FCC Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker recently delivered a speech in Washington, DC, where she addressed calls for the government to take action to assist the traditional media deal with the economic issues brought about by the new media.  From time to time, there have been calls for the government to assist the traditional media, either through some sort of direct subsidies, or through regulatory changes that could assist in their news coverage to make these entities competitive in the new media world.  While the Commissioner’s speech did not detail those efforts, calls have, for the most part, not suggested direct government subsidies to support traditional news media sources.  Instead, more indirect efforts have been suggested to insure that these media sources continue to serve their communities.  Calls have been made to change tax laws to allow newspapers to operate as nonprofit entities (while still soliciting advertising).  In a draft FTC option paper, there was a suggestion of taxing commercial media to provide more support to noncommercial public broadcasting entities.  Other proposals have been more direct – simply mandating more news and public affairs programming from broadcasters (with little or no discussion of the source of the revenues for such mandates).  In her speech, the Commissioner noted that some suggestions may be forthcoming from the FCC’s own Future of Media report due at the end of the year (see our summary of the issues that they are exploring here), but she seemed to rule out these types of proposals, instead suggesting that the Commission could assist companies meet the new media challenge by loosening FCC restrictions on ownership.

The Commissioner suggested that no government action to bail out the media is necessary to preserve service to the public – citing the many examples of how that service is provided through new media sites that serve all sorts of communities and community groups – providing timely and detailed information on specific topics, often on a neighborhood level.  We have made that same point on these pages – the new media is already filling any void that may exist in local media coverage.  Some of these sites are produced by old media companies – as TV stations, newspapers and others develop microsites targeted to very local needs and interests.  Other sites are totally independent – developed by local interest groups or new media entrepreneurs.  So how can the Commission help these sites to develop?


Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Baker Suggests No Government Support for Media, But Possible Relaxation of Broadcast Ownership Rules

The FCC Form 355 requiring "enhanced disclosure" by television stations was a frequent topic of discussion at this week’s NAB Convention in Las Vegas.  That form will require that television broadcasters report significant, detailed information about their programming, providing very detailed reports of the percentage of programming that they devote to news, public affairs, election programming, local programming, PSAs, independently produced programs and various other program categories, as well as specifics of each program that fits into these categories (see our detailed description of the requirements here).  Obviously, all broadcasters were concerned about how they would deal with the expense and time necessary to complete the forms, and the potential for complaints about the programming that such reports will generate.  At legal sessions by the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law and the Federal Communications Bar Association, held in connection with the NAB Convention, it became very clear to me that the obligations imposed by these new rules are obligations adopted for absolutely no reason, as the Commission has not adopted any rules mandating specific amounts of the types of programming reported on the form.  In fact, one of the Commissioner’s legal assistants confirmed that, unless and until the FCC adopts such specific programming requirements, the Commission’s staff will not need to spend any time processing these forms.  Thus, if the form goes into effect, broadcasters will be forced to keep these records, and expend significant amounts of staff time and station resources necessary to complete the forms, for essentially no purpose.

Of course, public interest advocates will argue that the forms will allow the Commission to assess the station’s operation in the public interest, and will allow the public to complain about failures of stations to serve local needs.  But, as in a recent license renewal case we wrote about here, the Commission rejected a Petition to Deny against a station based on its alleged failure to do much local public affairs programming as, without specific quantitative program requirements, the Commission cannot punish a station for not doing specific amounts of particular programming. If the Commission adheres to this precedent, it will not be able to fine stations for the information that they put on the Form 355, but only for not filing it or not completing it accurately.  Thus, unless the Commission adopts specific programming requirements, the form will be nothing more than a paperwork trap for the unwary or overburdened broadcaster.  And, as is usually the case with such obligations, the burden will fall hardest on the small broadcaster who does not the staff and resources to devote to otherwise unnecessary paperwork.


Continue Reading FCC Form 355 – A Form Without a Reason?