Comments came in thick, and unusually fast, to the Federal Communications Commission's release of its future of media report on June 9.
In fact, the FCC's official release of the report online was accompanied by reaction quotes from, among others, Hearst Television president David Barrett and National Religious Broadcasters president Frank Wright, suggesting the FCC had briefed some broadcasters and others before releasing the report. One source confirmed they had been approached by the FCC about a Wednesday briefing on the report.
"We appreciate that the report suggests moving away from outdated reporting rules," said Barrett in the statement highlighted by the FCC on its site. "We are open minded about the new proposals, especially given the productive process by which the report arrived at its conclusions, and will consider them carefully."
The report is not enforceable, but FCC chairman Julius Genachowski associated himself with it and praised its authors.
The report recommended scrapping the FCC's enhanced ascertainment rules, adopted in 2007 and requiring a more detailed accounting of program content reporting, as well as closing the localism proceeding without taking steps like creating community advisory boards to weigh in on public interest programming.
The report, and the chairman, suggested those were burdensome overregulation.
Among its hundreds of pages of observation and suggestions, the report recommended that noncommercial religious stations have more flexibility to raise money on-air for charities. Currently, fund-raising for noncom stations that receive government funding is confined to their own operations, or, through waivers, for natural disasters like hurricanes or floods. But it is not allowed for ongoing campaigns like hunger relief.
"In an age where some have argued that the federal government has increased its reach over an increasing number of private sectors of American life, this report is a refreshing change. It refrains from imposing mandates, but instead recognizes opportunities to incentivize private media," said National Religious Broadcasters president Dr. Frank Wright.
The report included cable, and gave shout-outs for regional news nets and international coverage, while saying that the leased access system has not worked as Congress intended or produced significant independent programming and PEG channels had not panned out in many areas. It suggests the FCC may want to take steps to make leased access more affordable, pointing out that FCC currently has an open proceeding on the issue. The chairman at a news conference following the release of the report had no comment on what the FCC could or should do about leased access.
"We look forward to reviewing the Report and exploring these important issues with the Commission and other interested stakeholders," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell. "The cable industry has a long and proud history of providing the American people with a vast array of local, regional and national news and information - including the founding of C-SPAN. Local cable news channels can be found in communities such as New England, New York, Florida, Ohio and cable provides support and distribution for channels that provide extensive coverage of state and local government affairs in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and elsewhere. Our industry's leadership role in deploying high-speed broadband services and on-demand programming also reflect cable's continuing commitment to expanding sources of news and information for consumers."
The American Television Alliance, which includes some NCTA members and has been pushing for retrans reform, saw the report has supporting evidence for its assertion that broadcaster localism claims are more brag than fact.
"According to a report delivered today to the FCC, local broadcasters 'do little or no local programming' and 'about 30 percent air no local news,'" said ATVA in a statement. "The new report takes the air out of the broadcasters' argument that squeezing more money out of retrans supports local programming, especially news."
The report found that 21% of stations do no local news, with that "one-third" figure including those who do less than a half-hour, according Steven Waldman, the FCC advisor overseeing the report.
Media Access Project was not happy with the report. "[It] appears to contain a sound diagnosis but falls short on recommendations for treatment said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, MAP senior vice president and policy director. "The Commission staff surely is right that government cannot address many of the problems created by fundamental changes in the business model for journalism, but the report apparently fails to call for action in one major area where the Commission could make a difference, which is over-the-air broadcasting," he said.
He was echoing one of the concerns of arguably the report's biggest critic. FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who has made boosting local stations news and information commitments one of his leading causes.
"It will come as a surprise to few here this morning that this just-released staff report and its accompanying recommendations are not entirely the bold response for which I hoped and dared to dream," Copps said. "Instead, the overarching conclusion of the Staff Report seems to be that America's media landscape is mostly vibrant and there is no overall crisis of news or information. But there is a crisis when, as this report tells us, more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters offer no news whatsoever to their communities of license. America's news and information resources keep shrinking and hundreds of stories that could inform our citizens go untold and, indeed, undiscovered. Where is the vibrancy when hundreds of newsrooms have been decimated and tens of thousands of reporters are walking the street in search of a job instead of working the beat in search of a story? "
Copps vowed to continue to push for localism and enhanced ascertainment and related issues in his remaining months at the commission-he is in his last year there-and beyond.