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Local TV News Archives as a Public Good

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Abstract

It is well established that political information shares the characteristics of a public good (Downs 1957; Popkin 1991). People won't acquire the socially optimal amount of political information because they can't reap the full benefit of their investment. Recognizing that a well-informed populace is essential to a healthy democracy, the government grants major media substantial public sub-sidies and special legal protections (Cook 1998). In return, the media take on the costs of monitoring the government that individual members of the public are unwilling and unable to bear. Analogously, a role of the political communication scholar is to keep the media accountable to the public. But just as the media have great difficulty keeping the government accountable without accessible and affordable govern-ment records, political communication scholars have the same difficulty in re-gard to the media without accessible and affordable media records. Both government archives (e.g., the National Archives) and news archives are forms of political information vital to keeping democratic intermediaries— whether public officials or the press—accountable to the public. As such, they are both public goods: The marketplace, left purely to its own devices, will not supply the public with optimal access to these types of archives. Although other mass media news archives, such as daily newspaper ar-chives, have serious flaws (Snider and Janda 1998), local TV news archives re-main the most serious problem. Local TV news has become a vital democratic intermediary—and, for many Americans, a primary source of political infor-mation—but its archives are, for practical purposes, inaccessible to scholars. By far the least expensive record of local news to archive is the closed-captioned feed that accompanies TV programs. Closed captioning is a synchronized tran-script of news, usually appearing on the bottom of the screen. The failure to archive closed captions of local news, despite the trivial cost of doing so and the great value of an easily searchable news database, vividly illustrates the need to update public policy toward news archives. Thanks to the lobbying of the hearing-impaired community, the Telecom-munications Act of 1996 mandated closed captioning on most programming in the United States. As implemented by the Federal Communications Commis-sion on August 7, 1997, with major revisions on September 17, 1998, all TV stations must have 100 percent of their new, nonexempt programming, includ-ing news programs, closed-captioned by January 1, 2006. This requirement is to be phased in, with key intermediary benchmarks on January 1 of the years 2000, 2002, and 2004. 112 Local TV News Archives as a Public Good Even before the Telecommunications Act was implemented, closed captioning was widespread. According to a 1996 National Association of Broad-casters study (Fratrik 1996), 57.1 percent of local TV stations regularly pro-vided closed-captioned local news programming. These stations provided 22.3 hours of local news per week, of which 19.5 hours (87.4 percent of the total news hours) were closed-captioned. Over two-thirds (67.1 percent) of the sta-tions providing closed captions in their local news had a sponsor for this service. The closed-captioning provisions of the Telecommunications Act suggest that an economic feasibility analysis of local TV news archives can ignore the costs of transcription, digitalization, and synchronization. These are sunk costs that local TV stations must pay whether or not they provide archives. Nor are there any marginal costs that should inhibit the production of lo-cal TV news archives. The most frequently mentioned contender is storage cost, but contemporary computing power trivializes these costs. A typical commer-cial TV station generates approximately four hours of local news daily. Even at several hundred words per minute, this requires less than 200 megabytes of storage capacity per year. Removable storage media now sell for well under 1 cent per megabyte. Thus, the storage cost to record local TV transcripts digi-tally is under $1 a year per station. Multiplying that number by the roughly 1,000 commercial TV stations in the United States gives $1,000 a year. Of course, this calculation ignores many potential archival costs. For example, ev-ery archive needs a backup and a backup of a backup. But even if these calcula-tions are off by several orders of magnitude, clearly cost per se is not a major obstacle to the creation of transcript archives. Even if TV stations refused for reasons of cost to serve as repositories for archiving and accessing news transcripts, many major libraries would almost certainly be more than happy to take on this role if policies encouraging them to do so were in place. After all, for decades, libraries—at much greater ex-pense—have done this for daily newspapers. Indeed, since libraries can pick up closed-captioned text in real-time via either conventional TV or an Internet closed-captioned simulcast, it's possible to imagine library archives created at zero additional storage and distribution cost to TV stations. Admittedly, this analysis has overlooked two important costs that drive up the total potential cost of archiving. The first of these is the cost of intellectual property. TV stations do not own the copyright to much of the material they broadcast but purchase rights to air news and other programming from copy-right holders, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Metro Networks. These rights allow broadcasters to air programs for only a limited number of times over a limited geographic area. If they archived and widely sold the con-tent of their news programs, broadcasters would have to either pay more or violate others' intellectual property rights.
Press/Politics 5(2):111–117
© 2000 by the President and the Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Local TV News Archives as a Public Good
James H. Snider
It is well established that political information shares the characteristics of a
public good (Downs 1957; Popkin 1991). People won’t acquire the socially
optimal amount of political information because they can’t reap the full benefit
of their investment. Recognizing that a well-informed populace is essential to a
healthy democracy, the government grants major media substantial public sub-
sidies and special legal protections (Cook 1998). In return, the media take on
the costs of monitoring the government that individual members of the public
are unwilling and unable to bear.
Analogously, a role of the political communication scholar is to keep the
media accountable to the public. But just as the media have great difficulty
keeping the government accountable without accessible and affordable govern-
ment records, political communication scholars have the same difficulty in re-
gard to the media without accessible and affordable media records.
Both government archives (e.g., the National Archives) and news archives
are forms of political information vital to keeping democratic intermediaries—
whether public officials or the press—accountable to the public. As such, they
are both public goods: The marketplace, left purely to its own devices, will not
supply the public with optimal access to these types of archives.
Although other mass media news archives, such as daily newspaper ar-
chives, have serious flaws (Snider and Janda 1998), local TV news archives re-
main the most serious problem. Local TV news has become a vital democratic
intermediary—and, for many Americans, a primary source of political infor-
mation—but its archives are, for practical purposes, inaccessible to scholars. By
far the least expensive record of local news to archive is the closed-captioned
feed that accompanies TV programs. Closed captioning is a synchronized tran-
script of news, usually appearing on the bottom of the screen. The failure to
archive closed captions of local news, despite the trivial cost of doing so and the
great value of an easily searchable news database, vividly illustrates the need to
update public policy toward news archives.
Thanks to the lobbying of the hearing-impaired community, the Telecom-
munications Act of 1996 mandated closed captioning on most programming in
the United States. As implemented by the Federal Communications Commis-
sion on August 7, 1997, with major revisions on September 17, 1998, all TV
stations must have 100 percent of their new, nonexempt programming, includ-
ing news programs, closed-captioned by January 1, 2006. This requirement is
to be phased in, with key intermediary benchmarks on January 1 of the years
2000, 2002, and 2004.
112 Local TV News Archives as a Public Good
Even before the Telecommunications Act was implemented, closed
captioning was widespread. According to a 1996 National Association of Broad-
casters study (Fratrik 1996), 57.1 percent of local TV stations regularly pro-
vided closed-captioned local news programming. These stations provided 22.3
hours of local news per week, of which 19.5 hours (87.4 percent of the total
news hours) were closed-captioned. Over two-thirds (67.1 percent) of the sta-
tions providing closed captions in their local news had a sponsor for this service.
The closed-captioning provisions of the Telecommunications Act suggest
that an economic feasibility analysis of local TV news archives can ignore the
costs of transcription, digitalization, and synchronization. These are sunk costs
that local TV stations must pay whether or not they provide archives.
Nor are there any marginal costs that should inhibit the production of lo-
cal TV news archives. The most frequently mentioned contender is storage cost,
but contemporary computing power trivializes these costs. A typical commer-
cial TV station generates approximately four hours of local news daily. Even at
several hundred words per minute, this requires less than 200 megabytes of
storage capacity per year. Removable storage media now sell for well under 1
cent per megabyte. Thus, the storage cost to record local TV transcripts digi-
tally is under $1 a year per station. Multiplying that number by the roughly
1,000 commercial TV stations in the United States gives $1,000 a year. Of
course, this calculation ignores many potential archival costs. For example, ev-
ery archive needs a backup and a backup of a backup. But even if these calcula-
tions are off by several orders of magnitude, clearly cost per se is not a major
obstacle to the creation of transcript archives.
Even if TV stations refused for reasons of cost to serve as repositories for
archiving and accessing news transcripts, many major libraries would almost
certainly be more than happy to take on this role if policies encouraging them
to do so were in place. After all, for decades, librariesat much greater ex-
pensehave done this for daily newspapers. Indeed, since libraries can pick up
closed-captioned text in real-time via either conventional TV or an Internet
closed-captioned simulcast, its possible to imagine library archives created at
zero additional storage and distribution cost to TV stations.
Admittedly, this analysis has overlooked two important costs that drive up
the total potential cost of archiving. The first of these is the cost of intellectual
property. TV stations do not own the copyright to much of the material they
broadcast but purchase rights to air news and other programming from copy-
right holders, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Metro Networks.
These rights allow broadcasters to air programs for only a limited number of
times over a limited geographic area. If they archived and widely sold the con-
tent of their news programs, broadcasters would have to either pay more or
violate others intellectual property rights.
Snider 113
The second genuine cost of archiving comes from increased libel costs.
There is a difference between an error aired once in a local market and the same
error widely and permanently available over the Internet. The more widely dis-
tributed an error, the greater the liability. A major problem with closed captions
of news and public-affairs programs is that they are full of errors, a byproduct
of being created in real time without opportunity for review. The current cost
of correcting these mistakes is prohibitive.
Assuming that archives of local TV news are recognized as a public good,
however, even these genuine cost problems could be overcome rather simply
through restricted access, a guiding principle behind the fair-use exemption in
copyright law. If access were restricted to libraries, for example, potential dam-
age to intellectual property and reputation would be relatively minor. As a pre-
cedent, consider newspaper archives. Most newspapers only own the copyright
to a fraction of the news they print. Newswire material, syndicated columns,
special inserts, and other non-staff-produced material are usually secured on a
limited-use basis. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress and other libraries may
save copies of newspapers, often on microfiche, and make them available to the
public. Similarly, errors in closed-captioned material are already distributed to
millions of people on a one-time basis. Adding a few more who will look at the
material in a library seems like a reasonable extension of fair use.
U.S. copyright law stipulates that a quid pro quo for receiving a copyright
is depositing a copy of the work in the Library of Congress for public use
(U.S.C. Title 17, Section 407). But local TV broadcasts are partially exempt
from this law; blanket demands for TV news records are illegal. If, as argued,
news archives are a public good, Congress should eliminate this exemption and
give the Librarian of Congress the right to request Internet deposit of news,
including closed captions. Internet deposit would reduce postage, handling, and
many other costs. Congress should also specify that other libraries can pick up
and archive a closed-captioned feed.
The closed-captioning rules of the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) exclude an important category of information of interest to political
communication scholars: political ads. At its next review of its closed-
captioning rules, the FCC should make politicians and advocacy groups respon-
sible for inserting closed captions into their ads. Since the ads are prepared
ahead of time, the closed captions should bear the same burden of accuracy as
the spoken text. Presidential candidates already cannot get federal campaign
money unless they caption their commercials, but all other political ads are ex-
empt (U.S.C. Title 26, Section 2006[e]).
The FCC should also clarify rules concerning video description contained
within closed captions. For example, most closed-captioned text identifies a
change of speaker but is not required to do so. This omission is less significant
114 Local TV News Archives as a Public Good
when the speaker can be seen; it becomes of much greater concern when the
only record is a text.
In the long term, of course, news archives would be most useful to schol-
ars if they included both audio-video and synchronized transcripts. Already, tens
of thousands of hours of news and public-affairs programming are available
through streaming media on the Internet. Washington State, for example, has a
public-affairs channel that has archived and made available on the Web either an
audio or an audio-video record of every public meeting of its state legislature
and supreme court going back to 1997.
The major barrier to audio-video archives may still be their relatively
high storage and access cost. Audio-video archives are at least one thousand
times as expensive as transcript archives. For just the videotape aloneex-
cluding the costs of physical space and accessa complete VHS-quality au-
dio-video archive of a local TV stations news programs costs about $1,000 a
year. About twice that amount is needed for a low-quality audio-video tran-
script archive stored digitally and available via the Internet. Audio-transcript
news archives, which eliminate the video but can be used to ensure 100-per-
cent accuracy of quoted transcripts, reduce storage costs to about $600 a year
with todays technology. This figure may drop to $100 a year within the next
few years due to rapid declines in the cost of storing audio. In other words,
the cost to store a year of audio transcripts could soon be less than the rev-
enue from one second of prime-time advertising in a major TV market. Once
storage costs reach such low levels, public policy considerations inhibiting
scholarly access to audio-video archives become as important as they are for
closed-captioned archives.
In short, legally mandated news archives would not put an unreasonable
burden on news providers. In addition to their special First Amendment privi-
leges, most providers have received rights of way and other special privileges
from the government. In particular, during the 1990s, local TV broadcasters
received free spectrum, discounted land, exclusive zoning rights, tax exemp-
tions, and numerous other governmental perks worth tens of billions of dollars.
Most Americans do not want elected officials dictating content-based quid pro
quos to news providers, but they do want the media to be accountable. A news
archive is a way to empower the private sector to keep news providers account-
able for their public largesse and their public trust.
Compared to current proposals to mandate free TV as the quid pro quo for
the TV broadcasters free spectrum, I believe the archival proposals above
would do far more to enhance democratic accountability. Moreover, the free TV
proposals would cost broadcasters on average more than $250 million per year
(the amount of money federal candidates spend on political ads). The archival
proposals suggested here would cost them a small fraction of that.
Snider 115
Political communication scholars must be key players in setting these ar-
chival proposals into motion. The history of the Vanderbilt Television News
Archive is a precedent for scholarly involvement in the public policy of news
archives (Adams and Schreibman 1978; Rawley-Saldich 1976; Simpson 1995).
The Copyright Act of 1976 legalized television news archives. The need for the
law became apparent when CBS sued the Vanderbilt Archive for copyright in-
fringement. The first television news archive in the United States, the Vanderbilt
Archive, videotaped the evening news broadcasts of the three major national TV
networks and made these videotapes available to scholars. If the copyright law
had not been changed in 1976, a generation of scholars would probably not have
been able to study network TV news.
Despite this public policy triumph, however, political communication
scholars suffer from a collective action problem in the public policy arena.
Scholars played a minor role in the creation of this precious resource, hardly
surprising given the enormous effort required of any one individual to do so.
The archive was the brainchild of Paul Simpson, an insurance executive near-
ing retirementand scholars were the serendipitous beneficiaries.
Clearly, however, waiting for sporadic sugar daddies to appear is a risky
strategy. If we are to preach democratic accountability for the media but are
unwilling, collectively, to take even the most basic steps to pursue it, we do not
deserve to be taken seriously. Good initial steps might involve the political com-
munication section of the American Political Science Association in 1) formu-
lating specific policy objectives, 2) enlisting the financial and organizational
support of a major foundation such as Markle, Benton, Ford, or Pew, and 3)
submitting comments to the Federal Communication Commissions rule-
making activities concerning the public interest obligations of digital television
broadcasters.
As a starting point, I recommend the following five policy objectives. Some
clarify current ambiguities in the law; others are fundamentally new.
1. Library of Congress News Collection. Recipients of copyrights for elec-
tronic and print news should both be required to submit a copy to the
Library of Congress, delivered via the Internet. TV news copies
should include closed-captioned text, audio, and video. Newspaper
copies should include a Web page replica of the printed page with the
embedded text in a searchable form. Web-based news should include
a periodic snapshot of the entire site. The Library of Congress should
be given discretion to choose whether to store the copyrighted work,
the type of information within the work to store, and the compression
rate (resolution) at which to store the information. Such a recommen-
dation is hardly unprecedented. The Library of Congress, at its own
116 Local TV News Archives as a Public Good
discretion, stores only about three hundred of the countrys more
than one thousand daily newspapers and ignores many Sunday supple-
ments. Similarly, under this proposal the Library of Congress might
decide not to archive every TV broadcast for smaller markets or to
archive these at relatively lower resolution.
2. Other Libraries’ News Collections. The types of television news that librar-
ies can legally archive should be extended, explicitly, from hard news
(fact-based news) to soft news (opinion-based news). Currently, it is
illegal for libraries to archive soft news, such as Sunday morning talk
shows, or hard news shows that intermix opinion. The form of news
record that libraries can preserve should be extended from analog to
digital and from video to closed-captioned text. Interlibrary loan
should be extended from physical to digital delivery of news records.
New digital copyright technologies should be exploited so that re-
strictions on copying for physical and digital copyrighted works can
be made comparable.
3. Closed-Captioned Audio Description. No political candidate for federal of-
fice who does not caption campaign ads should be eligible for the low-
est discounted ad rate and other TV privileges, all of which the FCC
mandates. Similarly, a nonprofit that engages in advocacy should lose
its tax exemption unless it captions its commercials.
4. Closed-Captioned Video Description. Captions should include video de-
scription, notably the name of the person speaking. Any electronically
coded information provided by a TV news program to help either (1)
anchors and reporters know when to speak or (2) viewers identify
who is speaking, by name and position, should be included in a sepa-
rate video description field in the closed-captioned text.
5. Closed-Captioned Source Description. Captions should be integrated with
source descriptions, commonly referred to as digital watermarks.
These watermarks, currently used to identify and protect owners of
intellectual property, could also be used to assist scholarly research.
Source description categories could include content distributor (e.g.,
name of TV station licensee or cable franchisee), content owner (e.g.,
name of newswire or political candidate), type of property (e.g., ad or
news), and type of property owner (e.g., for-profit or nonprofit).
References
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Cook, Timothy E. 1998. Governing with the News: The News as a Political Institution. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.
Snider 117
Fratrik, Mark R. 1996. Television Industrys Provision of Closed Captioning Services in
1996. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Broadcasters, March 15. Paper submit-
ted as part of Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal
Communications Commission. MM Docket No.95-176. March 16, 1996.
Popkin, Samuel. 1991. The Reasoning Voter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rawley-Saldich, Anne. 1976. Access to Televisions Past: TV News Resists the Idea That Its
Record Should Be as Open to Study as That of the Printed Press. Columbia Journalism Re-
view (Nov.Dec.).
Simpson, Paul C. 1995. Network Television News: A History of the Vanderbilt Archives. Franklin, TN:
Legacy Communications.
Snider, J.H., and Kenneth Janda. 1998. Newspapers in Bytes and Bits: Limitations of Elec-
tronic Databases for Content Analysis. Presented at the annual meeting of the American
Political Science Association, Boston.
Biographical Note
James H. Snider, a recipient of the American Political Science Associations 19992000 Con-
gressional Fellowship in Communications Policy, is a legislative fellow in the U.S. Senate. The
ideas expressed here are purely his own and in no way reflect an official position within the
U.S. Congress. His area of specialty is new media and democracy.
Address: Northwestern University, Department of Political Science, 601 University Place,
Evanston, IL 60208; phone: 847-256-0884; fax: 847-256-9811; e-mail: JHSnider@nwu.edu.
... Copyright law is also in need of legal protections as well as vast subsidies. Requiring that the press allow libraries to keep affordable news archives and that fair use provisions are generous for scholars and other who seek to keep the press accountable would be in the public interest (Snider 2000). ...
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Network Television News: A History of the Vanderbilt Archives
  • Paul C Simpson
Simpson, Paul C. 1995. Network Television News: A History of the Vanderbilt Archives. Franklin, TN: Legacy Communications.
Access to Television's Past: TV News Resists the Idea That Its Record Should Be as Open to Study as That of the Printed Press
  • Anne Rawley-Saldich
Rawley-Saldich, Anne. 1976. "Access to Television's Past: TV News Resists the Idea That Its Record Should Be as Open to Study as That of the Printed Press." Columbia Journalism Review (Nov.-Dec.).
Television Industry's Provision of Closed Captioning Services in 1996 National Association of Broadcasters Paper submitted as part of " Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal Communications Commission
  • Fratrik
  • R Mark
  • D C Washington
Fratrik, Mark R. 1996. " Television Industry's Provision of Closed Captioning Services in 1996. " Washington, D.C.: National Association of Broadcasters, March 15. Paper submitted as part of " Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal Communications Commission. " MM Docket No.95-176. March 16, 1996.
Television Industry's Provision of Closed Captioning Services in 1996 Paper submitted as part of " Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal Communications Commission
  • Mark R Fratrik
  • D C Washington
Fratrik, Mark R. 1996. " Television Industry's Provision of Closed Captioning Services in 1996. " Washington, D.C.: National Association of Broadcasters, March 15. Paper submitted as part of " Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal Communications Commission. " MM Docket No.95-176. March 16, 1996.
Paper submitted as part of "Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal Communications Commission
  • Mark R Fratrik
Fratrik, Mark R. 1996. "Television Industry's Provision of Closed Captioning Services in 1996." Washington, D.C.: National Association of Broadcasters, March 15. Paper submitted as part of "Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters before the Federal Communications Commission." MM Docket No.95-176. March 16, 1996.
a recipient of the American Political Science Association's 1999-2000 Congressional Fellowship in Communications Policy, is a legislative fellow in the U.S. Senate. The ideas expressed here are purely his own and in no way reflect an official position within the
  • James H Snider
James H. Snider, a recipient of the American Political Science Association's 1999-2000 Congressional Fellowship in Communications Policy, is a legislative fellow in the U.S. Senate. The ideas expressed here are purely his own and in no way reflect an official position within the U.S. Congress. His area of specialty is new media and democracy.