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FCC Media Report Praises, Critiques Cable

Washington — With a few caveats, the news media are
more vibrant than ever, according to the Federal Communications
Commission’s long-awaited “Future of Media”
report released last week.

The big caveat is that the report said that “accountability”
journalism — shoe-leather reporting on schools and
statehouses, for example — has been one of the casualties
of the disruptive technology of the Internet, which has so
far failed to fill the gap it has helped create.

The report’s executive summary talks only about local
TV stations, newspapers, and Web sites, but the full report
includes cable and has both praise and criticisms for local
and national cable news.

The report concludes that, in most communities, cable
plays a “small role” in reporting local news, and cites the
stat that less than a third of the population has access to a
local all-news cable channel.

But on the national level, cable gets some props for picking
up some of the slack from broadcast network news cutbacks.

“The growth of national cable news networks has helped
make up for some of the reportorial losses broadcast-network
news has suffered,” the report said. And while it concludes
that media is “weaker” at the local level, it singles
out Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems for offering
“excellent” all-news channels, distinguishing them
from other operators it says “view such operations as unprofi
table and unlikely to grow.”

The report gives praise to state public-affairs networks
modeled on C-SPAN and encourages more states to follow
suit, saying they could provide a measure of accountability
in the absence of that shoeleather reporting on state
government. Cable is also noted for providing access to
more international news sources, like BBC and Al-Jazeera

And while broadcasters argue that must-carry rules are
vital, in part, for continuing viewer access to news and
public interest programming, the report argues that the
rules do not address the issue of gaps in local programming
because “cable operators are required to carry the
signals of TV broadcasters — whether or not they provide
local programming.”

The report said that the leased access system has not
worked as Congress intended or produced significant independent
programming and PEG channels had not panned
out in many areas. It suggests the FCC may want to take
steps to make leased access more affordable, pointing out
that FCC currently has an open proceeding on the issue.

“We look forward to reviewing the report and exploring
these important issues with the Commission and other
interested stakeholders,” said National Cable & Telecommunications
Association president Michael Powell last
week. The report was 465 pages, including footnotes, and
even Federal Communications Commission member Robert
McDowell had not read it all by the time of last week’s
meeting briefing the report.

The American Television Alliance, which includes some
NCTA members and has been pushing for retrans reform,
saw the report as providing evidence for its arguments that
broadcaster’s localism claims are more brag than fact.

“According to a report delivered today to the FCC, local
broadcasters ‘do little or no local programming’ and
‘about 30% air no local news,’ “ said ATVA in a statement.
“The new report takes the air out of the broadcasters’ argument
that squeezing more money out of retrans supports
local programming, especially news.”

Actually, the report found that 21% of stations do no local
news, with that “one-third” figure including those who
do less than a half-hour, according Steven Waldman, the
FCC adviser overseeing the report.