Just what are the limits of the FCC’s power?


The lively ad hoc community has been keeping a close eye on the media, particularly since the former FCC Commissioner Michael Powell tried to ram through a package of deregulatory measures during the summer of 2003. And it’s not happy that TV stations in Chicago and Milwaukee were just let off the hook, again, for allegedly shoddy election coverage back in 2004. A study showed a lack of focus on local races, and a lack of substance in general beyond “horse race” type stories.

Ars Technica’s Matthew Lasar wrote, “The FCC’s stance demonstrates, once again, that at present it is difficult, if not impossible to apply public interest pressure to TV stations via the Commission’s license renewal process.”

After detailing the ins and outs of the case, Lazer concluded, “It should be noted that the FCC could have done something short of denying all these licenses. The agency could have put into the files of some of these stations a comment observing the lack of local election coverage and a statement expecting more come the next license renewal date. But instead the Commission has boosted the status quo. When it comes to the renewal process, an FCC broadcast ‘license’ continues to be that in name only. For all practical purposes it is real estate.”

RBR/TVBR observation: It is all well and good for watchdogs to point out what they perceive as failings of particular broadcast outlets. If a broadcast station is not doing as well as it might, put it in the spotlight. It is well and good for FCC commissioners to use their bully pulpits to the same ends. But please, don’t ask the FCC or any other government agency to come up with content guidelines. It cannot be done and should not be attempted, to say nothing of the fact that such an activity runs counter to the philosophical and constitutional underpinnings of our nation in general.

The reason broadcast stations have a license, as we understand it, is not to provide election coverage or any other type of programming. It is because they occupy a very specific home in the electromagnetic spectrum; if that home is not protected and is wide open to all comers, then interference will make it of no use to anybody.

The public interest, as we understand it, is a very loose concept that makes room for a wide variety of programming, at the licensee’s discretion, including such seemingly venal and non-local fare as syndicated home shopping. If a member of the public is tuning in, the station is by definition serving the public interest, whether it ever gets around to the hot political contest in Ward Seven or not.

Putting something in a station’s file strikes us as equivalent to writing something down in some schoolboy’s permanent record. It will just sit there for no reason, since the FCC will have no basis to act, serving no purpose other than to perhaps endanger America’s trees.