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Whose Airwaves Are They Anyway?

Progress Snapshot
Release 4.1 January 2008

by W. Kenneth Ferree*

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Whatever happened to: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech? In the context of broadcasting, that prohibition is honored more often in the breach than in the observance. Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA 14th) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI 2nd) are the latest to transgress, offering this year their "Broadcast Licensing in the Public Interest Act" (HR 4882).

Congressional critics of broadcasting often begin their attacks by asserting that the airways belong to the public. The Eshoo/Baldwin bill is no exception, its findings dutifully echoing that tired refrain. Assuming that it is so (and there are sound reasons to question the assertion, both factual and legal), one must ask why these selfsame critics deem themselves better qualified to determine how "the public" would like its airwaves used than are broadcasters whose livelihoods depend on their ability to deliver content with broad appeal.

Broadcast licensees, after all, compete with an increasingly diverse variety of other media for a share of a highly fragmented market. As such they have an economic imperative to deliver that programming which will most interest "the public." Broadcasters no more need the government to tell them what that programming is than Macy's needs bureaucratic direction on the styles of women's shoes to sell. Divining what the public wants carried on its airwaves is therefore no more difficult than switching on your television.

Now it is true, of course, that not every person likes every program, or even that a majority of people like a majority of the programs broadcasters carry. But individual objections to programming with mass appeal do not suggest a misuse of the public's spectrum. Although one might disdain reality shows, most Americans do not. The highest rated series over the past three years has been "American Idol," and other reality programs (e.g., "Survivor," "Dancing with the Stars," and "The Amazing Race") regularly post impressive ratings numbers. Similarly, although one may have no interest in televised sporting events, they consistently appear at or near the top of the Nielson charts.

And, of course, that is the point. If broadcasters really are to serve the public, they cannot be held hostage to the individual programming tastes of any one person or group of people – even if that group is known as Congress. Like all of us, politicians look at the broadcast schedule through the lens of their own bias. Nothing but mischief, however, can follow if the political class is allowed to declare, because broadcasters are not catering to their whims, that the public interest has been subverted. For, not surprisingly, what interests politicians is coverage of things political: public affairs programming, stories of elections and campaigns, and news about politics and government. But the political interest is not the public interest.

The Eshoo/Baldwin bill provides a case in point. The bill begins with a series of findings worthy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The findings reiterate the "public's" ownership of the airwaves while emphasizing that it is the rights of "viewers and listeners" that are paramount. Without pause or interruption, though, the findings then proceed to scold broadcasters for providing "the public" with precisely the programming "the public" most obviously desires in lieu of the favored programming of the elite political class. The bill laments that only .4% of television programming is devoted to local public affairs while nearly 20% is reality programming or sports, and that only about 10% of television news relates to politics and government while vastly greater coverage is devoted to crime, traffic, weather, and sports.

Apparently, Representatives Eshoo and Baldwin are shocked to learn that people might be more interested in stories of immediate concern (i.e., whether there is a rapist in the neighborhood, whether they should take the metro rather than drive notwithstanding the risk of walking to the station with a rapist on the loose, whether they will need an umbrella if they dare to take that walk, and whether they will suffer abuse from coworkers upon reaching the office for yet another loss by their favorite team) than reportage concerning the current crop of political candidates.

Not to worry, Representatives Eshoo and Baldwin have a solution. Their bill would shorten the renewal period for broadcast licenses from eight years to three, and make renewal specifically dependent upon a showing that the licensee had "a dedication to" local news, public affairs, and "issues, candidates, and ballot items that are before voters during a local, statewide or national election, including coverage of candidate debates and forums, [and] political conventions." If there was ever an argument for keeping Congress out of programming, the "Broadcast Licensing in the Public Interest" bill is it. One can already hear the low, earthy rumble of stampede as viewers flock to media outlets with full First Amendment protection from congressional meddling.

Congress already devotes approximately half a billion dollars each year to prop-up a public, non-commercial broadcasting system. Can that "public" system not cover issues, candidates, and ballot items that are before voters during local, statewide or national elections? Does every commercial station struggling to survive in a highly competitive market have to do so likewise, even if viewers would rather other programming was available?[1]

The public knows what it wants; its interests are made manifest in every collective viewing decision. Some members of Congress may not approve of what those decisions suggest, or may think that they know better what should interest the public but, we are told, the airwaves belong to us, the viewers and listeners, not the politicians.

*W. Kenneth Ferree is President of The Progress & Freedom Foundation. The views expressed here are his own, and are not necessarily the views of the PFF board, fellows or staff.

  1. A follow-up essay will discuss the economic implications of stepped-up "public interest" obligations.


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