Menendez Asks Senate Committee to Consider Legislation to Hold WWOR-TV Accountable to New Jerseyans

Menendez Asks Senate Committee to Consider Legislation to Hold WWOR-TV Accountable to New Jerseyans

‘The FCC’s rubber-stamping of WWOR’s license renewal last year portends the end of rigorous review of whether a licensee has met the public interest standard for TV licensee holders as set forth in the Communications Act’

 
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) submitted written testimony today before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing entitled “The State of the Television and Video Marketplace” outlining Secaucus, N.J.-based WWOR-TV’s failure to provide New Jerseyans with meaningful local, news programming. Sen. Menendez urged the committee to consider his legislation, the Section 331 Obligation Clarification Act, clarifying that WWOR-TV is still beholden to its legal obligations under the Communications Act even if it or other stations have converted to an ultra-high frequency.

WWOR-TV is the only broadcast station licensed to New Jersey.  In accordance with Section 331, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stipulated that any license holder for WWOR-TV “devote itself to meeting the special needs of its new community (and the needs of the Northern New Jersey area in general).”  Yet, WWOR-TV had its license renewed by the FCC in 2018, despite the station shutting down its entire New Jersey-based news operation in 2013 and failing to provide meaningful local news coverage ever since.

“WWOR-TV’s failure to provide local news coverage goes back many years. In 2009, WWOR-TV reduced its news coverage by more than half. At that time, WWOR-TV broadcast only 8.8% as much news programming as its peer group.  Six years later, WWOR-TV’s news programming remained stagnant at 3 hours/week, while its peer stations increased their average news coverage to 56 hours/week,” wrote the Senator in his written testimony. “This difference in local community service is simply startling – and it has prompted my constituents to complain to the FCC many times that the station’s license should be revoked. And yet, last year the FCC concluded that WWOR-TV license should be renewed for another eight-year term.”

Before its license renewal, Sens. Menendez and Booker urged the FCC to consider WWOR-TV’s failure to abide by its legal obligations to serve the people of New Jersey. After the FCC’s decision to renew WWOR’s license, the Senators requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examine the process by which the FCC renews broadcast television licenses.

In 2014, Sen. Menendez cited significant concerns expressed by New Jersey constituents and community groups that WWOR was failing to meet its obligations, which, coupled with a formal complaint by media observers, ultimately led to an FCC investigation.

“The FCC’s rubber-stamping of WWOR’s license renewal last year portends the end of rigorous review of whether a licensee has met the public interest standard for TV licensee holders as set forth in the Communications Act,” the Senator added. “I understand that the FCC does not sit as the final arbiter of what a station must or must not air – something that would be inconsistent with the First Amendment. But the FCC has a statutory duty to make sure stations like WWOR-TV are complying with their special obligations.”

After WWOR-TV’s license renewal last year, Sen. Menendez introduced the Section 331 Obligation Clarification Act to ensure that New Jersey’s WWOR-TV and other local stations live up to their obligations under the current law. In today’s written testimony, the Senator asked the Committee to consider his legislation.

“Citizens in New Jersey and other areas like it must have confidence that the FCC will make sure that these stations are living up to their commitment to their local communities and the public trust placed in them as holders of broadcast TV licenses,” the Senator concluded in his testimony. “My constituents also deserve assurances that the FCC will revoke a station’s license for failure to meet its responsibilities.”

The full text of the written testimony can be found below.

Thank you, Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cantwell for holding this important hearing today, and for allowing me to provide testimony. As this Committee works to reauthorize the 2014 Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR) legislation, I urge you to take a holistic look at the state of broadcasting in the country. I ask that the Committee give special consideration to whether the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) current broadcast TV rules serve the public interest, particularly in states like New Jersey that lack their own home television markets. Finally, as part of your work on a reauthorization measure, I ask that you consider including in that bill reforms to the special obligations of Section 331 of the Communications Act.

If the densely populated state of New Jersey had its own broadcast television market, it would be the fourth-largest market in the country. However, due to its position between New York City and Philadelphia – and the way The Nielsen Company draws television markets – my state is split between two designated market areas centered on those two cities. As a result, New Jersey is home to a paltry few TV stations actually licensed to communities in the state, with WWOR-TV (licensed to Secaucus) as the most well-known by my constituents.

Because of the mechanism by which WWOR-TV obtained its license in New Jersey, the station has special obligations to serve northern New Jersey’s many residents. In accordance with section 355 of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (which added section 331 to the Communications Act of 1934) , the FCC stipulated that any license holder for WWOR-TV “devote itself to meeting the special needs of its new community (and the needs of the Northern New Jersey area in general).” These requirements accorded with the original Congressional intent of section 331, which entices stations to move their community of license to unserved states by giving them a prime broadcast channel. Moreover, the authors of section 331 were my predecessor Senators from New Jersey, who understood the need to have TV stations serving the needs of these previously unserved communities.

Despite this license requirement, WWOR shut down its entire New Jersey-based news operation in 2013, forcing layoffs while absorbing some staff at Fox 5 affiliate, WNYW-TV, in New York City.  WWOR-TV subsequently replaced its local newscast with “Chasing New Jersey”—now called “Chasing News”—a half-hour, TMZ-style program produced by an outside company. WWOR-TV now provides just three hours of weekly news programming compared to an average of 56 hours by comparable broadcast stations in the overlapping New York City and Philadelphia media markets. This is unacceptable.

WWOR-TV’s failure to provide local news coverage goes back many years. In 2009, WWOR-TV reduced its news coverage by more than half. At that time WWOR-TV broadcast only 8.8% as much news programming as its peer group.  Six years later, WWOR-TV’s news programming remained stagnant at 3 hours/week, while its peer stations increased their average news coverage to 56 hours/week. 

This difference in local community service is simply startling – and it has prompted my constituents to complain to the FCC many times that the station’s license should be revoked. And yet, last year the FCC concluded that WWOR-TV license should be renewed for another eight-year term. I believe that in renewing WWOR’s license, the FCC failed to live up to its statutory obligations under Section 309(k)(1) of the Communications Act to examine whether WWOR has complied with its obligation to “serve[] the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”  The FCC’s grant of renewal in 2018 also raises a serious question as to what a concerned local citizen would have to demonstrate for the FCC to deny a license renewal based upon the inability of WWOR, or any other station, to serve its local community consistent with section 331.

The FCC’s rubber-stamping of WWOR’s license renewal last year portends the end of rigorous review of whether a licensee has met the public interest standard for TV licensee holders as set forth in the Communications Act.  I understand that the FCC does not sit as the final arbiter of what a station must or must not air – something that would be inconsistent with the First Amendment. But the FCC has a statutory duty to make sure stations like WWOR-TV are complying with their special obligations. This renewal raises serious questions about what evidence those concerned about a license renewal must show to get the FCC to take seriously its duty to determine that a licensee is complying with the Communications Act. It is time for the FCC to adopt clear guidelines for how it will judge whether stations are meeting their responsibilities to Americans, especially for those stations like WWOR who have particularized responsibilities pursuant to their TV licenses.

To ensure that WWOR-TV and stations live up to their obligations, I ask that this Committee consider my legislation, S. 941, the Section 331 Obligation Clarification Act. The Section 331 Obligations Clarification Act would require licensee holders under this section to: (1) broadcast at least 14 hours of localized programming during primetime hours; (2) file with the FCC a quarterly disclosure of all local programming, including a separate list of particularized local content; and (3) consult with local leaders in the market served by the station. I would request that the Committee advance my bill, either as a stand-alone measure or as part of the STELAR reauthorization package.

The concerns I present to the Committee today rest on one simple concept – local TV viewers deserve programming that is relevant to their lives. The issue of localism has been central in past reauthorizations of the satellite TV carriage laws. In fact, it was the Senate Commerce Committee, in STELAR, that developed a TV market modification mechanism that specifically considers whether citizens are getting relevant local programming from their home state in considering whether to grant a market modification/facilitate access to that sort of in-state programming.

The citizens of New Jersey face a similar problem today. My constituents are supposed to be the beneficiaries of special protections in section 331 – in practice, as documented by the issues surrounding WWOR-TV, this has not been the case. And I would note that the conversation thus far around the STELAR reauthorization has itself focused on the question of localism and access to local programming/content. In fact, one of the key arguments presented by the broadcast community for why the laws reauthorized in STELAR should not be allowed to lapse is that those laws may encourage satellite providers not to offer more localized TV stations over their systems. It would seem then that the broadcasters would support passage of S. 941, which seeks to address that same problem of lack of truly particularized local content where there are such few options to obtain it.

Citizens in New Jersey and other areas like it must have confidence that the FCC will make sure that these stations are living up to their commitment to their local communities and the public trust placed in them as holders of broadcast TV licenses. My constituents also deserve assurances that the FCC will revoke a station’s license for failure to meet its responsibilities.

Thank you for your consideration.

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