Friday, December 3, 2010

We Are In Control - Do Not Adjust Your Sets

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps laments the state of television news, telling the BBC it's in "grave peril." Peril for him, perhaps, but let's dig a little deeper.

As quoted in the L.A. Times:
American media is not "producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue," Copps said in an interview with the BBC's Katty Kay. That trend, he added, has to be reversed or "we are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the future direction of their country."
I have to chuckle a bit. Obviously Copps hasn't been watching the cable news opinion shows. Of course they're partisan. Of course the hosts have their agendas, but they're talking up hot issues with plenty of viewers, who are watching and hungry for more. And what about the Internet?
Though Copps acknowledges there is much to celebrate, he notes, "Increasingly, the private interests who design and control our 21st century information infrastructure resemble those who seized the master switch of the last century’s communications networks." Furthermore, he argues that though there may be many more platforms both on TV and online, the news itself is coming from fewer sources.
Er, Mr. Copps, you ever hear about bloggers? Last I heard, most of them weren't controlled by big media. This blogger isn't, either.
In his remarks [to Columbia University], Copps paints a grim picture of today's media. He notes that more than half of the 50 states have no full-time reporter covering Capitol Hill. He cites a study by the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism's Norman Lear Center showing that the average 30-minute local news broadcast has less than 30 seconds devoted to local government news. (The research was focused on Los Angeles news broadcasts.)
Here we have an assertion formed by somebody who doesn't work in the business and doesn't understand it.

First, many local stations don't have a Capitol Hill reporter because they don't need one. The Associated Press and the network news services provide adequate Capitol Hill coverage with little extra expense. You may argue that having your own man in Washington will provide you with the ability to localize a national issue, but you don't have to have a Washington bureau to do that.

Secondly, shouldn't any study of government coverage in local newscasts focus on places in addition to Los Angeles? In Tucson, KOLD News 13 gives an average of two minutes in the 6:00 newscast alone to government-related stories. We love our political specialist Bud Foster, and we're not giving him up. I work government stories into the 10, and the other producers do so with their 'casts according to news of the day. Imposing a quota system on government news content smacks of regulation... which is what Copps is aiming for:
Copps wants stations to commit to covering more debates and issues-oriented programming during election years. He also wants stations to be more in touch with the communities they serve.

Writes Copps: "Nowadays, when stations are so often owned by mega companies and absentee owners hundreds or even thousands of miles away — frequently by private equity firms totally unschooled in public interest media — we no longer ask licensees to take the public pulse. Diversity of programming suffers, minorities are ignored, and local self-expression becomes the exception."
Yawn. Here are the same old complaints from regulator types: TV stations need to be doing more "public service" programming. The companies that own them are too big. They aren't in line with the communities they serve.

When is the last time you watched one of those local Sunday morning public affairs shows? I'm not talking about "This Week," "Face The Nation," or "Meet The Press," but a talking-head interview show featuring a host, a guest, and a table between them. If you don't have one of these shows in your area, I'll let you guess why they're not on, and it's not because the evil conglomerated TV station wanted to suppress community voices.

Community service by a TV station is a highly malleable concept. Some people would define it as those public-affairs shows. Some people would define it as having "CSI" on three nights a week. Some would define it as providing emergency information. When we at KOLD break into programming for severe weather bulletins, we will often hear a few grumbles from viewers about interrupting "Oprah" or their favorite show. We work hard to minimize those interruptions, but we're still going to serve our community in ways people expect of us -- and our license requires of us -- while balancing out the desires of other viewers.

Ask a general manager who was around in the 70's about FCC regulations, and you're bound to hear about the grind of public-service and news quotas spiced with the perils of the Fairness Doctrine, all of which fly in the face of the First Amendment. The FCC essentially programmed part of stations' schedules under the justification that the public airwaves should reflect the public interest when there's a limited number of viewing choices.

All of us know those days are gone, decimated by cable and the Internet. We have the diversity and local viewpoints he's pining for, just not on TV like he wants, or in the form that he wants it. More regulation is a solution in search of a problem.

No comments: