Making better television

The abrupt cancellation of KING 5’s “Up Front with Robert Mak,” a program that needled lawmakers as it distilled arcane political questions into English, brings into focus the intersection of broadcast media and the public interest. To compound the insult, the indispensable “KCTS 9 Connects” with Enrique Cerna is also ending. (The sound you hear is the shattering of civic-centric programming.)

Can a broadcasting company’s First Amendment right to free speech be harmonized with the imperative to inform and educate? The Communications Act of 1934 demands as much. Borrowing a public resource, television is a different media beast than the ink-stained Herald. The airwaves are owned by the American people, and broadcast media are trustees of the public interest (known as broadcasting’s public-trustee model.) There is a public-interest standard for radio and television, overseen by the not-always-vigilant Federal Communications Commission (FCC.) By 1960, the public-interest standard was extended to children’s programming, a catalyst for the launch of “Sesame Street.”

It seems like a fair exchange of goods: Broadcasters get their paws on a limited resource (there is only so much non-cable bandwidth to license) with the understanding that they’re part of the social contract. Ideally, the FCC would demand more of local stations, but that would be out of character. A local newscast or educational program is sufficient to meet the FCC’s public-interest standard. “Up Front” was gravy.

Now might be a good time to elbow your college roommate who works at the FCC to write KING 5 and remind them of the 1934 Communications Act. It’s likely to end up in the round file, but pestering can be a virtue. A realistic strategy requires pressure from viewers and advertisers. Bring Mak back.

In the 1950s Joe Miller, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer scribe with Everett roots, wrote an award-winning analysis ballyhooing television as a vehicle to elevate political dialogue. Miller still jokes about his greater-good prediction. For Millennials and other young voters, the political sphere was expressed in dire ads for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Jon Stewart memes and Saturday Night Live skits are the new civics.

Washington legislators passed a K-12 civics-education requirement years ago, but it was cast aside by most school districts as yet another unfunded mandate (Note to Olympia: When reviving K-12 pursuant to the state supreme court’s McCleary decision, please support civic education.)

Programs like “KCTS 9 Connects” and “Up Front” provide a public value, making politics and civics digestible to a wide audience. They elevate viewers by intelligently challenging them. That shouldn’t be asking too much of all media.

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