The Quiet Commissioner (09/01/08)
There are two FCCs: the massive, faceless federal agency, and the five passionate and opinionated individuals who make up the commission itself. FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate is heard from perhaps less frequently, and in more measured terms, than her more flamboyant colleagues. But that doesn't mean her interests aren't as varied or her views as strongly held. That Tate shuns the spotlight doesn't mean she can't handle it as shown by her determination to get concessions on enforcement before becoming the deciding vote in favor of the merger that formed Sirius XM Radio Inc.
Tate declined to discuss the merger vote, but in this wide-ranging Q&A, she comments on all the hot topics today — broadcast decency, localism, ownership diversity — and on children's and family issues, a particular passion in support of which she often uses the "bully pulpit" her post on the FCC provides. Take a look — some of her positions may surprise you.
Radio Ink: Beyond children’s programming and broadcast decency, what is the FCC’s role in promoting children’s and family welfare? What can broadcasters, particularly radio, do to help?
Deborah Tate: Section 307 of the Communications Act of 1934 requires that licensees serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity. In serving the public interest, broadcasters have a responsibility to consider the effect of their programming on children and families. Children are moving into the digital world, and new opportunities, as well as new risks, are presented by developing technologies. The pervasiveness of media in our children’s lives makes it especially important that we ensure the influence is a positive one.
As a mother of three and a lifelong champion for children, I continue to focus my attention on an issue critical to the health and well-being of the next generation — childhood obesity.
The FCC regulates children’s programming and limits the amount of advertising that can be shown during such programs because we recognize the pervasive impact television has on our children. A recent Federal Trade Commission study found that food and beverage companies spend $1.6 billion to target children with advertisements, the majority via television. I, along with two U.S. senators and two other commissioners, helped form the Joint Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity to examine the impact — both positive and negative — that media and advertising have on this epidemic. Thanks to the group’s work, many media companies have already stepped forward and pledged to change their marketing practices.
In addition to the task force, other entities, such as the FTC and the Better Business Bureau, have been working with food and beverages companies to adopt pledges regarding limits on advertising and adopting nutritional guidelines for their foods that are advertised to children. I am hopeful these developments will truly make a difference in the lives of our children. And there are thousands of local programs and nonprofits committed to encouraging and providing opportunities for more active lifestyles as well.
Another issue of critical importance to our nation’s children is Internet safety. A 2007 Pew study shows that 28 percent of online teens have created their own blogs, and 27 percent maintain their own webpages. Thirty-nine percent share their own artwork, photos, stories, or videos online, much of it private and extremely personal information. Forty-one percent of teens who use MySpace, Facebook, or other social-networking sites send messages to their friends every day through these sites.
The Internet has also brought to light the presence of, and market for, child pornography, most of which is distributed via the Internet. There are more than 4 million pornographic websites — 12 percent of all websites. In addition to these concerns is the problem of cyber-bullying, most recently brought to light in the wake of the tragic death of a teenage girl who took her own life after being taunted online. I-safe reports that 42 percent of children have been bullied online, and 1 in 4 has had it happen more than once.
I am very impressed that DOCOMO, the largest Japanese wireless provider, has undertaken an Internet-safety curriculum and actually sends instructors into schools to provide Internet and cellphone safety instruction. With approximately 60 percent of American teens owning a cell phone, and cell phones being marketed to children as young as 6, I am challenging U.S. carriers to adopt similar initiatives to provide curriculum and education regarding the safe use of their products — including Internet safety, illegal downloading, and especially providing personal information via cellphones.
RI: The transition to digital television is approaching in February 2009. How is public awareness of the change and what it means? Are broadcasters getting the word out?
DT: I just returned from several days of outreach to senior centers and numerous media outlets in my hometown of Nashville. Public awareness continues to skyrocket. Surveys show that 84-90 percent of the American public is aware of the February 17, 2009, DTV transition. This is due in large part to the excellent outreach and education efforts not only of the FCC, but also of radio and television broadcasters and cable and satellite providers. The National Association of Broadcasters has donated over $1 billion to DTV education, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association has donated $200 million, in addition to the bill stuffers and notices they will include on customers’ monthly statements.
At the FCC, we are relying on the coordination and partnership of every segment of society — broadcasters; cable and satellite operators; federal, state, and local government officials; electronics manufacturers and retailers; community-service organizations; elder-care workers; and even professional sports teams — to help spread the word to every corner of America. All five FCC commissioners will be embarking on a nationwide DTV tour to assist in trying to reach seniors, non-English speakers, and disability communities.
RI: With broadcast decency coming before the Supreme Court for the first time in more than 30 years, what do you think has changed since the Pacifica decision — on the air, politically, and in the public’s feelings about questionable content? Is it time for a different approach to indecency enforcement? How are broadcasters regulating themselves?
DT: When I spoke at the First Amendment Center in Washington, DC, on the recent 30th anniversary of the Pacifica decision, I shared a video of what our children are actually watching during what was once the "family hour." I noted that over 60 percent of parents think children are exposed to too much inappropriate media content. Everywhere I go — meetings, forums, or just the grocery store — parents tell me they are concerned about the coarse language and graphic sexual and violent content on television and radio. Whether this calls for a different approach to indecency enforcement remains a matter for Congress and the courts to decide.
We will continue to enforce the law of the land. If it is any indication of congressional intent, Congress made a strong statement of support for continued indecency enforcement by passing the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005, which authorized a tenfold increase on the maximum fines — from $32,500 to $325,000 — for broadcasters that air obscene, indecent, or profane content between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
I believe broadcasters have made positive steps forward. I have personally visited every network and seen the efforts they undertake to prevent offensive content from getting on the air — from additional training to compliance officers to utilizing five-to-10-second delays for live broadcasts. Family-friendly programming is big business. Shows like ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, NBC’s Deal or No Deal, and CBS’s Greatest American Dog all garner large audiences of viewers of all ages. Disney’s High School Musical 2 was viewed by the largest cable audience of all time — more than half of which was over 14. That said, we currently have thousands of complaints pending at the FCC, all filed by individual citizens in regard to specific television and radio shows aired in the last few years.
RI: Some of the localism proposals on the table at the FCC have brought strong responses from broadcasters — perhaps most particularly the proposed return to the main studio rule, which would require a broadcaster’s main facility to be in its city of license. Many broadcasters contend that market forces are a strong motivation to keep programming local. How do you see broadcasting’s — particularly radio’s — track record on service to communities? Is there more they could or should be doing?
DT: If broadcasters are not committed to localism, they won’t be in business. In just the last few months, I have met with the state broadcasters’ associations in Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana, and with many local broadcasters from across the country. I am more convinced than ever that these individuals are dedicated to the needs of their local communities. The efforts taken by broadcasters during Hurricane Katrina and the recent tornados in Tennessee are nothing short of heroic. The FCC’s hearings across the country gave us the opportunity to hear what local broadcasters are doing in every corner of America.
The NAB estimates that $10.3 billion of community service is performed by broadcasters each year. It is a track record of service that has carried through from the first days of radio broadcasting, and one that I hope the FCC will not interfere with through overly burdensome government regulation, especially in light of the successful deregulation that took place 20 years ago.
In rural areas where local news and information is particularly important, local news outlets are struggling to survive. We must also consider how we can set appropriate rules that allow broadcasters to continue to serve the local community interests while also responding to the needs of their local citizens.
Local broadcasters know their communities best. They provide the types of information on which citizens rely — local weather and traffic, high school football scores, community events, school programs, local political races, and more. They are often the first responders in times of crisis. Whether crime, weather disasters, or public health emergencies, local news outlets are the first to communicate critical information to the public.
RI: A bill that would bring back the tax certificate has been introduced in the Senate, and I know you’ve supported encouraging access to capital as a way to bring more diversity to the airwaves. Of the diversity proposals on the table, which do you think are most likely to make a difference? What else can — or should — the commission do to encourage multiple voices and viewpoints?
DT: In our hearings across the country on media diversity, it has become clear that one of the primary hurdles women and minorities face in the broadcast industry is the lack of access to financing. The National Association of Broadcasters identified access to capital as "the largest roadblock to a more diverse broadcast industry." We live in a country where women comprise more than half of the population, and yet the rate of women in ownership and leadership positions is strikingly low — just 3.4 percent of radio stations and 5 percent of full-power television stations. Only 7 percent of the directors of the 14 largest radio companies are women, despite the fact that over 50 percent of all radio station formats skew to female listeners.
The story is strikingly similar, yet even more dramatic, for minorities. Minorities own 3 percent of all broadcast television stations and 7.8 percent of commercial radio stations. The challenge before us is to find practical solutions to meet the marketplace demand by advancing diversity among broadcast owners in concrete ways.
In December, the FCC adopted 13 specific recommendations to encourage more diversity, and in July, we held an Access to Capital conference in New York City. I hope this will lead to an annual event, not only in New York, but in other financial and media centers, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, and Atlanta. At these forums we bring to life tangible opportunities — not merely recommendations that sit on a shelf — for real-world prospective female and minority media entrants to meet with sophisticated and well-informed Wall Street investors to discuss financing opportunities.
The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council recently unveiled its much-anticipated Roadmap for Telecommunications Policy. The suggestions contained in this document — legislative priorities and proposed FCC rules — create a blueprint for breaking down the remaining barriers to entry for minorities and women. A few of the MMTC’s FCC policy suggestions include share-time proposals, extending EEO rules to all [multichannel video programming providers] and telecom carriers, and a top-to-bottom reform of the Designated Entity Program.
Other public policy suggestions I continue to press are:
1. Encouraging companies to track investments and performance of investments by gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as geographic location in all venture-funded companies.
2. Encouraging investors to make diversity a priority in their overall portfolios, by seeking out and considering investment in women- and minority-led ventures.
3. For those investors whose portfolios include family businesses, encouraging them to establish a set-aside to assist women and minorities. Those who are females and minorities at the top of their firms should make this a priority, from the top down, to value and invest in diversity.
4. Creating programs to educate and prepare women to lead fast-growth businesses, whether high-tech or not. This could help add more women and minorities to the financial and investment sectors as well.
5. Encouraging and educating women and minorities to participate in the investment process by sponsoring forums like Springboard 2000, sponsored by the National Women’s Business Council and the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. Springboard 2000 was the first venture capital forum to showcase women entrepreneurs. It was a national initiative designed to increase investment channels and facilitate deals for women-led companies. At the forum, the entrepreneurs were able to present their business plans to angel, venture, and corporate investors and event sponsors. These women were introduced to funding opportunities that they may not have previously considered.
6. Encouraging and sponsoring additional research to examine the process by which men-, women-, and minority-led ventures are screened by angel and venture capital firms, to determine if there are any differences and establish blind review processes.
7. Enlisting marketing experts and corporate coaches, as well as PR and image consultants to assist in helping borrowers and buyers present their best-case scenarios.
8. Encouraging and sponsoring research to examine the extent to which venture capitalists, angels, and limited partners (pension funds, endowments, and insurance companies) perceive investments in women and minority-led ventures as more risky investments, and develop educational programs for decision-makers to learn about success stories and mitigating risk-adverse decision-making.
9. Encouraging all states and large corporations to set aside funds for women and minority investments. California does this by utilizing moneys from a pension fund to invest in capital venture funds that focus on minority media ownership. So far, eight Hispanic broadcast companies have benefited. .
10. Establishing internships and structured mentoring programs to help women and minorities get into the pipeline so they can eventually be considered for leadership and ownership positions.
We must work together to see women and minorities advance in all types of leadership positions, from the boardroom to the green room to the control room, behind the microphone or in front of the camera, in every sphere of influence, so that the media truly reflects the diversity of our great nation.
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