The FCC's long-awaited report on the information needs of communities (465 pages including footnotes, said one commissioner) was released Thursday with a mix of praise and criticism for local TV station news, but a number of recommendations that should sit well with broadcasters.
Those include that the FCC should terminate its localism proceeding, replace enhanced disclosure of TV station's public service programming with a more streamlined, online version, and encouraging the government to move its billion dollars of mostly national advertising buys to local media like TV stations.
More broadly, the report finds a generally vibrant media landscape with a troubling gap in providing community news about schools and local government that has yet to be filled by the disruptive explosion of web news content.
The report does not have any enforceable provisions, but is instead meant to inform the FCC's decision-making, including on media ownership and other regulations. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski associated himself with the report and the caution it expressed about the limited role of government in the journalism space. He said he preferred its recommendations to ones that involve a "heavier government hand" in areas of speech and content.
On the positive side of the ledger for TV stations news operations, Steven Waldman, who headed up the report, said local TV news is still the most important local media source, and has become more productive -- though with leaner staffs -- through the web and mobile apps and multicasting and user-generated content.
On the other side, Waldman pointed out in his report briefing at the FCC's open meeting Thursday that 21% of TV stations don't do any local news and pay for play news elements, including charging guests to appear on programs, is a serious problem, though he said the evidence was "mixed" on whether it was a growing trend. The report suggests better disclosure of pay for play, which is not illegal. The report recommends that stations be required to put those disclosures online including on-air.
Commissioner Michael Copps, who was critical of the report, said he would continue to push for enhanced disclosure and localism and called for commission hearings on the issues. "These issues mean a lot to me because I believe they mean a lot to our country. I have been outspoken about them-and sometimes blunt, I know. I intend to keep speaking out on them in the months and, if needed, the years ahead...I cannot and will not leave these issues where they are," he said.
"I hope [the report] will shine a strong and urgent light on the state of local media," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
Commissioner Robert McDowell emphasized that the report is only that, with no binding force. He said any FCC regulation changes would come only after they had been proposed and commented on and voted on.
"Government should keep its heavy hand off journalism," said McDowell, pointing out by way of full disclosure that both his parents were journalists.
McDowell supported the report's conclusion that the enhanced disclosure regime be scrapped. He cast the only dissenting vote in the 2007 proceeding establishing it. He also backed closing the localism proceeding without action on the proposals to create community advisory boards and 24-hour manning of stations, saying they are overly bureaucratic, unworkable and unnecessary as well as unneeded and burdensome.
McDowell added a recommendation of his own. He said the commission should consider eliminating its newspaper/cross-ownership ban, saying it had the unintended consequence of reducing the number of voices. "But keep in mind that the FCC hasn't done anything today," he re-emphasized, to laughter from the room.
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