Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article on its Opinion/Editorial page written by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, suggesting that enforcement of the public interest obligations of broadcaster become more stringent. Commissioner Copps suggested that broadcasters needed to have their responsiveness to the needs of their community scrutinized more closely, and more often. Among other actions, the Commissioner suggested that license renewal period for broadcasters be shortened from the current eight year term, to once every three years – as well as a host of more stringent and specific programming obligations. Coming on the heels of the FCC’s proposal in the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Digital Radio (see our summary, here) to explore the local service of broadcasters through a checklist public file report quantifying their public interest service, as well as mandating more local program origination and a greater local presence for stations, local service seems to have emerged as a major issue of concern that may be played out in FCC proceedings in this year leading up to the 2008 Presidential election.
The Copps proposal to shorten license renewal terms back to the three years, and to stiffen the renewal process, asks that the FCC return to a system that required broadcasters to spend significant sums of money on administrative matters that could have better gone to broadcast operations. And the sums that used to be spent on license renewal applications had minimal real impact on the public interest. While from time to time, broadcasters did run into scrutiny at renewal time, the vast majority of broadcasters’ applications were reviewed in a perfunctory manner and renewed – just as they are today. And with the Commission’s depleted resources that are already stretched thin, it seems unlikely that its staff would be able to provide much greater scrutiny to renewal applications that are filed more than twice as often as they are currently – more than doubling the workload of the already overburdened Commission staff.