In a very unusual, if not unprecedented case, the FCC announced a Public Forum on the license renewal application of WWOR-TV to assess the service provided by that station to the citizens of New Jersey.  While the FCC has in the past held evidentiary hearings on license renewal applications, those hearings were trial-type, adversarial proceedings held on specific issues before administrative law judges – not amorphous public proceedings on general questions about the service provided by the station.  This proceeding seems much more akin to the "localism" hearings that the FCC has been holding around the country (including the most recent held in Washington on Halloween), only in this case it is not conducted to come up with some general policy guidelines, but instead it is to assess whether a broadcast license worth hundreds of millions of dollars should be renewed.  While the revocation of a license for failure to serve the public interest under the license renewal standards that have been in effect for the last 11 years is unprecedented, this process may be one that other stations could face were proposals of certain Congressional and FCC proponents of license renewal reform to get their way.

As we wrote here and here, some have suggested that the FCC’s license renewal process should be fundamentally reformed.  There have been suggestions that license renewal, which once occurred every three years for broadcast stations but now comes up but once every eight years, should return to that shorter cycle.  And some have suggested that the license renewal process should have more "teeth" to assess a broadcaster’s performance (see, for instance, the statement of Commissioner Copps at the FCC Localism hearing in Portland, Maine in June). These teeth have been suggested to include everything from specific quantitative showings of public interest programming by the broadcaster, to local public hearings to assess the level of that service for some or all broadcast stations.  How the FCC would have the resources to conduct hearings for any meaningful number of broadcast stations is unclear – but the suggestion has been made by various proponents of license renewal reform. 

The examination of WWOR-TV’s service to the residents of New Jersey may reflect the station’s unique history.  Once licensed to New York City and part of the RKO broadcast group which had all of its FCC licenses challenged because of issues of candor stemming from some corporate wrongdoing engaged in by its parent company. While all of the company’s other licenses ended up in other hands as a result of the renewal challenges, the WWOR license was saved by an act of Congress, agreeing to renew the license of any VHF television station that would move to a state that currently had no commercial VHF television service. As New Jersey had no VHF station, WWOR’s move to New Jersey saved its license.

Now, however, the station’s renewal has been challenged on various grounds, and the FCC will hold this unique hearing.  Will this be but the first of such hearings?  This is an issue for broadcasters to watch as the FCC weighs various proposals for ensuring localism through license renewal reform and other means.