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National Organization of Women (NOW) v. WABC-TV, FCC, and WRC-TV

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Synopsis

NOW v. WABC-TV is a lawsuit in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of NOW challenged the license renewal of WABC-TV in New York City on grounds of sexual discrimination.

Description

In the first sweeping challenge to the treatment of women in the media, CCR attorneys representing the NOW challenged the license renewal of WABC-TV in New York City on the grounds of sex discrimination in employment (hiring and promoting) and programming (including commercials).

The challenge was based on the proposition that the role of women in our society is a controversial issue and therefore WABC-TV may not legally, under the Fairness Doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) present only one side of that issue (i.e – that a woman’s place is in the home and if she has any role outside of home and family it is clearly secondary).

A petition to deny the license renewal of WABC-TV was filed with the FCC on May 1, 1972. Based on the extensive monitoring studies conducted by NOW, the petition charges massive violations of FCC regulations in that WABC-TV:

  • did not consult with women or women’s groups regarding women’s programming 
  • presented a distorted and one-sided image of women; and
  • employed a smaller percentage of women than any other local television station.

Following the filing of the petition, the parties entered three months of negotiations. These negotiations failed to produce a satisfactory solution, particularly with respect to balancing the one-sided programmatic presentation of the role of women in society.

In 1974, despite the fact that two-and-a-half years of the three-year license renewal period in question had already expired, the FCC still had not issued a decision.

Consequently, CCR attorneys sought an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for the following reasons:

  • that the FCC’s failure to act is equivalent to a denial of the petition and a granting of the license, and
  • that on the basis of the extensive documentation provided to the FCC, it is precluded, as a matter of law, from finding that the licensee was operating in the public interest and is therefore required to hold a hearing on the petition.

The D.C. District Court of Appeals, in a rare action, ordered the FCC to make a ruling within sixty days. Several weeks later, the FCC handed down its belated decision in which, with the typical ignorance and bigotry of most federal agencies, the Commission virtually ignored the massive factual case presented in the petition and found that WABC-TV did not seriously or systematically discriminate against women.

The FCC’s decision was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and was consolidated with the challenge of the D.C chapter of NOW and several other community organizations to the license renewal of WRC-TV, the local ABC affiliate.

On April 11, 1977, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the FCC, although it did suggest that had the FCC not challenged ascertainment requirements in the interim, action would have been appropriate on WABC’s failure to ascertain leaders of the women’s movement.

Although a hearing was denied, the NOW challenge was later used as a national model for similar challenges to TV stations for sex discrimination. Perhaps more importantly, the challenge has been termed responsible for significant increases in employment of women, particularly on-camera positions and improvements in programming to meet the needs of women.