In a speech given last week, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called for a new regime to review the public interest performance of broadcasters – suggesting that license renewal become a more rigorous exercise for radio and television operators.  In his address called "Getting Media Right, A Call to Action", given to the Columbia University School of Journalism, Copps specifically suggested a "Public Value Test" for broadcasters when they file their license renewals.  If the broadcaster passes the test, the broadcaster would get a renewal.  If the broadcaster did not pass – if it does not show that it has "earned" the right to "use the people’s airways" – then the licensee would get a one year probation period to prove that it should keep its license.  If it does not improve, then the license would be taken and given to "someone who will use it to serve the public interest."

So what would this Public Value Test look like?  The Commissioner suggested that the following factors would be reviewed: 

  1. A Meaningful Commitment to News and Public Affairs Programming – an increased commitment to news, local public affairs, election debates and issues oriented programming would be reviewed according to some quantitative benchmarks.
  2. Enhanced Disclosure – requiring broadcasters to provide more information about their programming performance, on the Internet, as the Commissioner believes that information in the public file is "laughable", and also requiring that the FCC review that information at renewal time
  3. Political Advertising Disclosure – requiring more information about the sponsors of political ads
  4. Reflecting Diversity – looking to increase the gender, ethnic and racial ownership of broadcast stations
  5. Community Discovery – requiring that broadcasters be required to, in some formal way, communicate with their communities to determine local programming needs and the interests of various groups within a station’s community
  6. Local and independent programming – requiring that broadcasters provide more local and independent programming instead of "homogenized music and entertainment from huge conglomerates – the Commissioner suggesting 25% of local programming being dedicated to local and independent programs.  More local PSAs too.
  7. Public Safety – requiring that all broadcasters have a plan to address emergencies and be either staffed during all hours of operation or be otherwise able to respond immediately to any local emergency.

 What’s likely to happen to these proposals?

This is not the first time that Commissioner Copps has suggested the need for a more rigorous review of a broadcaster’s license renewal application. During the years that Kevin Martin headed the FCC during the second half of the Bush administration, the FCC engaged in a very thorough review of the localism issues, conducting field hearings on these issues around the country, but not reaching any consensus among the various parties involved in the issues. 

For broadcasters, it is good that Commissioner Copps recognizes the importance of the broadcast media, and cares about its performance.  But there are significant difficulties, as recognized in the comments filed in the localism proceeding, in determining how to quantify any such obligations.  One of the biggest difficulties in coming up with any objective standards to evaluate the service that broadcasters provide to their communities is the broad diversity of the broadcast community. Specific quantitative public service requirements that a TV station in New York City might be easily able to meet, might impose a crushing burden on a station in eastern Washington State, most cities in Montana or in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A Mom and Pop radio station providing the only service to a county of 10,000 in rural Nebraska is going to be able to provide a much different program service, and to have an entirely different ability to handle specific government mandates, than is a big FM in Los Angeles or Dallas. Even in these cities, a rock and roll radio station is going to be expected by its listeners to provide a wholly different experience than an all news or news talk station. Coming up with standards that try to judge the public interest value of a Senatorial election debate versus promoting a Toys for Tots collection point at a Black Eyed Peas concert in a community is a daunting task.

In the early 1980s, the FCC decided, in its deregulation of radio and later of television, that the marketplace would be able to assure that broadcasters served the needs of their communities. If their programming did not meet the needs of the community, the broadcaster would not be successful and would not be able to continue to operate.  At that time, there were essentially half as many broadcast stations as there are now, and nowhere near the number of audio and video competitors that there are today from the myriad of digital sources. It is my sense that much of the wringing of hands over the state of journalism and the future of the media is driven not by empirical evidence that there are fewer outlets for information and expression, as any Google or Bing search of almost any topic, no matter how local, will produce far more information about almost any issue than could have been received from local radio, TV or the newspapers in 1983. Perhaps the concern is that there is no unified single source of that information in each community – when there was a big newspaper, a full-service radio station and a couple of television stations in every market. In the broadcast world alone, as the number of stations has grown in answer to demands for more diversity and the broader inclusion of new owners into the media, stations have been forced to differentiate themselves, serving a smaller but targeted portion of the overall market – but often a dedicated set of listeners or viewers. Where there is intense competition for viewers and listeners, each outlet today needs to be more focused on delivering the content that its target audience wants. In very few markets do you have the single full service radio station that you would have found 20 or 30 years ago. 

Digital and other media competition has also made specialization more important, and increased the burden that government mandates as to the types of programming a station broadcasts would put on a station. Forcing a subset of the content providers (FCC licensees) to ignore the demands of the marketplace for any substantial portion of its broadcast day to instead meet the demands of the government will cause listeners to go to another source that is doing what they want – and that source may well be a digital media source not covered by FCC rules, and not providing any public service programming whatsoever. The end of the broadcast monopoly on audio and video programming has also dictated, in my opinion, the end of the FCC’s ability to dictate what the public should be hearing or seeing on their stations. Instead, the successful stations must do what they can to meet the needs of their audience, or they will perish from competition from new and old media alike.

This is obviously a contentious issue, and there probably is no single answer as to whether the government can force broadcasters to meet some objective public interest standard. I’d be interested in reader reactions as to whether the FCC can or should embark on a proceeding to address the issues identified by Commissioner Copps in his speech last week.