Chasing New Jersey news

Whether or not a new show on WWOR in NJ is news is a concern of folks from congressmen to the FCC

There is a media battle brewing in New Jersey. WWOR-TV, a channel licensed to the city of Secaucus, has found itself in hot water after eliminating its 10pm newscast in favor of a new infotainment program, Chasing New Jersey. The station is now under fire from New Jersey politicians. Sen. Bob Menendez and US Rep. Frank Pallone have both sent letters requesting the Federal Communications Commission review the station’s license.

A television station cancelling its nightly newscast does not seem like an issue that would prompt any political involvement, let alone pressure from two high-profile congressmen. To understand the reaction, it’s necessary to look at the context of New Jersey’s media landscape.

Thanks to an accident of geography, the state of New Jersey has no television media market of its own. Instead, the entire state falls into either the New York City media market (the nation’s largest) or the Philadelphia media market (the 4th largest). As a result, New Jersey essentially has to compete with parts of four other states (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut) for news coverage, which heightens the scrutiny on how local stations that actually are licensed to the state cover local news.

Several studies have shown that New Jersey’s lack of devoted channels results in a dearth of coverage of New Jersey politics and public affairs. A 2005 study from Rutgers’s Eagleton Institute, for example, found that the New Jersey Governor’s race that year was given short shrift on many New York stations, despite the 2005 City mayoral race being rather uncompetitive. And Philadelphia stations serving southern New Jersey produced less than a fourth of the stories that the New York-based stations did, despite those stations not even having a Philadelphia or Pennsylvania race of note to cover.

Enter WWOR. The station (then called WOR-TV) was stripped of its broadcast license in 1980 due to corporate misconduct by then-owner General Tire & Rubber. While the company’s licenses were caught in federal litigation for decades, WOR won a reprieve when Congress mandated automatic renewal for the license of any station that moved to a state without a commercial station, a distinction at the time shared only by New Jersey and Delaware. When WOR officially switched its city of license to Secaucus in 1983, the station was put under special conditions dictating that it provide coverage and commitment to the state.

Concern about WWOR’s commitment to covering New Jersey were intensified after News Corp. purchased it in 2000 (in the company’s recent division, WWOR went to 21st Century Fox). A 2004 plan to move the bulk of the station across the river to New York in an attempt merge staff with sister station WNYW (the city’s Fox affiliate) was nixed after outcry from public interest groups. Even so, the FCC declined to renew the station’s license after the scheduled 2007 review, although it was allowed to continue broadcasting. In 2011, the FCC launched an investigation into claims that the station lied about the number of employees it actually had in the state.

The production arrangement of the new 10pm show also raises questions. Unlike the previous Ten O’Clock News, Chasing New Jersey is produced by an outside company, Fairfax Productions. The VP of Fairfax, Dennis Bianchi, is also the general manager of the Fox station in Philadelphia, WTXF, which is broadcasting Chasing New Jersey as a lead-in to his station’s morning programming.

Bob Papper, professor of journalism, media studies, and public relations at Hofstra University, says such an arrangement is not unheard of, but isn’t common. He also noted that this outsourcing was indicative of Fox experimenting with the format, a fact perhaps underlined by plans for seven other Chasing programs around the US. Still, a television station manager airing programming on his own station that is produced by a company in which he has a management role raises some questions about a possible conflict of interest. Bianchi did not respond to requests for comment sent to his office at WTXF.

Despite the FCC’s recent unwillingness to take action on community service requirements related to licensing, circumstances specific to WWOR make FCC inaction less of a foregone conclusion.

For starters, the station’s FCC license is still in limbo from the 2007 non-renewal. While Ellen Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers University and co-director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law, agrees that it’s ordinarily “a safe bet that the FCC won’t take action with regards to content,” she notes that the special circumstances of the station’s license—congressional involvement and the specific conditions put on the license—suggest in the other direction. In addition, the FCC is slated to get a new chairman soon who could shift priorities and practice. And the upcoming incentive spectrum auctions, where spectrum voluntarily given up by broadcasters are auctioned to wireless operators, might play a role. Goodman speculates that low interest from broadcasters in giving up spectrum might embolden the FCC to squeeze a relatively vulnerable station, like WWOR, to either better live up to its community service requirements or participate in the auction.

Still, Goodman points out that all this hinges on whether the FCC considers Chasing New Jersey a news program. After all, the station technically has the same amount of local, New Jersey-focused content at 10pm on weeknights. Even though the FCC’s localism guidelines prioritize news over other “local” content, to say that WWOR has run afoul of its license in this situation would be tantamount to ruling that Chasing is not news.

For their part, WWOR declined to respond specifically to questions about the program’s content, instead referencing a statement from Dianne Doctor, the VP and station manager of WWOR, who called the show a “news program immersed in all aspects of the state,” and referred to it as “enterprise journalism that no one else is doing.” It is clear that many politicians and public interest groups would disagree, but what the FCC has to say on the matter remains an open question.

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Abraham Moussako is a former CJR intern. Follow him on Twitter at @AMoussako.