Higher quality television programming, diverse viewpoints and local news coverage could rapidly diminish if government officials and broadcasters do not take the obligation to serve the public interest seriously.
The federal government, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grants licenses for defined periods of time to TV and radio broadcasters, in return for which the broadcasters must provide broadcast programming that serves the "public interest." Since its creation as a regulatory agency in 1934, the FCC has had the responsibility for defining the "public interest" and ensuring that broadcasters meet their obligations. Many media experts argue that lax FCC oversight and enforcement has created an environment where broadcasters are not truly meeting their responsibility to serve the public interest.
Defining the Public Interest
Through a combination of legal, regulatory and legislative actions, the public interest currently protects:
- Diverse points of view
- Local community interests
- Political candidates who wish to have their advertisements broadcast
- Children's programming and commercials on this programming
- Parents' rights to control programming aimed at their children through a voluntary ratings system and the installation of V-chips in televisions
- Accessibility for people with disabilities through closed captioning and other methods
- Equal employment, requiring broadcasters and cable companies to demonstrate that they hire employees from the diverse communities they serve
The public interest has generally been defined to include "localism" – covering local events, issues, and elections to ensure the existence of a robust civic dialogue – providing diverse points of view on issues, as well as ensuring the availability and quality of coverage to all viewers in their local area. But the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, found in a study of public interest requirements (PDF) that the FCC requires less of broadcasters who use our public airwaves than ever before.
Groups Supporting Public Interest
Because they operate using radio frequencies owned by the public, at the end of their license terms, TV and radio broadcasters must file applications with the FCC for the renewal of their licenses that demonstrate they have served the public interest in operating their stations. Their audience – the public – has the right to participate in renewal proceedings. Only in relatively rare cases have stations lost their licenses for failure to serve the public interest; such cases have involved very serious FCC rule violations. The FCC has tended to enforce rules through imposing fines on broadcasters, like the fines on stations that air obscene material.
But the FCC has not revoked a license — the strongest tool it has to punish station operators who neglect the public interest — in many years. The Office of Communications of the United Church of Christ and the Center for Digital Democracy recently filed license renewal challenges of two Washington, DC area stations for failing to uphold FCC standards on educational television.
In addition, Free Press launched SinclairWatch to respond to the attempt by Sinclair Broadcasting Group to air programming that many believe unfairly portrays the Vietnam service record of former presidential candidate John Kerry. This web site provides the opportunity to protest license renewals for Sinclair's owned or operated stations around the country. And Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America released a survey about Sinclair that reiterated that a majority of the public believed Sinclair should air both sides of this issue.
Public interest groups like the Common Cause, Alliance for Better Campaigns and other members of the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition are leading the charge to ensure coverage of important election events on broadcast television because broadcasters use public resources.
Diverse Programming and Other Social Values in Jeopardy
Public interest obligations once included FCC rules protecting independent content producers (i.e., the company that makes the program you watch on a network). These financial-interest and syndication rules, or fin-syn, were overturned by courts in the mid-90s. Advocates like the Center for Creative Voices in Media argue that diversity decreases when media conglomerates own not only the programs and shows on a network, but also the very network itself. Learn more about programming consolidation issues in the Media Ownership section of HearUsNow.org.
Other public interest obligations have been designed to protect other social values over the years such as ensuring that each week broadcasters devote three hours a week to children's educational programming and giving equal time to political candidates. A 2003 study on campaigns from the Alliance for Better Campaigns examined 45 local TV stations and found that in 7,560 hours of programming over one week, only 13 hours were devoted to local public affairs shows examining issues of governance or politics, less than one half of one percent.
Hearings on the Public Interest
When the media ownership rules were considered by the FCC, the Senate Commerce Committee, in its oversight authority, held several hearings relevant to the issue of the public interest obligations of broadcasters. The Public Interest and Localism hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee included statements from Senate Committee Chairman John McCain, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, Dean Martin Kaplan of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and Brent Bozell, President of Parents Television Council.
When the transition to digital television, is complete, space on the airwaves will become available for potentially new uses by consumers. Consumers Union, Free Press, Media Access Project and New America Foundation want the public to have the right to use these airwaves for public and non-commerical purposes.
Learn more how public interest requirements might change for digital television. Then Get Involved and protect the public interest.