Written by Bennett Guess
UCC leaders are expressing outrage at a staff-level decision by the Federal Communications Commission to dismiss the church's 2004 license-renewal challenges after the CBS and NBC networks deemed the church's all-inclusive religious message "too controversial" to air on TV.
On Aug. 7, the FCC's staff denied the 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.
However, in contrast to this claim, the FCC has long maintained that local stations, not the networks, are the license-holding entities.
"This is clearly an erroneous decision that acts to shield the networks from public scrutiny," said Andrew J. Schwartzman, an attorney and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Media Access Project, who, along with Angela J. Campbell of the Georgetown University Law Center, represented the UCC.
"Networks do not hold licenses, so unless the public is able to challenge network-owned stations through the license-renewal process there is no recourse," said Schwartzman, who described the decision as having "far-reaching implications, far beyond the issue of religious tolerance."
"We have a strong case for reversal, and we will definitely pursue an appeal," Schwartzman said.
The FCC challenges were filed by the UCC 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.
"We are indignant at the FCC's treatment of our complaint," said Cheryl A. Leanza, an attorney and managing director of OC, Inc. "Rather than address the heart of our concern, the FCC has played games with the law. We have a legitimate concern, but we can obtain no redress."
Leanza said she is appalled that "a few network executives can decide that it is 'too controversial' for a church to publicly welcome every member of society."
"Communities of faith are playing a more significant role than ever before in civic debate, and the current media system's bias prevents the full range of religious thought from being presented to the public," Leanza said.
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.
"This decision is indicative of why people are so fed up with media consolidation," said the Rev. Robert Chase, the UCC's communication director. "We are caught in a conundrum. Where do we go to challenge the right of a church to have its message broadcast over the public airwaves, even when it is willing to pay for that broadcast?"
Chase said 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.