In his keynote address at the group’s annual trade show, National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith boasted about broadcasters dedication to “the public interest.” But there are plenty of ways the networks aren’t meeting their obligations.
Speaking at the annual NAB show in Las Vegas April 7th, Smith regaled his audience with a boosterish, rah-rah speech right out of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt:
“Broadcasting is broadcasters – men and women uniquely tied to the people they serve – men and women who are committed not only to innovation but to serving the public interest. The pioneers of broadcasting believed that radio and television could be used for the greater good..There is no other medium dedicated to serving the local communities throughout this great nation.”
While it’s unremarkable that an organization’s president would give a speech praising the organization at the organization’s national convention, what is remarkable is the extent to which Smith emphasized broadcasters’ public service obligations.
Unlike cable, satellite, and broadband systems, broadcasters utilize the airwaves, which are owned by the American people as a whole. As a result, since the passage of the Radio Act of 1927, the government has maintained that broadcasters have an obligation to operate “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity,” in areas as diverse as attentiveness to local interests, adhering to standards of broadcast decency, and airing a certain amount of “educational and informational” programming for children.
This is an area broadcasters are usually reluctant to acknowledge, let alone praise. In fact, since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which sharply removed most of the previous restrictions on broadcasters, the broadcast networks have increasingly pressed for full deregulation – and proceeded to simply ignore regulations they don’t like. Broadcasters have tried to get around the children’s “E/I” requirements by claiming that cartoons like The Transformers are “educational.” Where once, each television station was required to hold local hearings on programming and gather feedback from the local community, now the stations don’t even bother, making it clear that millionaire network bigwigs in Manhattan don’t care what viewers in the rest of the country think. (One petition from the networks even told the Federal Communications Commission to “consider a program broadcast after 10 p.m. in the Eastern Time zone to be within the safe harbor even in the Central and Mountain Time zones, where it may be broadcast after 9 p.m.” Essentially, the networks said, “If it doesn’t happen in Manhattan or Beverly Hills, it doesn’t matter. Who cares about those hicks in the sticks?”)
And as regards decency, as recently as last year, all of the broadcast networks – Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, and the CW – banded together and petitioned the FCC to “cease attempting broadcast indecency limits once and for all.” A greater contempt for “decency” and “children” can scarcely be imagined.”
“Without broadcasting, who will carry out the public interest mandates of diversity and localism, to say nothing of children’s programming, political events and observing decency standards of local communities?” wailed Smith in his address. Smith’s alleged concern for decency and children might carry more weight if the broadcast networks hadn’t demanded an end to all decency laws last year.
But it really was a bit much when Smith concluded his impassioned jeremiad on how the poor, abused broadcast networks are so poorly treated by the FCC with, “What is the worth of a human soul?” Such sentiments are more than a little rich coming from the head of an industry which airs programming like The Following and Hannibal in prime time…and rates such programs as suitable for 14 year olds.
If Gordon Smith – and the broadcasters he represents – want their claims to be acting “in the public interest” to be taken more seriously, maybe they should take a long, hard look in the mirror…and see what’s gazing back.