Fifty years ago this week, former FCC Chairman Newton Minow addressed broadcasters at the NAB Show and declared that television was a vast wasteland failing to serve the public interest. While the merits of his argument were debatable then, those that would make a similar case about the current state of broadcast television would be embarking on a fool’s errand. Today, broadcast stations play an integral role in local communities and fulfill their commitment to the public by offering programming that educates, enlightens, and entertains.
While the TV landscape has changed dramatically since half a century ago with the rise of cable, satellite, the Internet and alternative viewing platforms, broadcasting remains remarkably resilient as the number-one source of entertainment and news for all television viewers. Week after week, over 90 of the top 100 most-watched primetime programs are found on broadcast stations. These programs include brilliant and smartly-written comedies like “The Simpsons,” “Modern Family” and “30 Rock” that match the best satire that TV has ever offered, along with compelling dramas like “The Good Wife” and “Friday Night Lights.” Complementing scripted fare are weekly programs like “American Idol,” “The Amazing Race” and “Dancing with the Stars” that consistently draw mass audiences that dwarf the viewership of cable network fare.
In February, Super Bowl XLV became the most-watched program in the U.S. of all time, drawing a U.S. TV audience of 111 million. Last week, so many viewers were watching the royal wedding on television that Internet traffic was down 10 percent for the day.
Indeed, broadcast TV serves as a window to the world, despite the growth of 24-hour news channels and social networks. When news happens at home and abroad, chances are that broadcasters will be covering it. Just last week, Pew Research found that by more than a 3-to-1 margin, Americans learned of Osama bin Laden’s death from a broadcast outlet rather than an Internet news or social networking site. In addition, over 70% of the 57.9 million people who watched President Obama’s address to the nation Sunday night were tuned to broadcast stations. Those numbers fall in line with other evidence that Americans’ depend on broadcasting over cable news during significant national events, such as presidential inaugurations and State of the Union speeches.
Local television news is consistently rated by a vast majority of Americans as their No. 1 source for news. Broadcasters take seriously our role in educating the public during campaign season, providing free airtime offers and debate coverage that often is re-broadcast on cable news outlets like CNN and C-SPAN.
The important work broadcasters perform covering significant news is not just confined to a handful of occasions throughout the year – local and national broadcasters provide consistent coverage of important issues on a daily basis. Network evening news commands an audience of more than 20 million viewers each and every night. Television is a showcase for the power of investigative journalism such as “60 Minutes,” which averaged 13.2 million viewers per week during 2009-2010. Programs such as “Dateline NBC” and “Nightline” are also consistent showcases for quality journalism, and few would question the week-in and week-out excellence of “Meet the Press,” “This Week” and “Face the Nation.”
At the local level, broadcasters invest heavily in news-gathering so they may provide insight for residents about the issues that affect them. Local broadcasters are also reliable and credible in a crisis, embracing the roles of first informer when disaster strikes. Cases in point are AMBER Alerts, a program voluntarily launched byDallas broadcasters in the mid-1990s following the brutal abduction and murder of a young Texas girl. Hundreds of kidnapped children have been rescued by broadcasters via AMBER Alerts. Those who suggest TV is a ‘vast wasteland’ should ask themselves: How do you put a price tag on saving the life of a kidnapped child?
Or ask citizens in the South whether they view broadcasting as a wasteland in light of the heroic coverage of devastating tornadoes two weeks ago. Countless people in Alabama and elsewhere survived the tornadoes thanks to the up-to-the-second information broadcasters were able to provide. The legacy of the local broadcaster is this: to provide credible and continuous lifesaving information that no other medium can match. And when the crisis is over, broadcasters are there to lead the recovery from the devastation.
In his speech a half-century ago, Chairman Minow said, “I believe that the public interest is made up of many interests. There are many people in this great country and you must serve all of us.” While broadcasters have always aimed most of their programming at a wide swatch of the American public, the analog-to-digital transition opened new doors for broadcasters to cater to previously underserved communities. In addition to allowing broadcasters to offer hyper-local programming, secondary digital channels can be aimed at specific groups, including minority populations that rely on the channels to stay connected to their community.
At of the end of 2010, the percentage of commercial multicasting stations had increased to 71%, or 849 of the 1,196 full-power commercial stations, doubling the options for viewers with 1,240 additional digital channels. Many of the channels feature foreign-language programming, especially in major metropolitan areas with large populations of immigrants. In New York alone, 13 of the 28 secondary digital channels are foreign-language. In Los Angeles, of the 48 multicast channels, 18 are foreign language programming, airing programs in Spanish, Chinese, Armenian, Korean, and Vietnamese. Right here in Washington, D.C., nine of the 20 multicast stations are foreign-language and ethnic channels, including broadcasts in Russian, French, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. And just last week, Bounce TV, the nation’s first over-the-air broadcast TV network designed exclusively for African-American audiences, announced that it will launch in the fall on Raycom’s secondary multicast channels in 26 markets.
Fifty years ago, UHF broadcasting, pay TV entertainment, and satellites capable of beaming local programming to the other side of the world were in their infant stages, merely glimpses into television’s future. In his speech, Chairman Minow pledged FCC support for these burgeoning services, promising “that they shall be explored fully, for they are part of broadcasting’s New Frontier.”
Today, broadcasting again heads into a New Frontier thanks to the analog-to-digital transition. The transition freed up spectrum that enabled broadcasters to adopt innovative services such as multicasting, 3D programming and mobile DTV, which will change the ways viewers access local news, weather, entertainment, and emergency lifeline information. As options are explored to reallocate some of broadcasters’ spectrum for broadband use, policymakers must recognize the enduring value of a free and local television service that is the envy of the world. Policymakers should stand behind broadcasters’ efforts to revolutionize this service and reject policies that sacrifice the promises of the DTV age.
Television is a ubiquitous medium. Along with free and local radio, there is probably no other technological commodity found in more homes than TV. It has the ability to bring communities together for a single event, to educate people about local and global issues, to serve as an emergency lifeline during critical situations, and to galvanize residents behind an important cause.
From Bangor to Boise to Birmingham, free and local television has been there through triumph and tragedy, from miraculous moon landings to shocking Space Shuttle explosions, from September 11 to presidential inaugurations, from catastrophic tornadoes to courageous mine rescues. Even in this frenzied world of Facebook and Twitter, broadcasting provides a communal gathering place for celebrating the human spirit. Our best days are still ahead.