Friday, May 9, 2008

Local Gone Loco

The FCC is floating new regulations intended to make sure local TV stations serve the public, but you don't have to look very hard to realize you're being bamboozled.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal lays it out, in part:
The regulations would require TV and radio stations to consult with community advisory boards, broadcast a required amount of local programming, use local talent instead of remote voice-tracking and locate main studios within their license areas.
Let's take each of these proposals one at a time.

Consulting with community advisory boards. Nothing wrong with this. Stations have been doing it for years on their own, sometimes working it into their news branding strategy -- "KXXX Listens!" KGUN here in Tucson used to hold community meetings and read mail from viewers on the air. KOLD telecast a community-wide meeting a couple of years before I began my tour of duty here (although I am not sure of the subject matter and Google is not returning any matches). Stations talk to paid consultants all the time. Why not make sure they're talking to viewers, too?

Broadcast a required amount of local programming. Now we've got a problem. The FCC is dictating content. "Local Programming" sounds noble and responsible, but it won't hold up under a 1st Amendment challenge. You can argue the FCC has the right to demand this because it licenses broadcast stations to operate on public airwaves. However, the whole concept of broadcast licensing is based largely on the scarcity of available channel space -- which isn't true anymore in the age of cable, Internet, and satellite. Digital TV, which is more spectrum-efficient, hollows that argument further.

Even the concept of "public airwaves" is flawed. Cable uses public streets and right-of-ways. Satellites beam signals through the public airwaves. Yet stations on the latter two are not facing these additional regulations. I know it's because people pay for these services, but people are also paying for cable and satellite delivery of free TV services. It's time to stop putting over-the-air broadcasters in a different league from cable and satellite. Those two worlds have largely merged on the dial.

Use local talent instead of voice-tracking. You hear that, Clear Channel? Other radio groups do this too, but CC has gotten most of the gripes. A DJ in one city (usually large) records banter for a station in another city (usually small), which is then digitally transferred and stitched together with the music. A program director from the other station will also feed the DJ some local information and riffs to work in. Some voice-tracking systems will even calculate time announcements so the DJ can pre-record them as well.

Station groups will tell you voice tracking gets better DJ talent into smaller markets for less money. But who's defining "better?" If I'm living in Hays, Kansas, do I want a St. Louis DJ talking about the big snowstorm by remote control, just because he sounds more up-market? The best radio DJ's connect with their audiences and vice-versa. Morning drive shows are all about this. It doesn't matter if you've got the radio voice. Station groups need to quit fearing amateur-hour radio in smaller markets.

On the other hand, restricting voice-tracking is messing with content, and it stinks under 1st Amendment scrutiny. Also consider this: stations voice-track to fill the overnight hours or holidays. Who wants to work Christmas because the gub'mint says so? The FCC doesn't -- and shouldn't -- have jurisdiction over personnel decisions.

Locate main studios within their license areas. This rule targets smaller stations owned by the same group that are run by a hub system, meaning those stations get their programming and commercials via satellite or fiber-optic cable from a central master control operation in another city. All that exists in the station's city of license is an unmanned receiver unit hooked up to the transmitter. I know this is the case with KWBA in Tucson, although their new owners will likely put somebody back at the switch.

As with voice-tracking, stations do this to save money on personel as well as equipment. The intent of the rule seems to be preventing a repeat of what happened in Minot, ND during a chemical spill in 2002, when all the stations in Clear Channel's group didn't carry any information on the hazardous situation because nobody was behind a microphone in that city. However, even The Nation concedes part of the problem was due to emergency broadcasting equipment and not a dearth of local staff.

As for the FCC's main studio rule, an analysis [PDF] in the Indiana Law Journal found it did little to help broadcasters or localism. So much for that theory.

But here's my biggest concern, according to what I read in the R-J article:
Under leadership of former FCC chairman Michael Powell, the agency began a formal inquiry into broadcast localism in 2003.

The agency held hearings in Portland, Maine; Charlotte, N.C.; San Antonio; Rapid City, S.D.; Monterey, Calif.; and Washington, D.C.; where members of the public told FCC commissioners they were unhappy some stations were taking a direction away from local content.
Raise your hands, people. How many of you attended one of these hearings? How many of you even live in these cities?

Not to impugn any complaints from the people who did attend, but it's always the people with complaints who show up for these kinds of hearings. If you're happy with the way broadcast TV is running, why sit through some boring hearing just to tell people everything's fine?

It sounds like Powell and the guys didn't try hard enough. They threw a bone to critics and anti-big-media whiners without getting the full picture. Broadcasters are rightfully upset about the rule changes. Frankly, with the big switch to digital TV less than a year away, they've got more than enough to handle.

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