Broadcasters need to serve the public, says FCC Chairman

Celia Wexler, Common Cause’s vice president for advocacy, is attending the NAB conference in Las Vegas and filed this story Tuesday, April 20.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell today said that discussions at the FCC concerning localism in broadcasting and the government’s role to promote localism were “healthy.” He also said that he was “not averse to the Commission’s considering new public interest obligations” for broadcasters as they make the transition to digital television. ABC journalist Sam Donaldson interviewed Powell at the FCC Chairman’s Breakfast at the Las Vegas Hilton during the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

However, the Chairman did not state specifically how he thought broadcasters ought to serve the public, and he made clear that “my personal view is that government should be reluctant to regulate content for anybody.” The Founding Fathers, he noted, were most concerned about using the power of government to promote certain viewpoints.

Powell was not asked about whether the FCC ought to approve broadcaster’s demands that cable systems carry all their new digital programming, the “multi-cast must-carry” rule. Nevertheless, Powell did express some pique over NAB President Edward Fritts’ rhetoric urging that the “digital dam” be broken so that information could flow freely. Powel said it is ironic that broadcasters are asking for a free flow of information by increased government regulation.

And he made clear that if broadcasters wanted special treatment from government that broadcasters also bore special “burdens” to serve the public. How broadcasters serve the public in the future depends in large part, Powell said, on technology, which is quickly evolving. Broadcasting used to be the mass media, the idea of viewers together “sharing in something.” But the Internet and evolving technologies customize “news and information experiences,” he said. “We’re moving to a highly personalized experience, for better or worse.”

“Individual content is the ultimate diversity,” Powell said, but added: “Isn’t something lost?”

Broadcasters in this new era must continue to find “whatever is relevant to [local] communities.” And the role of broadcasters is to continue to be a “locally focused industry” with their fingers on the pulse of the people who are their audiences.

Whether broadcast licensees remain entitled to “free and exclusive” access to the airwaves, Powell said, will depend on whether they can demonstrate that their service to the community is unique and not matched by other competitors.

“A lot of people want your stuff, [access to the broadcast spectrum], ” Powell said.

He added that the FCC was serious about devising a plan and a formula for broadcasters to return their analogue spectrum within the foreseeable future. Every presidential budget “I’ve seen calls for a date certain and [broadcast] fees” for the transition to digital television, Powell said.

A majority of Donaldson’s questions to Powell focused on the indecency issue.

Powell made clear that the FCC intended to seriously enforce indecency violations, moving “more forcefully and more swiftly.” The aggressiveness of that enforcement, he said, has been prompted in part by the huge increase in public complaints – this year totaling more than 500,000, a more than 20-fold increase compared to 2002.

Asked if the FCC then was caving in to public pressure, Powell smiled and said: No, it was merely being responsive to public concerns.

He also made clear that broadcasters are responsible for the furor that is happening on the indecency front. Powell said some broadcast executives made the decisions around the Superbowl halftime show featuring Janet Jackson, which was aired in primetime when large numbers of children were watching. Similar decisions to push the envelope will have consequences, Powell said.

Asked if he would endorse a family hour for television, Powell responded: “It’s your station, and you can exercise editorial control. I would support it if it was done voluntarily by the industry.”

Asked if affiliates needed the FCC’s help in ensuring that they could reject programming offered by their networks, Powell said that the “right [of affiliates] to reject is already the law.” The local broadcaster, he added, has a “duty and obligation” to reject programming inappropriate for his community. But Powell said he did not want to have the FCC intervene in specific contracts between the networks and affiliates. “I don’t like to use government to leverage contract negotiations,” Powell said.

Powell also had one last word on the public outrage over the FCC’s June 2 media consolidation rules. “You can e-mail me, you can spam me with complaints, you can run up the numbers on any issue,” he said. “You get an advocacy group, and that group will have their members write.”

He noted that it is reported over and over again that two million people contacted the FCC on the media ownership issue. But what does not get reported is that three-quarters of that number were NRA postcards, he said. “People who have other views are less motivated” to contact the FCC, he observed. The people who are “perfectly happy with what they are getting” do not have as loud of a voice as those unhappy with the FCC’s June 2 vote.

See More: Media & Democracy