Written by Bennett Guess
As expected, the UCC has filed an appeal with the Federal Communications Commission following a staff-level decision in August to dismiss license-renewal challenges by the UCC that came after CBS and NBC network executives deemed the church's inclusive ads "too controversial" to air on TV.
The Sept. 6 "application for review" was submitted to the full FCC by the Office for Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), the UCC's media justice agency. It argues that, since networks do not hold FCC licenses, networks can only be held accountable if the FCC allows for the networks' wholly-owned stations to be challenged.
In its August decision, FCC staff denied the UCC's challenges to the licenses of NBC Universal's WTVJ-TV and CBS' WFOR-TV, both in Miami, saying the local stations – despite being owned by the networks – should not be held accountable for network-level decisions.
"We are appealing the staff-level decision to the full Federal Communications Commission," says Cheryl Leanza, an attorney and managing director of OC, Inc. "We are confident that the staff overstepped its bounds, ignored the law and denied us the opportunity to be heard. We will pursue this matter vigorously."
Andrew J. Schwartzman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Media Access Project and one of the attorneys representing the UCC, says, "This is clearly an erroneous decision that acts to shield the networks from public scrutiny. It has far-reaching implications, far beyond the issue of religious tolerance."
The church's appeal argues that the most-recent decision "impairs the Commission's ability to administer its policies."
"The effect of these decisions is to remove Commission authority to examine network programming practices in the context of license renewal proceedings of network-owned and operated stations," the appellate request reads.
The initial FCC challenges were filed by the UCC in 2004 after the networks refused to air the UCC's all-inclusive "God is still speaking" ads that promote religious tolerance.
The Miami stations were challenged, because the south Florida market included two network-owned stations impacted by the networks' far-reaching decisions. With assistance from the UCC's media justice organization – Office for Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.) – local UCC members petitioned the FCC when the Miami stations' licenses came up for renewal.
"Even individual and groups beyond the UCC agree that a variety of religious viewpoints should be given voice through our mass media, especially one that speaks to Christ's extravagant welcome," says the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president. "Today's media falls woefully short in this regard."
Despite being denied access by the two broadcast networks, the UCC's "bouncer" ad did air widely on cable networks in December 2004, but the church's second ad, known as "ejector," which debuted in 2005, also was excluded by multiple cable networks because the stations are owned by parent companies of CBS and NBC.
Leanza says the FCC must offer a viable process to challenge network decisions when there is a clear bias against a particular point of view.
While many local CBS and NBC stations have expressed willingness to accept the UCC's paid advertising, church leaders have insisted that a market-by-market ad buy is cost prohibitive, since network advertising is far-more affordable and far reaching than purchasing ads in hundreds of individual markets. Church leaders also argued that broadcast networks were essential to the church's hope of reaching all TV viewers, especially lower-income persons who may not have cable TV.