Morris the cat is informing millions of television viewers these days a about his finicky preference for a certain kind of cat food. This is more can than he said about the preference of millions of television viewers for the kind of television they would like to watch over the public’s airwaves. What they need is regular communication with one another through the electronic media to establish a consumer group that will voice the policies they want in return for all those billions of dollars they are paying for advertising and television sets.
Over and over again, sincere; informed but underfunded citizen groups have tried to assert themselves before Congress and the-Federal Communications Commission on issues affecting television standards expressed in federal licensing laws and regulations.
With a few exceptions, these citizens have not prevailed against the well-organized power and resources of the broadcasting industry.
Action for Children’s Television is an example of what happens when overwhelming merit confronts immovable power. Founded by four housewives in 1968, ACT has shown how children’s advertising on TV lures children into terrible eating habits which stress sugar, colored items (filled with color dyes) and other junk or zero nutrition foods.
ACT also has documented violence in children’s programming with harmful effects on child behavior and values. So impressive has ACT’s work been that many television executives privately (thinking of their children, perhaps) concede the rightness of its cause and recommendations.
Notwithstanding the general promises of the networks to do better’, ACT has seen little improvement in either children’s programming or advertisements.
Other citizen groups have studied the way time is used by networks and affiliates and concluded that bias, , inanity, lack of community input or news are all too prevalent.
They also have found an instructive gap between the better radio and TV stations and those stations which view their licenses just as a profit-maximizing investment.
Finally, public records show the rate of return on investments by television stations to be about the highest of any industry in the country. So they cannot plead fiscal poverty as a reason for their community action poverty.
The FCC has been operating as a government trade association for, he broadcasting industry, It is run by industry sympathizers or former industry officials; corporate lawyers, trade and if needed, Washington associations and stations are well equipped to advance their cause.
Although its laws and regulations refer generally to “public interest standards” and other standards which are to be met in return for giving broadcasters a license to operate, the agency has rarely moved to spell out what these mean and even more rarely applied them.
PERHAPS most basic has been the FCC’s fail re to provide ways for citizens to initiate or participate in its proceedings without the need for a $100,000-plus lawyer’s kitty.
Even when presented with models such as CBS’s) “60 Minutes” (which confounds the industry cynics with its high ratings), broadcasters rarely follow up to expand similar public affairs programming nationally or locally. So even models of superior performance on television have little stimulating effect.
There is a way to vastly improve radio and television and relieve the broadcasting tyranny of the Nielsen ratings as their all-purpose rationalization.
Whether through new legislation or FCC regulation, all television and radio licensees would be required to give one minute of prime time per day to a television viewers’ and radio listeners’ consumer group.
The group would appeal for funds and make announcements about its reports, activities and services. Because of its access to the public airwaves, the groups would be democratically structured, under FCC supervision, with contributors having the vote to elect the council of directors from specific geographic regions served by the licensee.
The council, in turn, would hire the experts and organizers to represent on a daily basis the interests and grievances of electronic media consumers. There could be local chapters and other ways to insure accountability and responsiveness.
Consumer groups all over the country are advocating a similar consumer check-off system for residential electric, telephone, and utility consumers.
For a copy of this proposal as an example of how a check-off supported consumer group would work, write to Martin Rogol, P.0 Box 19312, Washington, D.C. 20036.