FCC Commissioner: Broadcast localism a remnant of yesteryear

Robert McDowell Contributor
Font Size:

As the new year opens, Washington policymakers are spending much of their brainpower trying to see well beyond 2010 in order to understand how proposed regulations might shape America’s future.  For example, my own agency–the Federal Communications Commission–confronts momentous opportunities for prognostication as it grapples with whether it can, or should, regulate the Internet and how it can foster more growth of the broadband facilities upon which that marvelously transformative medium depends.  The stakes are high.

I don’t need soothsaying skills, however, when it comes to broadcast regulation.  In that arena, we often aren’t talking about the future, or even the present–instead, we keep talking about the past.  And so, as the FCC undertakes a new review of its broadcast ownership rules this year, I expect to hear renewed calls for reimposing various “localism” rules on TV and radio stations.  It remains to be seen whether we will hear any new and logical justifications for resurrecting an outmoded regulatory construct.

The term localism refers generally to the fact that broadcast stations are licensed to serve individual communities in exchange for serving the needs and interests of the people in those locales.  The basic concept makes sense.  In fact, localism as a business imperative is more compelling in today’s fragmented media marketplace than ever before.  Four decades ago, when I was a child, local broadcast stations were far fewer in number.  No other electronic media existed.  These days, my children have access to a vast array of media options:  several additional local broadcast stations, hundreds more cable and satellite channels, and virtually innumerable choices among audio, video and text content on the Internet.  For local broadcasters to survive in this environment, they have to differentiate themselves from the pack.  The smart ones are doing just that by offering local news and other locally oriented programming that generates interest and loyalty among their viewers and listeners.

But some proponents of regulation don’t believe that business survival alone is sufficient to ensure that broadcast stations serve their communities.  They want mandates that would, directly or indirectly, require broadcasters to air the government’s idea of the kind of programming a local audience should want or need.  Broadcast rules like that were in place 40 years ago.  Those regulations required stations to engage in formal, documented “ascertainment” studies to survey community needs and to provide detailed summations, reflecting government-determined content categories, of the programming they aired.  Yet by the late 1970s, the FCC started to rethink such proscriptive dictates–and by the 1980s, the growth of cable television and the addition of new broadcast stations to the airwaves convinced the Commission that it could rely on marketplace forces, rather than regulatory commands, to foster the delivery of programming that consumers valued.

Contentious broadcast ownership proceedings over the last several years, however, have offered new hope to fans of the old localism regulatory scheme.  Since 2007, the FCC has been contemplating several proposals for more stringent rules.  One would require stations to convene government-supervised community advisory boards to help ascertain the local audience’s programming needs and desires (and perhaps influence broadcasters’ editorial decision-making).  Another proposal calls for shortened license terms coupled with “processing guidelines” for review of renewal applications, such as minimum percentages of time to ensure that stations air a proscribed amount of locally oriented programming.

In addition, the Commission already has adopted (over my objection) a new, highly complex “Enhanced Disclosure” form for TV stations–a form that is so onerous that it has been hung up for months at the Office of Management and Budget over arguments that it violates government paperwork-reduction laws.  Some have even estimated that the Enhanced Disclosure form would require each broadcaster to hire up to two more employees to do nothing all day but fill it out.  Radio licensees should be grateful that the TV folks were in the cross-hairs on the form first, but they might not be left alone for long.  Whatever final guise it may take, the form is likely to become a main weapon in challenges to future license renewals.

In the meantime, all of us should be asking why the Commission needs to devote scarce time and resources to reviving any old localism rules at all.  Broadcasters today face a level of competition for audiences that was unimaginable 40, 20 or even 10 years ago.  They must adapt to meet the needs and desires of their communities if they want to stay alive.

Although it’s hard to predict precisely what broadcasters’ 21st Century future may be, I am confident that stations will never again have the kind of media clout that they allegedly had in their 20th Century past.  The Internet alone makes a mockery of the notion broadcasters have power to act as “gatekeepers” to wield “bottleneck control” over news, information or entertainment programming.  That old notion is the premise upon which the original localism rules stood, but a fondness for history is not a good enough reason to steer the FCC’s rules back in time – and in the wrong direction.

Robert M. McDowell is a Federal Communications Commissioner.