By a 3-2 vote, the FCC is proposing to re-instate programming processing guidelines for broadcasters. Under the proposal, stations that broadcast at least three hours per week of locally originated programs would receive expedited application processing. Similar processing guidelines were eliminated for radio in 1981 and television in 1984. Basically, these decisions held that stations, in response to market forces, would provide programming that meets the needs of the community. In place of the processing guideline, stations were asked to file quarterly issues programs lists. Also, the majority supporting the decision took direct aim at the FCC’s 2017 decision that eliminated the main studio rule. They asked whether eliminating the rule was a mistake.
Under the proposed rule, to become eligible for expedited processing, a station would be asked to produce local programs. The FCC proposes to define locally originated programming as follows:
(1) For purposes of this provision, locally originated programming is programming produced either
(i) [w]ithin the station’s community of license;
(ii) [a]t any location within the principal community contour of any AM, FM, or TV broadcast station licensed to the station’s community of license; or
(iii) [w]ithin 25 miles from the reference coordinates of the center of its community of license as described in § 73.208(a)(1).
The proposal raised a number of significant First Amendment-related issues. Not the least of which is addressing the issue of whether nationally produced programming can address local issues. If so, why is such programming not considered? Moreover, the FCC moved away from quantitative guidelines because they were overly mechanistic and did not address whether the programs were helping to meet the needs of the community. Quantitative processing guidelines merely encouraged licensed challenges even though a station was serving the community. Finally, the proposal does not establish a nexus between local production and journalism. On the contrary, the additional costs of producing 3 hours of “locally originated” programming may undermine a station’s overall journalistic efforts.
Amazingly, locally originated programming would not be considered where a local program has been broadcast twice, even if the licensee broadcasts the program on a different day or makes small variations in the program thereafter. This approach ignores viewing patterns today, where most programs are time-shifted and broadcast multiple times to obtain an audience.
Both Commissioner Brendan Car and Nathan Simington issued strong dissents. We shall see where the FCC takes this issue. Our immediate reaction is that it tries to resurrect a rule that was eliminated nearly 40 years ago. We have all seen that movie.
You can see the FCC’s proposal and accompanying statements here.