The Senate Commerce Committee‘s Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband Wednesday (Oct. 6) took up a bill that would force Fox to program WWOR, licensed to Secaucus, New Jersey, but serving the New York City market, more to committee Democrats‘ liking in terms of local news and other programming aimed at the Garden State.
That word came in a legislative hearing considering a host of bills, a process Republicans said had come without sufficient vetting of the individual bills in separate hearings.
It is possible the bill could be appended to an end-of-year, must-pass funding package.
HR 4208, the ‘‘Section 331 Obligation 5 Clarification Act,’’ would generally "clarify" the obligations of Sec. 331 of the Communications Act, which is the directive to the FCC to ensure that, if feasible, it allocate at least one commercial VHF TV station in each state.
The bill's “clarification” would be that such a station — the bill is targeted at WWOR in particular — “broadcast local news, consult with local leaders, and make it easier for the public to participate in the license renewal process.” It would also add UHF station to the mandate, since those are now the stronger signals after the transition to digital.
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The bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Bill Pascrell and Rep. Albo Sires (both New Jersey Democrats). A Senate version is backed by New Jersey Senate Democrats Cory Booker and Bob Menendez.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee described the legislation as a bill "to address the lack of local television programming for New Jersey residents."
Fox had owned the station under a series of temporary waivers since 2001 (the most recent in December 2020 so that it could own both WWOR and WNYW, as well as The New York Post. Fox already had a permanent waiver to own the paper and WNYW but had only gotten temporary waivers for the WWOR-New York Post cross-ownership, over opposition by various groups that said the station was New York-focused rather than serving the needs of the residents of the state — New Jersey — to which it was licensed.
The waivers have since been mooted by the Supreme Court's decision upholding the FCC's elimination of the newspaper/broadcast crossownership rule.
The bill's practical effect would be to change the law to force WWOR to broadcast at least 14 hours of local programming per week, seven of which have to be between 6 p.m. and midnight. It would also have to maintain a broadcast studio in the community of license, file local programming disclosures with the FCC, including how the programming satisfies the local requirement, and consult with community leaders about what that programming should be. The law would apply ex post facto to WWOR, so the FCC could require it to do all those things.
Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, called the bill “another attempt by Democrats to disregard the First Amendment, this time telling broadcast stations what type of news programming to distribute.”
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) said it was no surprise that the bill was targeted at a Fox station and said the bill seemed like another effort by the Democrats to “counter news programming they simply don‘t like.”
Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
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