At last Thursday’s Public Hearing on multiple ownership in Chicago, about which we wrote here, a statement was read by a spokesman for Presidential candidate Barack Obama. According to press reports, the statement expressed the candidate’s positions favoring shorter license renewal terms for broadcasters so that they would be subject to more public scrutiny, as well as criticizing the FCC for allowing broadcast consolidation. These thoughts essentially echo the comments of FCC Commissioner Copps, especially on the subject of license renewal terms, whose views we wrote about here. While many press reports have asked if this statement by Senator Obama foreshadows the broadcast ownership debate becoming part of the presidential campaign issues, we worry that it may signal a far broader attack on broadcasters during the upcoming political year. The statement by Senator Obama is but one of a host of indications that broadcasters may face a rash of legislative issues that are now on the political drawing boards.
Broadcasters make easy targets for politicians as everyone is an expert on radio and television – after all, virtually everyone watches TV or listens to the radio and thus fancies themselves knowledgeable of what is good and bad for the public. But those in Congress (and on the FCC) have the ability to do something about it. And, with an election year upon us, they have the added incentive to act, given that any action is bound to generate at least some publicity and, for some, this may be their last opportunity to enact legislation that they feel important. We’ve already written about the renewed emphasis, just last week, on passing legislation to overturn the Second Circuit’s decision throwing out the FCC’s fines on "fleeting expletives" and making the unanticipated use of one of those "dirty words" subject again to FCC indecency fines. Clearly, no Congressman wants to be seen as being in favor of indecency (look at the rise in the indecency fines to $325,000 per occurrence which was voted through Congress just before the last election), and First Amendment issues are much more nuanced and difficult to explain to the voter, so watch this legislation.
But indecency and ownership are not the only broadcast issues on the Congressional agenda. Bills to regulate violence on television are pending (see our post here). Proposals have been made to regulate the advertising of unhealthy food to children, which have been stayed off temporarily by a government commission to study the issue and suggest voluntary guidelines, but at least one Presidential candidate has suggested (as we wrote here) that legislation is an option if the voluntary reforms don’t go far enough and move fast enough. And LPFM, about which we wrote here, also may rise on the Congressional agenda.
The FCC may itself feel the heat to do something (almost anything) in the election year, and in the last days of the Presidential term and perhaps the last days of the terms of some of the sitting Commissioners (as there is usually substantial FCC turnover after an election, no matter which party wins). Many FCC issues, from rumored new rules on payola and sponsorship identification, to old issues long waiting for resolution, like the taping of broadcast programs and the extension of broadcast EEO rules to part-time employees and the return of Form 395 all await action. So, in the crazy days before the election, watch carefully to see what surprises your government has in store.