Guest Column: Citizens push FCC to improve TV, then and now

In 1961, Newton Minnow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously decried television programming at the time as a “vast wasteland.” Many citizens, including area educators, religious groups, community organizations and unions, agreed and complained that our TV stations were consistently ignoring local issues.

In 1962, the FCC responded to these concerns by convening a landmark series of hearings in Chicago to determine if television stations were fulfilling their legal obligations to serve the public interest.

While the hearings didn’t forge any key policy changes, they did reaffirm the FCC’s commitment to require TV broadcasters to reflect community concerns and showcase community voices in at least some programming.

After more than four decades of rampant commercialism and lax FCC oversight, television today is much worse than it was in the early 1960s.

Exhibit A: Chicago TV stations’ horribly inadequate coverage of nonfederal elections in 2004. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media research group, found that the five highest-rated TV stations in the Chicago market devoted less than 8 percent of their newscasts to election coverage in the month before Election Day 2004.

Some 66 percent of that coverage dealt exclusively with the presidential campaign, while less than 1 percent covered state legislative races. This mirrors a pattern in local media across the country; the Lear Center’s local news archive at the University of Southern California studied 11 media markets during this same time and found that a given half-hour of local news averaged a mere 2.4 minutes devoted to local election coverage.

Exhibit B: Chicago’s TV stations consistently ignore news about and perspectives from communities of color. Chicago’s population is 37 percent African American and 26 percent Latino, yet no person of color hosts any locally-produced public affairs shows on the city’s English-language stations. A study of the guests appearing on one flagship news show found that more than 79 percent of guests were white, only 12 percent were African American, and less than 3 percent were Latino. Multiple studies also confirm that local TV news coverage of predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Chicago overwhelmingly focus on crime and social dysfunction and exclude all other topics.

Clearly, another FCC investigation into the inadequacies of television is long overdue.

Fortunately, media reform activists may provide a glimpse of hope. TV broadcasters must renew their broadcast licenses every eight years, at which time citizens can file objections with the FCC. All of the TV licenses in the state are up for renewal in 2005, and the growing media reform movement has seized on this opportunity to force broadcasters to pay attention to their concerns.

On Nov. 1, Chicago Media Action—the city’s leading media reform group—petitioned the FCC to deny the license renewals of nine English-language TV stations in Chicago. The petition pointed to the paucity of TV coverage of local elections as its basis for complaint.

At the same time, Third Coast Press, a Chicago-based community newspaper and Web site, filed its own petition asking the FCC to revoke the licenses of nearly 20 Chicago-area stations. Their filing addressed a number of concerns, including scant and dismissive news coverage of antiwar protests and increasing violence against women on TV.

The FCC should take these petitions seriously. The performance of the stations in question has been deplorable, and their license renewal applications should be closely scrutinized. Moreover, the problems with Illinois’ TV broadcasters are symptomatic of the shortcomings of American television in general. Acting on the complaints raised by media reform groups would send a powerful message to TV stations around the country.

If the FCC accepts either or both of these petitions, the license renewal applications of the affected stations would be subject to a hearing. Ultimately, the issues raised in these petitions deserve to be discussed in an open and public forum so that area residents can finally weigh in on the dismal service they receive from their TV outlets.

Forty-three years have elapsed since those 1962 hearings, and the public has been forced to endure a continuing “vast wasteland” with nary an oasis in sight. It is high time citizens were given a chance to talk back to their TV sets again.

Macek is an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central College. Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a frequent contributor to assorted Chicago-area independent media efforts in print, Web, radio and television.

Copyright © 2005 by the Illinois Editorial Forum. Letters should be sent to the Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL 62705-0082. Reprinted by permission.

From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2005, issue

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