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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Across the Spectrum: Broad Interpretations of Serving the Public Interest in Scranton

Published:  July 1, 2010

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.  But when television is bad, nothing is worse.” - Newton Minow 1961, Television and the Public Interest.

In 1961 Newton Minow, then-chairman of the FCC, used those words in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) soon after his appointment to highlight the public interest obligation of broadcasters.

By acquiring spectrum without paying a fee, broadcasters have long held special privileges over others who use the nation’s airwaves. In exchange for spectrum licenses, broadcasters must fulfill certain public interest obligations. While the terms of such obligations have evolved over time, today’s television and radio stations are expected to serve the public interest by providing relevant, timely community service information to their audiences.

In order to maintain their licenses, broadcasters must file quarterly programming reports. The files, which are available to the public, show how the station’s programming has met its public interest obligation. The documents are generated by the television station and are generically referred to as a “Programs and Issues Report” in most locations.

Although these files are public, broadcasters are not required to store them electronically or release them online. Stations keep files at their headquarters and make them available for free viewing and photocopying for a fee to any interested parties who come by the station during regular working hours. Since accessing these files often requires making a visit in person to a TV or radio station, they are not easily available to the vast majority of the public.

Our recent survey of the First Quarter 2010 programs and issues reports filed by five television stations in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre market, the 54th largest television market in the US, indicates that procedures for accessing the public files are inconsistent and costly.  

In all instances the television station -- four commercial and one public -- were compliant of the filing requests. Two even e-mailed a Word or PDF document of the quarterly report immediately and at no cost, while three others required an in-person visit to the station and 25-cents-a-page copies. The reports ranged from one to 108 pages, depending on formatting.

As a sidenote, representatives at the TV stations said they file station reports electronically on children’s programming, as FCC rules mandate.

The most expensive report was the 108-page request from CBS affiliate WYOU, which cost $27. This included detailed information on the 30 hours per week of the national network’s syndicated public affairs and news programs the station aired -- for example, network news, 60 Minutes, Face the Nation and 48 Hours. The report also reflected public service announcements, programs produced by a sister station, and a community calendar.

Despite the length and cost, WYOU’s public interest obligation file hardly suggests that it is significantly increasing the wealth of local public service information available to the community. But did its competitors? Following is a brief description of the Q1 programs and issues files from all five stations, PDF copies of which you can find here on our website:

WNEP, ABC affiliate: 68 pages, $8.50 (copies were double-sided; single-sided would have cost $17). The files indicate when a news report aired, the length of the report, news/information category, and a description. Here’s an example of one 47-second spot, tagged “economy, transportation,” in the report that aired Saturday, Jan. 1, during the 6 p.m. newscast:

“Well known resorts in the Poconos are going through a name change this new year. Some will be dropping the ‘Ceasars’ label. Services and accommodations will remain as they were prior to the name change.”

The station also provided a list of area lifestyle programming, such as four shows that aired Jan. 23, like “Jukebox Classics,” a profile of a jukebox collector from Hawley, PA.

WBRE, NBC affiliate: 9-page “Quarterly Issues Report,” $2.25. Programming is categorized under crime, health, consumer, government, and economy headings. Here’s one story tagged “economy” in the report, from a 5 p.m. newscast on Jan. 22:

“Hiring for Games – Table games coming to Pennsylvania casinos means hundreds of new jobs for viewers in our area. Eyewitness News spoke with Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs and Mount Airy Casino about upcoming job fairs and courses being offered at local colleges to get certified to become a dealer.”

WYOU, CBS affiliate: As mentioned above, WYOU supplied a 108-page “Public Affairs Broadcast Report, Community Calendar, and national network public affairs programming,” $27. WYOU ended its local news broadcast at 11 p.m. on April 3, 2009 to save the station $900,000 a year. The news was replaced with syndicated programming, specifically Judge Joe Brown, Judge Judy and Hollywood Insider. The station has an operating agreement with NBC affiliate WBRE and broadcasts some programs, including Newsmakers, produced by the sister station. According to the public file, the program airs monthly and “is produced locally by WBRE staff members and covers various newsworthy topics from throughout our region.” A Newsmakers segment that aired Jan. 10 at 5:30 a.m. and 11 a.m and again on Jan. 17 at 5:30 a.m. featured coverage of the Mature Driver Task Force, about road safety among the elderly. The station also airs a community calendar and a jobs listing.

WSWB/WOLF/Fox 56/WQMY: These stations are operated by New Age Media, which provided separate, one- to three-page documents for each channel sent in PDF format by email, free of charge. Local station WBRE produces the 10 p.m. news program for Fox-56, which is a one-hour newscast that airs seven days a week. A sample of locally produced programs from the WSWB Issues/Programs List includes High School Sports Show, which airs news and profiles of area athletes at 7 p.m. for 30 minutes, and Buy Local, a program showcasing area small businesses that aired on 13 dates in the first quarter.

Although the station provided three reports upon request electronically at no charge, two of the reports were from past quarters despite a request for Q1. A one-page programs sheet for WOLF programming was for the week of Nov. 16, 2009 (Q4 2009), and it must be noted that the schedule indicated six hours of paid programming and more than 15 hours of syndicated programming on a Monday during that week; the remainder of the week had an almost identical line-up as Monday. A report file for WQMY named “WQMY 1st QUARTER ISSUES” is mislabelled. It is actually a document of the station’s 2nd quarter 2009 programs and issues report.

WVIA, PBS affiliate: Three-page “Programs” report in Word document received by e-mail, free of charge. In the file, the station indicated that it aired two locally produced shows, State of Pennsylvania, a regional news magazine on public issues, and Call the Doctor, a call-in program regarding regional health topics. During the quarter, there were four different episodes of State of Pennsylvania, and four episodes of Call the Doctor. Since the file was electronic, it included embedded links to the station and websites associated with the show’s guests.  

The television stations provided on their website a programming schedule with links to programs; however, program descriptions were not specific and video archives were available through a third-party company for a fee, as was the case for WNEP.

At a March FCC Future of Media workshop, Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project listed six recommendations to improve broadcaster public service accountability. Among them is to “require each radio and television station to demonstrate it has addressed the needs of the community of license, specifically including use of locally produced programming addressing local issues.”

The filing of such reports online would be considerable progress, but for them to be meaningful and permit any sort of comparison, they should be required to be in the proposed Standardized Television Disclosure Form (Form 355) agreed upon in 2008, but not enacted. Broadcasters claim making files available online would be a financial and personnel burden, costing upwards of $18,000. The NAB in formal comments to the FCC has even cited a study from 2000 which suggested (amazingly) that it could cost a single station $292,000 to scan old documents and post the file electronically.

The FCC currently only requires that programs and issues reports be made public within 10 days of the end of the quarter. The 2nd Quarter 2010 files should be available by July 10. Form 355, if used, must be placed in the public file within 30 days of the end of the quarter.

Electronic filing and archiving may require a little extra work at the beginning of a project,  but when it comes time for the Quadrennial Ownership Review, in which the current Programs and Issues Report leaves the FCC commissioning independent reports rather than being able to rely on data that it has already gathered to make decisions. Instead of creating new work, why not collect the quarterly data in a more usable format?

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy recommends that local media initiatives be expanded to reflect the communities they serve. One way local broadcast stations can show the public qualitatively and quantitatively how they use the spectrum we pay for is by consistently providing a meaningful account of their programming available online. Although broadcasters are often commercial entities, they receive special access to a public good--prime swaths of spectrum bandwidth. Therefore, they should be held to the standards of transparency and accountability just as public institutions are, and permitting more meaningful public scrutiny would go a long way in achieving such ends.

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