The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a report, entitled “The Information Needs of Communities” (referred to by some as the “Future of Media” report) that recommends the FCC take significant steps to reform its media regulations, especially with respect to broadcasters. The report is a product of Steven Waldman, a Senior Advisor to the FCC Chairman, and the Working Group on Information Needs of Communities, a group of journalists, entrepreneurs, scholars and government officials formed in June 2009 by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Background. Chairman Genchowski charged the working group to answer two questions: 1) are citizens and communities getting the news, information and reporting they want and need? and 2) is the public policy in sync with the nature of modern media markets, especially when it comes to encouraging innovation and advancing local public interest goals. To prepare the report, the group interviewed hundreds of people, analyzed available studies and reports, held hearings, accepted public comments and made site visits. According to the report’s authors, the report “is intended both to inform the broad public debate and help FCC Commissioners assess current rules.”

The report, totaling almost 500 pages in length, offers a comprehensive analysis of the current media landscape - newspapers, radio, television, cable, satellite, mobile media, non-profit media (including public broadcasting and PEG channels), low power stations and religious broadcasting - and entities that are relevant to the media landscape: foundations, journalism schools, government, libraries and schools. The report goes on to review the policy and regulatory “landscape” for broadcast media, cable and satellite, the Internet, non-profit media and print and also examines ownership and advertising policy along with copyright and intellectual property law. The report concludes with a series of recommendations based on its findings.

Recommendations. The report concludes that government policy changes should focus on increasing transparency, making better use of the public’s resources and “removing obstacles to innovation.” The report goes on to conclude that at least with respect to broadcast regulation, the system is “broken.” The report makes a number of non-binding recommendations about regulatory actions the FCC might undertake and other steps that the working group would encourage:

  • Issues/programs list – The FCC should eliminate the requirement that broadcasters create a paper file detailing programming responsive to issues of importance to the community of license. Instead, the report recommends a streamlined web-based form that would require information from a sample “composite” week of programming including information regarding:
    • The amount of programming focused on the local community (including local government);
    • Use of multicast channels;
    • News-sharing arrangements, staffing levels and/or collaborations with other local news entities;
    • The extent to which the station website is accessible to people with hearing or vision disabilities;
    • Sponsorship disclosures of “pay-for-play” material that appears in news or information programming.
  • Online public file – The FCC should encourage broadcasters to transition their public files online over time with the FCC being sensitive to the burdens such a transition might place on smaller broadcasters. Online public files should be standardized across all broadcasters and documents should be machine readable. One method of accomplishing such a goal would be to create an FCC public file database so that the information would be centrally located and not stored on individual station websites.
  • Enhanced Disclosure – The Form 355 adopted in 2007, but not approved by the Office of Management and Budget, should be replaced with a less complex and less burdensome reporting mechanism.
  • Localism – The localism proceeding should be terminated without taking further action on the pending NPRM in that proceeding as the NPRM includes several unworkable or unnecessarily burdensome ideas, such as community advisory boards and around-the-clock staffing.
  • Fairness Doctrine – The formal repeal of the Fairness Doctrine should be effectuated by deleting the language in the Commission’s rules dealing with the no longer enforced policy. Additionally, the language relating to the political editorial and personal attack rules should be made consistent with the FCC’s current policies.
  • Ownership – The report makes no specific recommendations with respect to ownership rules but notes that it is not persuaded that relaxation of ownership rules leads to more or less local news.
  • Reporting on Minorities – The FCC should continue the requirement that broadcast television and radio licensees submit data on minority and female ownership on a biennial basis. The FCC should resolve the confidentiality issues that have arisen over collecting data from broadcast licensees and cable systems regarding racial, ethnic and gender employment and resume collecting this information.
  • Leased Access – Calling the leased access system “grossly ineffective,” the report recommends the FCC undertake a comprehensive study on the current state of leased access to determine whether it is meeting Congress’ goals. The report encourages Congress to reduce the leased access requirements for MVPDs that carry local cable news (whether created by the cable operator, a broadcaster or third party).
  • DBS Educational Set Aside – The FCC should assess the effectiveness of the set-aside system, which requires DBS operators to set aside 4 percent of their capacity for educational programming. DBS operators should disclose online how an operator calculates the number of stations eligible for set asides, the charge to those stations, the channels accepted and rejected and the rationale for those decisions.
  • State Public Affairs Networks (SPANs) – Every state should have a state-based C-SPAN and state legislatures should consider using the PEG system as a way to have such stations carried and financed.