Network Convention Coverage and the FCC

Michael J. Copps, a Democratic commissioner with the FCC, argues in a NYT op-ed today that the networks are failing to meet their obligations with their non-coverage of the conventions this year:

As a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, I may not agree with many positions taken by speakers this week at the Republican National Convention. Even so, I believe our broadcast media owe us more coverage of an event that remains an important component of the presidential campaign. Yet tonight, if people around the country tune in to the commercial broadcast TV networks, most will not see any live convention coverage. That’s not right.

Let’s remember that American citizens own the public airwaves, not TV executives. We give broadcasters the right to use these airwaves for free in exchange for their agreement to broadcast in the public interest. They earn huge profits using this public resource. During this campaign season broadcasters will receive nearly $1.5 billion from political advertising.
What do we get in return for granting TV stations free use of our airwaves? Unfortunately, when it comes to coverage of issues important to our nation, the answer is less and less. Coverage of the 2000 presidential election on the network evening news dropped by a third compared to reporting on the 1996 election. During the last election cycle we heard directly from presidential candidates for an average of 9 seconds a night on the news. Local races? Forget it. In 2002 – the most recent midterm elections – more than half of local newscasts contained no campaign coverage at all. Local coverage has diminished to the point that campaign ads outnumber campaign stories by four to one. What coverage there is focuses inordinately on polls and handicapping the horse race.

TV executives tell us that the convention and campaign coverage provided by the cable channels is sufficient. I don’t think so. Around 35 million Americans don’t get cable, often because they cannot afford it. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the combined populations of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Furthermore, broadcasters legally undertake to serve the public interest themselves in exchange for free spectrum – their licenses don’t allow them to pass the buck to cable.

It’s an interesting argument. Of course, defining the “public interest” is difficult here. For one thing, the conventions are nothing more than staged political ads these days. For another, the fact that even those with access to cable or satellite still overwhelmingly choose to watch other programming–mostly summer reruns, no less–instead of the conventions gives a pretty fair indication of what it is that the public finds interesting.

Honestly, it seems to me that this is more of an argument for ending the government bandwidth giveaways than for forcing private companies to air programming they don’t think competitive. It would make far more sense to simply charge a fair market price for the rights to broadcast spectrum and then let the networks air whatever programming they wished.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. paladin says:

    What’s missing from the Copps op-ed is the fact that taxpayer-funded PBS is providing 4 hours of convention coverage nightly. I don’t have cable either, not because I can’t afford it, but because I don’t want my 15 year old son watching Girls Gone Wild. I can still get plenty of coverage from PBS, so why should the networks have to do more than an hour a night? Besides, with all the and other 527 ads, they will be able to make plenty of money without convention coverage. It’s all about the bottom line, no?