For too long, TV stations have made a fortune off of the public airwaves — which they use free of charge — with little accountability to their local community.
In the fall of 2007, the FCC began to address this problem when it approved new rules that would dramatically strengthen and improve reporting requirements for TV stations.
The FCC’s old disclosure requirements asked little of TV stations, ensuring that most broadcasters were easily granted their license renewal every time stations reapplied.
Keeping The Public in the Dark
The public records that stations are supposed to keep were often incomplete and hard to access, making it difficult for local citizens to examine a station’s track record. The FCC’s new rules require that TV stations post their public files on their Web sites and that they file a new reporting form every three months.
The new form will capture more and better information on stations’ programming and will be invaluable to assessing how well they are serving the public. The FCC is asking for minute-by-minute documentation of programming and tying these reports to their programming rules and requirements. The FCC hopes that these steps will help empower local communities to participate in their local broadcast stations and give citizens more control over their airwaves.
However, there are clearly things that these broadcasters don’t want you to know. The National Association of Broadcasters just took the FCC to court to block these important new rules from taking effect. The broadcasters oppose the “scale and scope” of the FCC’s new rules, claiming that they would impose an administrative burden on stations. It would be much more convenient for these broadcasters to keep the public in the dark.
Blast From the Past
However, these new rules are not unprecedented. The FCC used to require significantly more complex and thorough information from broadcasters. In fact, TV stations used to have to defend their license to broadcast every three years. These license renewals were opportunities for local communities to make their voice heard and pressure local broadcasters. Now a station only has to renew its license every eight years.
“The problem is that, under pressure from media conglomerates, previous commissions have eviscerated the renewal process,” wrote FCC Commission Michael Copps in a New York Times editorial last year. “Now we have what big broadcasters lovingly call ‘postcard renewal’ — the agency typically rubber-stamps an application without any substantive review. Denials on public interest grounds are extraordinarily rare.”
The new requirements the FCC is suggesting are small steps toward a more robust accounting of TV stations service to local communities. Broadcasters were able to thrive with even more restrictive reporting requirements in the past. So what are TV stations trying to hide? Why are they afraid of the FCC’s efforts to add a little more transparency?
If you want to find out, take a trip to your local station’s office and ask to see their public files. It’s your right – for now.