Copps Wants to Impose Public Value Test on Broadcasters

December 3, 2010. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael Copps gave another speech [8 pages in PDF] in which he railed against media, big companies, gatekeepers, Wall Street and investors. In addition, for the first time, he proposed that the FCC impose a "Public Value Test" (PVT) on broadcasters. The BBC employs a PVT in a different context.

It was another of his apocalyptic narratives on the futures of journalism and democracy. This speech consisted of a long and wide ranging collection of disorganized observations, accusations and proposals.

Michael CoppsCopps (at left) said that "Our traditional media -- newspapers, radio, television -- have long since fallen victim to the excesses of a new Gilded Age. Media started earlier than most businesses down a suicidal road of hyper-speculation, creativity-stifling consolidation, and Wall Street pandering that gutted journalism's ranks and resources, cutting deep into the bone. What happened in media was prologue to the collapse of so many other industries and financial institutions."

Journalism is now in "its hour of grave peril".

The FCC, said Copps, "blessed it all, encouraged the consolidation mania, and went beyond even that to eviscerate just about every public interest responsibility that generations of reformers had fought for and won in radio and TV."

Copps said that he now seeks "altered private sector aspirations and dramatically different public policy". He asserted that the FCC can mandate a "renewed commitment to serious news and journalism".

He proposed that the FCC conduct a "Public Value Test" (PVT) of broadcasters when they renew their FCC licenses.

There is no "Public Value Test" in the Communications Act. However, the term has meaning in the United Kingdom (UK) in the context of the government provided programming of the BBC.

The BBC web site states that PVT "is a key component of the BBC's system of governance". It states that the BBC "is required to apply the PVT before a decision is taken to make any significant change to the BBC's UK Public Services. This can include introducing a new service or discontinuing an existing service." See, BBC web page titled "Public Value Test".

In the UK, the PVT applies to the government owned media. In contrast, Copps proposes that a PVT be applied to privately owned media.

In the UK, the PVT applies in making programming and service decisions. In contrast, Copps proposes that the PVT be applied in the FCC's license renewal decisions.

He wants the FCC, for example, to test broadcasters' commitment to "women and other diversity groups", including their ownership interests, and their portrayal in programming. He also said that "human and financial resources going into news would be one way to benchmark".

He also proposed that the FCC "determine the extent of its current authority to compel release of what interests are paying for this flood of anonymous political advertising".

However, the Congress has already legislated in this area, and committed to another federal commission -- the Federal Election Commission (FEC) -- rulemaking and enforcement authority with respect to disclosure of political contributions and expenditures.

He also advocated increasing government subsidies of "public broadcasting -- the jewel of our media landscape". He added that the proposal to impose a "spectrum fee" on broadcasters to subsidize "public news and media ... has its temptations", but would require Congressional legislation, which he said was unlikely.

He suggested that the FCC should require that broadcast licensees "take the public pulse". That is, the FCC should require broadcasters to meet "with their viewers and listeners to see if the programs being offered reflected the diverse interests and needs of the community".

He again advocated FCC promulgation of rules that regulate broadband internet access service (BIAS) providers.

He said that "So-called ``managed services´´ and ``paid priority´´ cannot be allowed to supplant the quality of the public Internet service available to us all. ``Reasonable network management´´ practices must never be allowed to cloak competitive one-up-manship."

He said that the rules must include "non-discrimination", and must apply to both wireless and wireline broadband. Finally, he again advocated reclassification of broadband as a Title II service.

Also, he said that the FCC "should be developing contingency plans to curtail network and spectrum monopolies and duopolies", and then switched to another subject. He did not explain how the FCC might do this, such as by asserting a quasi-Sherman Act authority.