FCC Commissioner Wants to Test the 'Public Value' of Every Broadcast Station

CNSNews | December 03, 2010
By Susan Jones

(CNSNews.com) - American journalism is in "grave peril," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says, and to bolster "traditional media," he said the Federal Communications Commission should conduct a "public value test" of every commercial broadcast station at relicensing time.

In a speech at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York on Thursday, Copps also said station relicensing should happen every four years instead of the current eight.

"If a station passes the Public Value Test, it of course keeps the license it has earned to use the people’s airwaves," Copps said. "If not, it goes on probation for a year, renewable for an additional year if it demonstrates measurable progress. If the station fails again, give the license to someone who will use it to serve the public interest."

Ever since Barack Obama became president, prominent conservatives have warned about liberal efforts to squelch conservative and Christian talk-radio.

Although Copps has said the FCC will not reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, his prescription for "testing" commercial broadcast stations (see below) will alarm defenders of free speech and free enterprise.

According to Copps, the FCC's Public Value Test would include seven areas -- and most of the following text is taken verbatim from his speech:

-- Meaningful Commitments to News and Public Affairs Programming. These would be quantifiable and not involve issues of content interference, Copps said. Increasing the human and financial resources going into news would be one way to benchmark progress.  Producing more local civic affairs programming would be another.  Copps said stations meeting certain benchmarks of progress would qualify for “expedited handling of their license renewals.” He said he hopes the FCC will "put the brakes" on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations.

-- Enhanced Disclosure. Requiring information about what programs a station airs allows viewers to judge whether their local station should be subsidized with free spectrum privileges, Copps said. It opens a window on a station’s performance.  Right now the information the FCC requires in a station’s public file is laughable, he said, and the FCC generally does not even look at these files at re-licensing time. The public has a right to easy access to this information so that its input counts at relicensing time. Copps said citizens should be able to see stations’ public files on the Internet, and he called for the completion of "enhanced disclosure" in the next 90 days.

-- Political Advertising Disclosure.  Copps estimated that nearly $3 billion was spent on media advertising in the recent campaign cycle.  We the People have no idea who really paid for this political carpet-bombing, he said.  But we the people have a right to know who is bank-rolling these ads beyond some wholly uninformative and vapidly-named group that appears on the bottom of the screen to mask the special interests it really represents.  Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of undemocratic sin here.  The FCC worries, legitimately, about the dangers of placing a bottle of Coke or a tube of toothpaste on an entertainment program without disclosing who paid for the product’s placement.  Shouldn’t we be even more concerned when unidentified groups with off-the-screen agendas attempt to buy election outcomes?  I propose that the FCC quickly determine the extent of its current authority to compel release of what interests are paying for this flood of anonymous political advertising -- and if we lack the tools we need to compel disclosure, let’s go ask for them.

-- Reflecting Diversity.  Copps noted that people of color own only about 3.6% of full-power commercial television stations. But he also said diversity encompasses how groups are depicted in the media -- too often stereotyped and caricatured, he said -- and what roles minorities and women have in owning and managing media companies.  The FCC’s Diversity Advisory Committee has spent years providing us with specific, targeted recommendations to correct this injustice., Copps said. "How sad it is that most of these recommendations have not been put to a Commission vote. It is time to right this awful wrong."

-- Community Discovery.  The FCC, back when stations were locally-owned and the license holder walked the town’s streets every day, required licensees to meet occasionally with their viewers and listeners to see if the programs being offered reflected the diverse interests and needs of the community.  Nowadays, when stations are so often owned by mega companies and absentee owners hundreds or even thousands of miles away—frequently by private equity firms totally unschooled in public interest media—we no longer ask licensees to take the public pulse.  Diversity of programming suffers, minorities are ignored, and local self-expression becomes the exception.  Here’s some good news: Community Discovery would not be difficult to do in this Internet age, when technology can so easily facilitate dialogue.

-- Local and Independent Programming.  According to Copps, the goal is more localism in our program diet, more local news and information, and a lot less streamed-in homogenization and monotonous nationalized music at the expense of local and regional talent.  Homogenized music and entertainment from huge conglomerates constrains creativity, suppresses local talent, and detracts from the great tapestry of our nation’s cultural diversity.  We should be working toward a solution wherein a certain percentage of prime-time programming—I have suggested 25 percent—is locally or independently-produced.  Public Service Announcements should also be more localized and more of them aired in prime-time, too.  And PEG channels—public, educational and government programming—deserve first-class treatment if we are to have a first class media.

-- Public Safety.  Every station, as a condition of license, must have a detailed, approved plan to go immediately on-air when disaster—nature-made or man-made—strikes.  Stations, like government, have a solemn duty to protect the safety of the people.  Preferably a station should be always staffed; if there are times when that is not possible, perhaps there are technology tools now that can fill in the gap and make the coverage instantaneous.

"These few criteria for a Public Value Test are neither excessive nor onerous,' Copps said in his speech.

"But they would get us back to the original licensing bargain between broadcasters and the people: in return for free use of airwaves that belong exclusively to the people, licensees agree to serve the public interest as good stewards of a precious national resource.  Importantly, these proposals are for the most part actions the FCC can take on its own authority.  We can make this down-payment on media democracy now.  As the old question goes:  If not now, when?  If not us, who?"

Copps said the FCC and Congress in the future will need to examine the rules governing the structure of media ownership. And he advocated increasing support for public broadcasting, which he described as "the jewel of our media landscape."

Copps was introduced to the audience at Columbia by veteran PBS journalist Bill Moyers, something that thrilled Copps: "No one stands higher in my pantheon of citizen heroes than you, and I can think of no journalist, contemporary or at any time across the annals of our past, who has contributed so much to democracy’s dialogue," Copps said of the liberal Moyers.