Despite laws saying the public airwaves must serve the public interest, they are used for private profiteering and little else.
Mail-order TV licensing
Mail in a postcard, get a license to print money. No strings attached. Sweet deal, if you can get it.
Welcome to the world of broadcast television in the United States.
The real kick in the groin is that it is all being done on public property.
In case anyone needs reminding, the broadcast airwaves do not belong to Disney or General Electric or Rupert Murdoch. They are public property.
Yet Disney and GE and Murdoch get to use them free of charge. Not surprisingly, TV stations in America typically have profit margins between 30 percent and 50 percent.
The deal was supposed to be that broadcasters would get free licenses to operate on the public airwaves in exchange for their commitment to serve the public interest. The Federal Communications Commission used to take this deal seriously, monitoring compliance with the public interest obligation, enforcing the Fairness Doctrine and seriously reviewing applications for license renewal. Stations had to show how their programming served the public interest to stay in business.
Today, the Fairness Doctrine is gone. So is any serious effort to hold broadcasters accountable for serving the public. The license renewal process has degenerated to the point where broadcasters now mail in a postcard requesting renewal and the FCC rubber stamps these "applications" without any meaningful review of broadcaster performance.
Because of the FCC's dismal recent track record, a coalition of groups and Milwaukee-area residents led by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign decided it is time to fight back. We have filed a petition with the FCC challenging the renewal of all commercial television licenses in the Milwaukee market.
We picked Milwaukee not only because it is Wisconsin's largest television market, but also because it is one of the most striking examples to be found anywhere in the nation of the social and civic costs of media corporatization and consolidation.
The basis of our coalition's petition is a market-wide failure of local stations in Wisconsin's largest TV market to serve the public interest as documented by a national study showing a minuscule portion of local newscasts were devoted to covering state and local election campaigns.
Saying that coverage of state and local election campaigns was minuscule is really saying something considering how little time Milwaukee stations spent covering any election-related topic. The Democracy Campaign teamed up with the national Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) on a study showing that overall election coverage accounted for only 5 percent of the total air time devoted to news by the five highest-rated Milwaukee TV stations in the four weeks prior to the 2004 general election.
In the month leading up to a critically important election, campaign coverage still took a back seat to crime, accidents, storms, sports and celebrities on Milwaukee TV. What little election coverage the local stations offered focused overwhelmingly on the presidential race, even though viewers could easily find coverage of that contest on the national networks and in other national media.
Local TV stations are licensed to serve specific geographic areas and are supposed to provide local news and information--including election coverage--that meets the needs of the local communities that rely on them. Milwaukee-area viewers did not need their local stations to cover Bush and Kerry. They needed their local stations to inform them of state and local issues and races. Their local stations failed them.
A Milwaukee school board member who was a candidate for a state senate seat in 2004 filed an affidavit supporting our license challenge petition saying she knocked on thousands of doors during her campaign and found most voters were completely unaware there was a contested race for state senate. They didn't know because no one told them.
Localism is supposed to be one of the FCC's three tests of whether a station is acting in the public interest (along with diversity and competition). Milwaukee stations failed the localism test miserably by devoting 74 percent of their meager election coverage in the month leading up to the 2004 general election to the presidential race. Less than 2 percent of total election coverage by Milwaukee stations focused on state-level elections and local races in southeastern Wisconsin.
The root cause of this abandonment of localism in local broadcasting is the growing consolidation of media ownership. And Milwaukee is nothing if not a poster child for media consolidation.
One of Milwaukee's top-rated TV stations is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a politically conservative national chain that is one of the largest television conglomerates in the nation. Sinclair has pioneered centrally produced faux local news. Another top Milwaukee station is owned by Fox Television Stations, Inc., part of the Rupert Murdoch global news and entertainment empire known as News Corporation. And, of course, Journal Communications owns not only the top-rated TV station in the market but also the top radio station, Milwaukee's only daily newspaper and most of the community weekly newspapers as well.
The extent to which citizen education is being sacrificed to feed these corporate masters' appetites for profits is evident in the allergic reaction Milwaukee TV has to political issues. We found less than a quarter of the few campaign-related stories in the lead-up to the 2004 election focused on issues, while nearly half dwelled on campaign strategy or “horse race” coverage. Even when the Milwaukee stations did turn their attention to elections, they primarily told their viewers who was likely to win, while offering next to nothing in the way of information viewers could use to make up their own minds.
In light of the TV stations' pitiful performance and the FCC's pitiful oversight of the industry, we decided it was time to take a stand. As the lead attorney representing us before the FCC, Media Access Project President Andrew Jay Schwartzman said, "It is impossible to find that Milwaukee...stations have fulfilled their public interest obligations singly, or taken together."
We mount our license challenge with our eyes wide open, however. Do we expect the FCC to revoke licenses? No, we do not. Our petition aims to throw a monkey wrench into the mail-order TV licensing process. That is just the first step in what has to be a very long journey toward re-establishing broadcaster accountability and creating standards to measure whether stations are using the public airwaves in a manner that serves the public interest, as federal law requires. Today, there are no standards and no accountability.
November 10, 2005
post a letter about this article »
read letters on this article (0)
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.