Monday, November 14, 2005

Citizens Push FCC to Improve TV, Then and Now
By Stephen Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk

In 1961, Newton Minow, then chair 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 electoral 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 November 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 (C) 2005 by the Illinois Editorial Forum. Letters should be sent
to the Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL 62705-0082 11/05