The Value of the FCC’s Public Interest Mandate in Empowering Community Voices

Blog Post
Dec. 14, 2017

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home. 

Every four years, the Federal Communications Commission reviews the broadcast ownership rules to determine whether they remain “necessary in the public interest as the result of competition.” And as part of its routine review last month, the Commission voted to eliminate two long-standing media ownership rules that limited a company’s ability to own television, radio, and newspaper properties in the same market.

The first rule, known as the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, prohibited the same company from owning a television station and a newspaper outlet in a single market. The second, the radio/television cross-ownership rule, prohibited a single company from owning multiple television stations in a market with less than eight independently-owned stations.

Designed to maximize diversity in the marketplace, these rules prevented the voice of a single corporation from becoming too powerful within a given community. The elimination of these rules places corporations’ desires for economies of scale and lower operating cost ratios before the public interest. Befittingly, in her dissent, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn bemoaned the fact that with these rule changes, her “colleagues in the majority are more intent on granting the industry’s wish list rather than looking out for the public interest.” The decision to eliminate these two egalitarianistic rules, however, is not inconsistent with a misguided interpretation of the public interest mandate that emerged in the 1980s.

Though the public interest mandate remains broadly defined since its first introduction in the Radio Act of 1927—an act that created the Federal Radio Commission, the FCC’s predecessor, and required stations to serve “the public interest, convenience or necessity”—two distinct regulatory regimes have governed the interpretation of this mandate in the near-century that followed. One is grounded in democratic ideals that would provide a benefit to the community and the other in market efficiency.

For the first half-century following the mandate’s introduction, the Commission executed policy guidance in line with the democracy interpretation of the public interest mandate. In 1946, for example, the FCC issued a Blue Book entitled Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees, in which it identified 14 major elements of programming that are generally necessary in the service of the public interest. The list included elements like opportunity for local self-expression, programs for children, news programs, and service to minority groups. Implicit in this list is the expectation that broadcasters provide programming that would deliver a social good for communities beyond what the free market would produce based on broadcasters’ incentives. This mentality reached its peak in the 1970s, when the Commission issued guidance for broadcasters on how to ascertain community needs.

The 1980s, however, saw the beginning of a marked departure from democratic ideals toward deregulation. FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, decided that the public interest was sufficiently addressed by free market conditions and did not merit government safeguards. In short, the public would demonstrate its interests through active viewership and advertisers would respond accordingly with revenue dollars supporting the programs with the most “public interest.” Programs without sufficient “public interest” would cease production without sufficient advertising dollars to support it as a result of market efficiencies. The public interest became essentially “what interests the public.” Under this approach, the FCC did away with programming guidelines, commercial limits, and community needs ascertainment, though it maintained some regulatory requirements over educational content for children.

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai applied this efficiency interpretation of the public interest mandate last month in rationalizing the elimination of the cross-ownership rules. He argues that doing away with the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule ”will open the door to pro-competitive combinations that can strengthen local voices and enable both newspapers and broadcast stations to better serve their communities.” Eliminating the radio/television cross-ownership rule, he says, will “allow efficient combinations that can help television stations thrive. This is particularly true in small- and mid-sized markets where there may not be sufficient advertising revenue to support eight vibrant competitors.”

Last month's media ownership deregulation is part of a disconcerting trend of the FCC deemphasizing its public interest mandate in favor of efficiency arguments advocated by broadcasters that are driven by their bottom line rather than community needs. The expectation to service and provide a benefit to communities is arguably a condition for getting the license in the first place—the airwaves broadcasters utilize are a public good, and these public interest expectations are arguably part of the price they pay for access.

The elimination of the two media cross-ownership rules enables greater media consolidation and could jeopardize democratic values. For instance, media conglomerates may become so dependent on advertising revenue that they produce content driven by their sponsors rather than the public interest. Sinclair Broadcast Group offers one known example of this scenario: WJLA began encouraging viewers to visit Myrtle Beach as a tourist destination on its morning news program as part of a company-wide tourism-promotion deal after it was acquired by the broadcaster in 2014.

Just as critical is the effect on the diversity of viewpoints reaching audiences in local markets. Greater levels of media consolidation lead to less diversity in viewpoints presented in news editorials and programming, as consolidated media companies produce and deliver the same content for a wider geographic market to cut down on costs.

It is alarming to see the FCC prioritize market efficiency and corporate interests over a healthy, diverse marketplace of ideas, particularly because the latter is a fundamental pillar for any democracy. Without a diversity of viewpoints, a community’s ability to actively enable people’s participation in public discourse and democracy as equals is hindered, as bigger media conglomerates gain access to wider platforms to disseminate their positions. The eliminated rules kept the voice of any one corporation from becoming too powerful within a community.

Indeed, how is it that we as a society have let corporate interests govern our public policies, going so far as to erode policies that are meant to protect communities? Why have a public interest mandate if only to interpret it along market competition factors? This misguided interpretation that essentially guts the public interest mandate cannot continue. The time has come for the FCC to reinvigorate the public interest mandate.