Published in the February 2006 issue of Z Magazine.
"The media business, they used to say, was a license to print money,” wrote the TV trade journal Broadcasting & Cable in 2001. As media mogul Barry Diller put it: “The only way you can lose money in broadcasting is if somebody steals it from you.”
Why? Broadcast licenses for television grant exclusive control over the airwaves to their holders. The original rationale for this was that the scarcity of broadcast spectrum required that access to it be strictly regulated. A government-appointed referee, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), awarded licenses to those parties deemed most able to serve “the public interest, convenience and necessity.” If they didn’t fulfill their duties, the FCC could revoke a license and award it to another party that might better serve the public.
But the FCC’s practice in this regard has been dismal to say the least. Though licensed broadcasters have been required to operate in the public interest since the early days of radio, for decades the industry-friendly FCC did little or nothing to penalize stations for ignoring their public service obligations. Indeed, not once since the FCC’s founding in 1934 has the Commission revoked a single license of its own accord.
The upsurge of media activism nationwide in recent years has brought with it increased efforts to bring a measure of accountability to broadcast licenses and the media conglomerates that hold them
The Fight for “Standing”
Stations must renew their licenses every eight years, at which time citizens can file objections with the FCC. The public didn’t always have the right to weigh in on the performance of TV stations. For the first 30 years of its existence, the FCC saw itself as the sole and sufficient representative of the U.S. public in the broadcast licensing process. It didn’t permit citizens to intervene in license renewal proceedings until forced to by federal judges in 1969.
During the 1960s TV increasingly became the target of criticism from across the political spectrum. In 1961 Newton Minow, then FCC chair, famously decried TV as a “vast wasteland” before the broadcasters’ main lobbyist, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). In 1962 the Commission conducted an inquiry into the lack of local programming on Chicago-area stations, taking testimony from a range of area unions, community organizations, and church groups. Though the hearings led to no policy changes, they reaffirmed the neglected requirement that broadcasters carry programming that reflects community concerns.
The turning point in the struggle for greater public participation in broadcast licensing came two years later. In 1964 the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) Office of Communication, in partnership with the NAACP, contested the license of WLBT, a Jackson, Mississippi TV station with ties to the segregationist white Citizen’s Council. The UCC’s petition cited WLBT’s slanted coverage of the civil rights movement and its neglect of the African American community in Jackson as evidence that the station had violated its public interest mandate. They demanded that the UCC and its petitioners be heard in the license renewal process.
Predictably, the FCC rejected the UCC’s petition. However, Everett Parker of the UCC’s Office of Communication appealed the FCC’s decision and, in 1966, won the right to be heard in license renewal proceedings. The legal battle over WLBT dragged on until 1969 when the U.S. Court of Appeals finally ordered the FCC to vacate the station’s license. (In 1983, the station was permanently licensed to a majority-black ownership group.)
The UCC’s victory paved the way for an upsurge of media activism aimed at holding broadcasters accountable to the public. Throughout the 1970s, progressive advocacy groups successfully used license renewal objections to pressure stations to hire more women and people of color and to be more socially responsible in their programming and news reporting. For example, in 1972 the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) filed a “petition to deny,” charging WABC-TV with sex discrimination in employment and programming. Though the petition was ultimately rejected, NOW’s challenge (and the subsequent negotiations with the network) was credited with helping expand the number of women employed in the TV industry and with ultimately changing programming for the better.
While the 1980s saw the number of license renewal challenges dwindle, the growth of media activism in the past few years has seen an upsurge in use of the tactic. In 2004 the national media activist group Free Press asked the FCC not to re-license eight TV stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting in North and South Carolina. The Baltimore-based TV chain, which operates 62 stations in 39 markets, became notorious for gutting its local news programs and preventing its ABC affiliates from showing an episode of “Nightline” reciting the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. The company also ordered its stations to air the anti-Kerry film Stolen Honor during the closing weeks of the presidential campaign (though it relented under tremendous public outcry). Free Press’s brief cited these egregious abuses of power in demanding that the Commission “look into the full scope and gravity” of Sinclair’s behavior.
Also in 2004 the United Church of Christ launched license challenges against NBC and CBS affiliates in Miami, Florida, after the networks refused to carry one of the church’s commercials. The 30-second spot promoted the UCC’s acceptance of all races, classes, ages, and sexual orientations, but was rejected by network executives as “too controversial.”
In Michigan the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) has monitored the local Fox, ABC, and NBC affiliates from 1998 through 2005. GRIID’s web page for a time featured the slogan: “We’re watching the news. We’ll let you know if we find any.” GRIID analyzed their data in partnership with educators, local politicians, women’s rights groups, labor unions, and communities of color to show how local media covered (or didn’t cover) key issues relevant to these groups. With those communities as a base of support, GRIID held a hearing at which more than 30 people testified as part of a series of license challenges.
On November 1, 2005 attorneys for the Media Access Project, a DC-based public interest law firm, filed two license challenges in Illinois and Wisconsin. The target was unprecedented: all of the major commercial TV stations in Milwaukee and Chicago. The challenges were filed on behalf of three local and national groups—the Campaign Legal Center, the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition, and Chicago Media Action. The petitions charged that the stations had fallen short of their obligations to serve the public interest by failing to provide adequate coverage of local and state elections during the 2004 campaign.
The trend continues. A Chicago-area progressive newspaper and website named Third Coast Press submitted a “petition to deny” of its own — one that challenged the licenses of the city’s commercial television stations as well as of the city’s PBS affiliates, on the grounds they consistently failed to report issues of concern to people of color and that they marginalized anti-war activists in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
A media activist group in Minneapolis, the Counter-Propaganda Coalition, has announced plans to challenge a number of incumbent Minnesota TV broadcast licenses in 2006. At this writing, they are in the midst of assembling a community coalition and are reaching out to labor, the anti-war movement, communities of color, and Green Party activists. “We fear that license renewal has become a rubber stamp,” explained CPC member John Slade. “We’re afraid that what was supposed to be a democratic process has become a hollow shell and that these challenges will show Minneapolis-St. Paul how far we’ve fallen.”
Though the likelihood of the FCC revoking any of the contested licenses is small, the burgeoning media reform movement is using the license renewal process as an opportunity to raise pointed questions about the narrow range of political opinion, skewed news, and trashy entertainment that dominates the nation’s small screens. For example, the petitions filed in Chicago have attracted considerable attention. They were mentioned in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily Herald, TV Week, and assorted newspapers across the state of Illinois and were even discussed in Broadcasting & Cable on multiple occasions. The petitions and publicity triggered panicked denunciations from NAB.
License challenges help promote awareness of the flaws of current media policy, even if their immediate hopes of success aren’t very large. They can help lay the groundwork, along with other related actions, for wider interest in media activism and hopefully improved U.S. television.
Steve Macek is an assistant professor of Speech Communication at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. Mitchell Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a contributor to many community media projects.
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