At first glance, the new rule approved last month by the Federal Communications Commission requiring local television broadcasters to make public their records on political ad spending might seem revelatory. But in reality, it represents a very modest change to longstanding policy. Broadcasters are required by statute to maintain a file in paper form that documents information about political ads, such as the sponsor, the amount paid, and the time slot; the new FCC rule simply requires that stations post this information online, rather than keeping the files in a back room collecting dust.
What is startling, by contrast, is the fierce response of the industry and its allies to this modest change. The National Association of Broadcasters has filed a court challenge to block the FCC’s decision. And earlier this month, Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) inserted a provision into a federal budget bill, which was later removed by the full committee, that would strip the FCC of its ability to enforce the disclosure requirement.
As Steve Waldman has written in CJR, for more than 50 years, television broadcasters have been allowed to use the public’s airwaves for free—based on the understanding that they would give something back to their local communities. These public service obligations, such as covering current affairs and providing children’s programming, are the foundation for broadcasters’ special status as trustees of the airwaves, a principle first established in the 1927 Radio Act. But the fact that over 35 percent of commercial broadcast stations do not provide any local news programming demonstrates that the trustee model is broken—and the broadcasters’ opposition to mere online disclosure of data they were already obligated to collect and make public underscores just how broken it is. If the broadcasters fight simple transparency requirements, should we ever expect them to dedicate significant time and resources to programming that informs the public?
Public interest advocates, along with a few former FCC chairmen and commissioners, have long aspired to enforce more rigorous public interest obligations on broadcasters. But these efforts have met little success, because of the challenges of enforcement and the incentives that profit-seeking companies face to prioritize low-cost or entertainment-focused programming.
Rather than trying to patch a broken system, policymakers should instead consider options that would require broadcasters to give back something more concrete in exchange for access to the public airwaves. An alternative approach: in lieu of public interest obligations, assess an annual spectrum fee on commercial broadcasters. This idea has long been championed by Henry Geller, the former general counsel of the FCC, who argues that “instead of trying to make broadcasters play by rules, we should just make them pay a reasonable fee to support public broadcasting.”
Geller’s views were no doubt shaped by more than a decade spent working as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission in the 1950s and 60s, including when then-Chairman Newton N. Minow delivered his famous “Vast Wasteland” speech to the NAB convention in 1961. But Geller’s perspective remains relevant today. And his alternative model—supplementing ill-enforced public interest obligations on commercial broadcasters with annual license fees, which would be used to support non-commercial outlets—could breathe new energy into the very idea of public media.
Even as the disruption brought by the digital age has often brought new pressures to bear upon quality journalism in commercial media, the Web has remade the landscape of free expression, access to news and information, and media production. Nearly anyone can become a producer and distributor of news today. These changes require us to expand our notions of public media beyond its historic format of mission-oriented, non-commercial broadcast media produced for the public, to include media produced by the public for civic purposes across multiple platforms.