An important group always has been missing during the decades of interactions between the broadcasting industry, the FCC and the Congress. The missing group is what these three parties always are deliberating about. But they seem uninterested in providing it with a well-equipped right of access. The group of course is the television and radio audience — the consumers of the electronic media who pay all the bills.
The time now is particularly right for recognizing the audience, because Congress is in the midst of rewriting the nation’s communications laws first passed in 1934. Yet some proponents of the legislation, such as Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin, D-Calif., find little space for audience recognition in their lengthy draft bill. They want to deregulate much of the broadcast industry by eliminating the public interest standard, the fairness doctrine and eventually station licensing renewals.
But deregulating the industry simply gives the industry more de facto regulatory power over the audience. The Van Deerlin bill (H.R. 3333) chooses to rely on “marketplace forces.” This broadcasting market is not a free-market model but is characterized by a monopoly power on the one hand and disenfranchised consumers on the other.
I propose that Congress, in rewriting the communications laws, empower the creation of an organized, informed constituency of viewers and listeners. Let us call this new group the Audience Network. As a congressionally chartered, nonprofit institution, the Audience Network would serve as the viewers’ and listeners’ “community intelligence.” It would represent the interests of its members before the FCC, the courts and Congress itself wherever broadcasting policy is being made.
Any citizen could become a member of the Audience Network by contributing a modest amount, say $5 annually, in dues to the organization. Members’ contributions would constitute Audience Network’s basic source of funding; the group would receive no tax dollars.
Governed democratically by voting members, elected delegates and a board of directors, the Audience Network would be given 30 minutes of air time on each radio and television station each day during prime time (television) and drive time (radio).
During its time slot, the Audience Network and its local chapters around the country would inform the public about media subjects, its own activities and produce or obtain a variety of programs.
With a professional staff and production facilities, the Audience group could range from issues of audience rights to interviews of controversial people; lively critiques or satire of existing TV programs from the nightly news to talk shows and soap operas.
Walter Cronkite, for example, could be interviewed about his criticisms of TV news — a subject he has discussed in a recent speech before a publishers’ convention but not on television.
Many major problems confronting the nation of local communities that are largely ignored by broadcasting could find visibility on the Audience Network’s 30 minutes a day. Audience feedback and suggestions, citizen-alert bulletins and a plethora of other vital communications ideas competently presented would find themselves reaching millions of Americans.
With a staff of audience specialists, lawyers, economists and scientists, the Audience Network also could advocate broadcast reform measures, litigate, conduct economic studies and be the people’s ombudsman for the electronic media. Congress would be able to draw upon a skilled and popularly based constituency whenever legislation was being considered.
In short, the Audience Network would serve as a self-funded, independent, ongoing communications link among viewers and listeners. For years, broadcast executives have said they give their audiences “what the public wants.” Yet the members of the public themselves never have been – granted time on their own airwaves to program what they want as an organized community of viewers and listeners. Why, Morris the Cat has had far more television air time to convey his message about cat food than 200 million Americans have had to use the same medium to convey their thoughts and programming tastes.
According to a survey conducted by the Annenberg School of Communications five months ago, three-quarters of the people polled agreed that “broadcast time should be set aside for ordinary people to show their programs and views.”
“It would appear,” the study concluded, “that were the opportunity available, a sizable portion of the population would try their hand at television communication.”
Congress can return a very modest portion of the public’s airwaves to the public’s control. Write your member of Congress for his or her opinion on the proposed Audience Network. For more information about the idea, write to Howard Symons, P.O. Box 19404, Washington, D.C., 20036. Please include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.