Broadcasters are licensed to serve the
public interest. If a radio or TV station does not serve
the public interest, the FCC can take its license to broadcast away,
and give the opportunity to make millions using the public airwaves
to someone else.
Yes, we the people do have some power
over what is broadcast in our own communities, at least in theory.
But in fact, as shown in my film, Public Interest Pictures' Broadcast
Blues, petitions to deny stations' licenses languish for years,
and the FCC has no record of the last time any station's license has
been pulled. Even the case of a TV station that a court ruled
deliberately distorted the news didn't meet the FCC threshold of not
"serving the public interest."
It used to be that stations had to prove
they were serving the public interest every three years; now they
just send in a postcard to get rubberstamp approval every eight years.
It used to be that stations had to produce hours of local community
programming to satisfy their license requirements; now, most claim
they serve the public by producing local news. And local TV news
is key: Pew reports 68% of people say local TV news is their primary
news source. So is local TV news serving the public interest?
Today's USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center
report entitled "LOCAL
TV NEWS IN THE LOS ANGELES MEDIA MARKET:
Are Stations Serving the Public Interest?" co authored by Center Director Martin
Kaplan, PhD and Seton Hall's Matthew Hale, PhD, quantifies the answer.
The big news from the report is that only about half of the news is
news at all. Of a typical local news half hour, just 15 minutes
44 seconds deal with real news (the remainder of time is made up of
teases for other programs, advertisements, and sports and weather.)
And roughly half of that is not local news.
The report documents what most of us
intuitively know: if it bleeds it leads. One in three lead stories
involve crime: common crime, celebrity crime, crime in Los Angeles,
or crime anywhere else. Crime stories fill an average of 2 minutes
50 seconds in a given newscast. Oddball stories at 2:26 and entertainment
at 2:02 are a close second and third.
Stories that actually inform the local
community about issues of civic importance add up to just four minutes
daily; local government
coverage including budget, law enforcement, education, layoffs,
new ordinances, voting procedures, personnel changes, city and county
government actions on health care, transportation and immigration
get a whopping 22 seconds.
So. Back to the public interest.
Certainly people enjoy stories about
sports, about entertainment, about the guy who gets stuck in a washing
machine. Yet hours of profit making programming already cover
those topics. Those kinds of stories are quick and cheap and
easy to produce, as opposed to sending a reporter to sort through City
But if TV news doesn't tell us what we
really need to know about what's happening at City Hall, who will?
The study also compares TV news to LA Times coverage; the Times comes
out better, but not much better. But there is a big difference:
anybody can start a newspaper. Yes, you may need more money than
God, but by God, you can do it. Nobody can just start
a new TV station; the frequencies, even in this digital age, are
scarce, and the FCC has already licensed their use to others.
You might be able to buy one of the stations if you're rich and lucky,
but there is zero opportunity to start one anew.
That's why it is so important that these
stations, which in 2002 were profiting as much as 46% according to the FCC, put some of that profit back into serving the
community. Local groups understand that, and came out in force
today to support the findings of the study. Says California Common
Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng, "Our city is on the brink of
bankruptcy, social services are being watered down, but we receive so
little coverage from local TV stations," "The concentration of
ownership of local television stations has resulted in a massive failure
of local TV being responsive to the needs of the communities they are
supposed to serve," says Tapia Martinez-Russ, co-founder of the Los
Angeles Media Reform Group.
"There is serious cause for concern
here," says Manatt, Phelps & Phillips attorney George
Kieffer, a member of the Los Angeles Civic Alliance.
Kieffer says that he expects the civic community now to begin to weigh
in on license renewals based on the degree of local hard news coverage.
That means people filing petitions
to deny or revoke stations' licenses. These petitions represent
the only means the public has to hold local stations accountable to
the public interest. The FCC has ignored them for too long.
But these local groups have a big
ally; FCC Commissioner Michael Copps stood alongside the report's
authors in L.A. to lend his support. Copps, long a hero of media
reform advocates says the FCC
license renewal process is today "a paper tiger." Copps says "every
time a media company comes in to renew a license, it should have to
prove it is serving the public interest."