Monday, February 21, 2011

New Jersey TV Station Is Accused of Failing Its Audience

By Brian Steltzer

WWOR-TV is the subject of an unusual investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, which is looking into charges that the station’s owner, the News Corporation, misrepresented the station’s number of employees and amount of programming. The investigation is gaining attention in part because WWOR is a rarity: it is effectively the only big commercial station licensed to the state of New Jersey.

At issue are the obligations that television license owners have to the communities in which they operate. Just how many reporters and newscasts can a station remove before it fails to meet those obligations?

The investigation of WWOR implicitly asks that question. The station’s news division was already weak when, during the recession in 2009, it dismissed some employees and cut its nightly newscast to 30 minutes from one hour. The F.C.C.’s inquiry, announced on Thursday, was prompted by complaints from media activists who say that since the cutbacks, WWOR has overstated its coverage in filings to the F.C.C.

WWOR’s license has been in limbo for nearly four years. In a statement on Thursday, the News Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, said it was confident that “upon review of all facts and applicable law, the F.C.C. will recognize that these unwarranted claims hold no merit.”

The station’s general manager and news director declined to be interviewed. In an e-mail, a station spokeswoman, Erica Keane, said: “WWOR-TV stands by its record of service to New Jersey.”

WWOR has a complex history in the state. The station, formerly known as WOR, was licensed to Manhattan until the mid-1980s, when the license was transferred to New Jersey. Much of New Jersey is wedged between two major media markets, New York City and Philadelphia, and politicians have long complained about a lack of local television coverage.

A citizens’ group for media reform, Voice For New Jersey, says the lack of broadcast coverage hampers accountability of public officials and reduces awareness about news in local communities. The state also has a news channel, News 12, that is available only to cable customers, and a public broadcaster, New Jersey Network, that is suffering from state budget cuts.

“We don’t have a reliable station within our midst,” said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, referring to commercial TV stations. Mr. Lautenberg, a longtime critic of WWOR, said the station’s executives had “failed to live up to their obligations.”

The license for WWOR was granted on condition that its owner pay special attention to northern New Jersey. The station does — but not sufficiently, critics say.

For its part, the News Corporation has said in filings that the condition was intended to ensure the station extend to all of northern New Jersey, not just Secaucus, where WWOR is based, and that WWOR’s obligations are “no different in kind or degree” from any other station’s. There is no general F.C.C. requirement that stations provide any newscasts at all.

WWOR broadcasts a Sunday public affairs program called “New Jersey Now.” But it has just one newscast a day, at 11 p.m., and shares resources with WNYW, the News Corporation’s Fox station in New York — even more since the budget cuts in 2009. The 11 p.m. co-anchor on WWOR, Harry Martin, doubles as the 6 p.m. anchor on WNYW, for instance.

One company’s ownership of two stations in a market is deemed a duopoly. The News Corporation has nine such duopolies in the United States. It also owns The New York Post. The News Corporation has a permanent waiver allowing it to own both WNYW and The Post; a temporary waiver allowing it to own both WWOR and The Post expired in 2008.

A thicket of legal claims have been piling up ever since Voice for New Jersey called on the F.C.C. to deny the News Corporation a license renewal for WWOR in 2007. According to the group, the News Corporation told the F.C.C. that it employed more than 250 people at the station in Secaucus, even after reducing the staff and shortening the nightly newscast. Intentionally giving the wrong information to the F.C.C. — or omitting important details — violates the commission’s rules. The News Corporation has 30 days to respond.

“This is a serious matter, which could result in severe sanctions,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project , a media reform group that has lobbied the F.C.C. on the matter. In the future, he said, “I hope that the focus is on service to northern New Jersey, and not on the events around their conduct.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 21, 2011, on page B3 of the New York edition.
Broadcast Union News Note: The International Alliance Of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists And Allied Crafts Local 794 (IATSE Local 794) represents the broadcast engineers at FOX5 and WWOR. At the time Fox bought WWOR the combined IATSE 794 bargaining unit was about 140 staff engineers. Layoffs, buyouts, and retirements have reduced this number to 80. Management's stated goal is to eliminate as many union represented employees as possible and reduce the number of IATSE Local 794 engineers to less than 65 people to run both stations.

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