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FCC Orders Stations to Report Public Affairs Programming

The FCC has ordered TV stations to ratchet up public affairs reporting.

The commission on Tuesday established rules requiring broadcasters to file quarterly public interest programming reports on standardized forms. Stations that have Web sites are also required to post the forms online, and tell viewers twice a day where to find them.

Tuesday's order replaces a system that simply required broadcast stations to file a quarterly list of public interest programs that ran in the previous three months. The new reporting structure requires licensees to list programming according to type, e.g., civic issues, local elections, public service announcements, independently produced shows, etc.

It also requires broadcasters to describe just how the programs listed served the public interest in their given markets, and to submit closed-captioning and video-described content information.

The commission's two Democrats have vocalized long and strenuously about ramping up public interest requirements for broadcasters. Commissioner Michael Copps called the order "a good step forward" that will "provide significantly more information than we presently have to inform us all about what and how broadcasters are doing."

Copps said the additional data would come in handy should the commission "ever get serious about having an honest-to-goodness licensing and relicensing regime."

The issue of relicensing coincidentally played out at a public hearing Wednesday in Newark, N.J., where Fox-owned WWOR was scrutinized about its public service activities.

The station is described in local media as being New York centric at the expense of local coverage. Copps's fellow Democrat, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, said Tuesday's order was long overdue, given the docket was opened seven years ago.

"Now it is imperative that the Commission turn to the task of clarifying the substantive public interest obligations of broadcasters," he said in his prepared statement.

Jim Goodmon, chief executive of Capital Broadcasting in Raleigh, N.C., said as much during a localism hearing held at the FCC offices on Halloween.

"Tell us what our minimum public interest standards are, you wouldn?t just have people here shooting out what's good or bad," he said.

Chairman Kevin Martin scored a 5-0 vote (with partial dissents) on the order after contention over another issue deadlocked the commissioners and delayed their meeting by 10 hours.

The chairman wanted to establish rules regulating cable TV ownership based on a report that indicated the industry reached at least 70 percent of the viewing public and had 70 percent subscribership--the so-called "70-70" rule. His fellow commissioners balked about making a ruling based on a single report. He eventually agreed to solicit more information.

Martin's fellow Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell told the press he doubted that new information would demonstrate the 70 percent penetration of cable. McDowell, a died-in-the-wool deregulator, also lodged the lone dissent, in part, on the broadcast reporting rule.

"I am concerned," he stated, "about the burden that the Web site posting requirement, along with the 60-day implementation deadline, will have on smaller stations. These stations are already straining their resources to finalize their digital transition plans."

The commission set forth a more substantial agenda than the one that actually materialized at the meeting, which has been typical under Martin's leadership. An item on minority ownership was deleted.