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Putting the Public Back into Public Interest Broadcasting

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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 Hall meetings.

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 along side 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."

It's time to give that tiger some teeth.

Sue Wilson is the director of Public Interest Pictures' media reform documentary, Broadcast Blues.