical change in direction for local broadcasting, it's hard to make a case for its future in a digital multichannel world of pay entertainment on demand.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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