Here are some of the regulatory developments of significance to broadcasters from the last week, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC asked for public comment on a proposal to increase from 100 to 250 watts the maximum power allowed

Two recent decisions, the most high profile being the renewal of the Fox television stations in the New York City area, demonstrate the analysis that the FCC goes through in deciding if a station has operated in the public interest and if its license deserves to be renewed.  In the Fox case, the focus was on the public service record of the station, and in particular whether the station had adequately addressed the issues of importance to the residents of New Jersey, the state to which one of its TV stations is licensed.  In a second recent case, that of a California radio station, the issue was much more specific – whether the station had promoted illegal drug use, and whether one of the station’s on-air program hosts had been abusive to callers.  In both cases, recognizing the First Amendment concerns posed by second guessing a broadcaster’s programming decisions, the FCC granted the license renewals.

In the Fox case, the issues were broader in nature.  The Fox station WWOR was licensed to New Jersey – in fact receiving a special license renewal when its then-owner, RKO General, was fighting the loss of its other broadcast licenses for issues involving purported lack of candor with the FCC.  The WWOR renewal was granted when Congress passed very specific legislation agreeing to grant the license of any TV station that moved to a state with no VHF television service (which, at that time, was the superior transmission service for TV).  RKO agreed to move WOR from New York City to Secaucus, NJ and received a license renewal as NJ had no VHF stations at that time.  The renewal was granted with the expectation that, as a NJ station, its public interest programming would focus on NJ.  Whether the service provided by current licensee Fox to NJ was the issue that the FCC addressed in the license renewal challenge.
Continue Reading FCC Decisions, Including Fox TV Renewals, Focus on FCC Limits in Assessing Programming Claims in Reviewing License Renewals

With much of the media world celebrating the life of Walter Cronkite this weekend, we have to wonder what he would have thought about press reports that the FCC is considering the commencement of a proceeding to investigate the status of broadcast journalism – assessing its quality, determining whether the Internet and other new sources are making up for any quality that is lost, and potentially deciding to mandate specific amounts of news coverage by broadcast stations. That surprising story about a planned FCC Notice of Inquiry on the state of broadcast journalism was reported in an an online report picked up by the broadcast trade press last week.  And even if that story is not true, concerns about the government’s intrusion into a broadcaster’s coverage of controversial issues arise from the recent Congressional committee action voting down a bill that would ban the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.  In what should have been a symbolic embrace of the First Amendment (symbolic as, in the last 6 weeks, four of the FCC Commissioners or Commissioners-to-be disavowed any interest in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine in their confirmation hearings ), the defeat of the bill raises questions as to whether someone has an agenda to resurrect the government’s role in assessing broadcast media coverage of controversial issues.  In reading one of the many stories of the life of Cronkite (here, at page 3), we were stuck with the contrast between these actions, and the actions of Mr. Cronkite to address controversial issues – regardless of the FCC implications.  One anecdote related his questioning of John Kennedy about his religion when Kennedy thought that topic off limits, even in light of the potential president’s veiled threat that, when he took office, he would be appointing the FCC who would be regulating CBS.  Do we really want the FCC to have that power to assess what journalism is good, or what opinions each station must air to ensure "fairness"?

In reviewing the many FCC Fairness Doctrine claims that CBS faced in the Cronkite era, we are struck with the amount of time and money that must have been spent in defending its coverage against critics from both the right and the left.  We also found one particularly relevant quote from Mr. Cronkite himself: 

That brings me to what I consider the greatest threat to freedom of information: the Government licensing of broadcasting. Broadcast news today is not free. Because it is operated by an industry that is beholden to the Government for its right to exist, its freedom has been curtailed by fiat, by assumption, and by intimidation and harassment. 

 In the last 20 years, since Mr. Cronkite’s retirement as the CBS anchor, the FCC has steadily moved away from the role that he feared.  Yet with these recent actions, one wonders if there are some in government now trying to prove Mr. Cronkite’s concerns correct.


Continue Reading The Potential for the Return of the Fariness Doctrine and the FCC’s Assessment of the Quality of Broadcast News – What Would Walter Cronkite Think?