If nothing else, Congress' recent move to beef up fines for "indecent" programming serves as a reminder that the federal government still has the power to bitch-slap over-the-air broadcasters. Like a drunken stepfather who just noticed that all the kids moved out 20 years ago, regulators are trying to discipline one of the last slices of the vast and open media world they control those networks and stations using the good ol' public airwaves. It doesn't matter that any dolt with a remote control can enjoy all sorts of cornholing, mayhem, and vile filth on nonbroadcast channels, courtesy of basic cable. The feds control the airwaves, dammit, and fueled by a desire to smooch the Christian Right, they're puffing out their chests and telling the broadcasters they'd better get in line.
Against this backdrop, all the local commercial television stations are in the process of applying for renewal of their operating licenses, a usually routine process that is generating a little extra flop sweat, given the Federal Communications Commission's current crusade. "It's made everybody more cognizant of what we're putting on the air," said Danny Baker, general manager of KTBC, the local Fox affiliate. A station is worthless without the broadcasting license, which comes up for renewal every seven years. While licenses are rarely challenged, and renewals are routinely granted, the system is one of the last ways for the government to act like Godzilla, if it so chooses. It is also, in theory, one of the last true opportunities for public input on a station's performance, a quaint and almost universally ignored anachronism of the old-world licensing system.
As required, the local stations have been airing announcements about the license-renewal process, inviting citizens who give a damn to come on down and look at the stations' FCC files. And apparently the number of people who give a damn about this vaunted bureaucratic display is "not a whole helluva lot." When I walked into the KVUE-TV lobby and asked the receptionist to see the station's FCC file, she made a flurry of calls before the station's general manager, Patti Smith, personally came out to greet me. In seven years as station manager, she could only recall one other request to see the file. When I asked to see the actual FCC application, in addition to the public complaint file, she retreated to her office to contact the station's lawyers before emerging to cheerfully hand it over. The application is a slim document, compared to the mounds of paperwork once required of the stations. After years of deregulation, these days the stations are primarily reviewed in only three areas: adherence to equal-opportunity hiring practices, the requirement to provide three hours a week of children's programming, and complaints about violence. That's it.
According to KVUE's application, it has met the requirements on minority hiring and children's programming and received a grand total of 53 complaints about violence in the last seven years of those, 51 were form postcards sent in by the Parents Television Council decrying "graphic ultraviolence" during the family hour. The other two were a 2003 letter from a viewer upset about violence on the news and a 2004 complaint about the movie Lethal Weapon (apparently about the violence, not the acting).
The renewal application does not require proof of public service the stations file monthly reports noting their do-goody ways but KTBC chose to include a lengthy list of its community-outreach efforts in its filing, including everything from the weatherman's visits to elementary schools to participation in the Texas Association of Press Broadcasters awards banquet. Their proud list also included the time a staffer in the creative services department reached out to the community by agreeing to be interviewed by a UT student for a class project, the type of sacrifice that brings a tear to the eye. To demonstrate its commitment to racial justice for the equal-opportunity section of the application, KTBC noted its regular attendance at events sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, National Association of Black Journalists, and the National Association of Asian American Journalists (although the station apparently spurned the National Association of Tahitian Journalists).
Based on this type of info, the FCC will decide if the stations are worthy of the right to continue to broadcast on the public airwaves. Like the attempt to curb tit-flashes and naughty words, the renewal process is all about creating the illusion of official review, even though it's something of an inside joke. Stations maintain a quota of on-air minorities and attend diversity seminars, and yet there are still only a handful of minorities on the air in primary anchor roles in Texas. Stations trumpet their community service, yet local programming has almost disappeared from the airwaves, and stations devote hours each week to infomercials on, for example, various forms of skin cream.
Unless stations are absolutely refusing to hire black people and showing violent porn on Saturday mornings, broadcasters know they don't need to worry about getting their licenses renewed. Behind the scenes they grumble that the system is unfair, considering that their cable and satellite competitors don't have to play by the same rules. Nevertheless, they scramble to make sure that every report is filed and every complaint about a bad joke on The Family Guy is duly recorded, maintaining rows and rows of horizontal files stuffed with perfectly prepared forms, because nobody wants to piss off those protectors of the airwaves at the FCC.
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