As we wrote earlier this week, the FCC is to consider at its meeting next Tuesday a Report on the results of its "Localism" proceeding, and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the findings contained in the Report. From rumors going around Washington today, that Notice may ask for comments on tentative findings that would roll back of much of the broadcast deregulation of the last 25 years. Rumors are that the Commission will be issuing "tentative conclusions" determining that the FCC should re-impose specific ascertainment requirements of some sort (requiring that broadcasters regularly meet with specific types of community leaders to get their input on station programming). Also, the Commission will tentatively conclude that there should be quantitative programming requirements – that each station do a specific amount of local programming and perhaps specific amounts of news, public affairs other types of programs each week. If a licensee does not meet the requirements, the station’s license renewal application would not be granted routinely by the FCC’s staff, but instead would be subject to an additional level of scrutiny by the full Commission. The Commission is also apparently proposing that it return to the old rules that all stations have a manned main studio during all hours of operation. There is reportedly also a proposal that stations report to the FCC about how they decide what music they play.
Staring in the early 1980s, the FCC did away with many of the specific, detailed programming requirements that had previously bound broadcasters. These requirements were quite burdensome, especially for small stations and stations in small markets with limited staffs. Rather than spending their time on broadcast operations, station staff had to make sure that their operations met programming standards imposed from Washington, dictating the government’s ideas of what was good for the station’s audience, even if the station might feel, because of its format or the demographics of its audience that a particular type of programming did not serve the needs of its community. In the mid-1980s, the FCC concluded that these rules were no longer necessary, as it was concluded that there was enough media diversity that the marketplace would dictate that broadcasters serve their audiences with appropriate content that met the needs of that audience as, if they did not, some other broadcaster would. The economic incentive of the fear of the loss of audience to a competitor who better served the public was deemed enough to insure that the broadcaster acted responsibly.
Now, here we are 25 years later, when the number of broadcast stations has doubled from the mid-1980s, and when there is all sorts of other competition that forces the broadcaster to serve its community, and the FCC is looking to reimpose a paternalistic regime where all stations have to broadcast specific types of content to avoid license renewal difficulties? In today’s world, with satellite and Internet radio and video and all of the other digital choices of entertainment, the broadcaster is forced by his or her self-interest to address what the local audience finds relevant, or the broadcaster will have that audience abandon the station for some other medium. Now, more than ever, specific quantitative standards for broadcast programs are not needed.
While the FCC and others seem to yearn for the "good old days", what really did the old rules mandate? They required specific amounts of public affairs programs, so that usually meant that every radio station in a market was doing boring talk programs on a Sunday morning to satisfy the requirements. And no one listened, and there was no choice of what to hear during those hours. Every station was required to do specifically labeled "news" programs. In the old days, most stations ran network newscasts to help fulfill these requirements, even though the audience of a particular station might not care about hard news. Now, broadcasters use many different methodologies to determine the needs of their audiences, and meet those needs though "information" about local events supplied by the broadcaster but maybe not in a traditional format, but perhaps as part of an entertainment format, but in a way that nevertheless builds up a bond with the local community. Do we want to do away with that flexibility so that someone in Washington can dictate the type of programming that best serves the public?
These findings by the Commission have not been made, and broadcasters can still submit letters or comments before the end of the comment period at 5:30 Eastern time on Friday, December 14. And then whatever proposals are ultimately adopted by the Commission will be available for comment as part of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Clearly, this is a proceeding in which all broadcasters should participate.