Monday, October 27, 2003

Mayors, town councils, school boards and civic leaders don’t have much of a voice on television these days, according to a recent study.

Broadcasters have relegated local public-affairs programming to the very bottom of the heap — behind cartoons, kitchenware specials, reruns, courtroom dramas, dating shows and late-night talk shows.

The modest showcases for community issues account for less than one-half of 1 percent of local TV programming nationwide, said the report, released Friday by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington-based public interest group.

There is “a near blackout” of local politics by broadcasters, the study said.

Out of 7,560 hours of programming analyzed, 13 were devoted to local public affairs, it said. Forty-five stations in six cities were studied from Oct. 5 to Oct. 11.

The analysis found, for example, that there were three times as many “Seinfeld” reruns as local public-affairs shows on TV stations nationwide.

There were four times as many cartoon shows, seven times as many pro football games, nine times as many dating shows, 19 times as many late-night talk shows, 20 times as many courtroom dramas and 23 times as many soap operas.

“Broadcasters have an explicit responsibility to serve the local communities to which they are licensed,” said Meredith McGehee, president of the alliance. “All politics is local, but you wouldn’t know it by watching local TV.”

It’s time, she said, to define a more robust “public-interest standard” for TV stations legally obliged to serve that interest in exchange for a free broadcast license, under guidelines established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1934.

The FCC, meanwhile, established a “localism task force” and scheduled six public hearings nationwide to glean feedback from viewers, advocacy groups and civic organizations about broadcasters and their duty to the local community.

The first hearing took place Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C. The others will follow in Texas, California, South Dakota, Maine and the District.

The study also found local broadcasters preoccupied with their bottom lines.

The most frequently aired type of broadcast is paid programming — a wide spectrum of shows devoted to special-interest causes, self-improvement, home and garden products, real estate deals, exercise equipment and financial advice, among other things.

It accounts for more than 14 percent of all local programming.

Dramas, talk shows, comedies, reality shows, local and national news, sports shows, religious and educational programming follow in frequency, with celebrity news and national public affairs bringing up the rear. Local public affairs was last.

Even in instances when local broadcasters offer local public affairs, they relegate it to weekend mornings. Eight of the 13 hours of public affairs programming aired Saturday or Sunday before noon.

Only one station, in Maine, gave local politics a little prime-time exposure: WGME-TV, a CBS-affiliate in Portland, aired a two-hour Saturday prime-time special and debate on an upcoming statewide referendum that explored the prospect of bringing legalized casino gambling to the state.

The study also examined locally produced newsmagazine-style shows around the country, and concluded that they focus on arts and entertainment, rather than politics and government. Those shows accounted for 27 hours of the total, or about four-tenths of a percent.

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