Political reality TV in New Jersey
Aug 19, 2018 | 1213 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two weeks after they blasted President Donald Trump for his attacks on the press, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker have called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revoke the license of WWOR-TV. They said the station has not lived up to the mandate set when the station first started operating in New Jersey in 1984. The FCC is scheduled to renew WWOR’s broadcast license.

“WWOR-TV based in Secaucus, is the state’s only commercial, high-power broadcast television station,” according to a release issued by the senators. “The station shut down its entire New Jersey-based news operation in 2013, and has failed to provide meaningful local news coverage ever since.”

The attack on WWOR is nothing new. Studies have shown WWOR failed to live up to his mandate to provide local news coverage since it transferred its license to New Jersey in the early 1980s.

The difference today is that WWOR is currently part of the Fox News network, and calls to not renew the license may play a role in tough reelection race Menendez is waging against GOP challenger Bob Hugin.

Fox, a conservative news network, appears to be championing Hugin’s effort to unseat the Democrat Menendez.

Yet, despite the clear motivation to go after Fox, Menendez’s claims do have merit.

A not-so-superstation

New Jersey lured WWOR across the Hudson River in the early 1980s with the expectation that the so-called “Superstation” would provide better coverage of New Jersey – especially northern New Jersey, where most people get their TV news from New York-based stations.

“Politics in New Jersey,” a monumental study done by the Eagleton Institute of Politics in Rutgers published in the mid-1970, concluded that lack of TV coverage of politics in the state led to disinterest in those running for office here.

“Survey findings with respect to political knowledge and interest in the state of New Jersey seem somewhat confusing and somewhat contradictory,” this account said. “The explanation would seem to be that the New Jersey electorate faces extraordinary difficulties in obtaining political information.”

Those interested in politics in New Jersey, the study concluded, got most of their information from newspapers, not TV.

This Rutgers study noted that New Jersey in the 1970s was only one of two states without a major commercial TV station.

“The out-of-state television stations in New York City and Philadelphia give very little coverage to Garden State politics,” the Rutgers study said. “There is evidence that better television coverage of New Jersey politics is associated with higher levels of political knowledge in the state.”

A similar study was done in “New Jersey Politics and Government,” published in the mid-1990s by the University of Nebraska Press.

“New Jersey residents remained notorious ignorant, apathetic, and cynical about state politics,” this study concluded “In October, 1973, more residents in the northern part of the state could name a candidate in New York City’s mayor election than it could identify a New Jersey gubernatorial candidate.”

WWOR was never prepared to cover New Jersey politics

The University of Nebraska study said that the situation did not improve over the next two decades.

“New Jersey political news is practically non-existent on the other New York stations [which was] the justification used to move WWOR’s license,” the 1990s report said. But the report also said WWOR never lived up to the expectations.

“WWOR maintains offices as close to New York City as possible, and has no full-time Trenton correspondent,” the report said.

The state ran syndicated entertainment as a passive superstation feeding many cable-TV stations around the country, as well as what was called regional “happy talk” news.

“Philadelphia stations do a somewhat better job but reach only a small portion of the state’s population,” this report said, noting that New Jersey’s Public Television aired good programming, but did not reach the larger audiences that commercial stations could.

Menendez, who is in the midst of the toughest campaign of his long career, has lashed out at the Fox-owned station, saying it has failed “to devote itself to meeting the special needs of its new community (and the needs of the Northern New Jersey area in general)” in accordance with a 1982 federal law.

In the mid-1990s, WWOR (then part of the UPN Network) was part of a plethora of media that had operations in the same part of Secaucus, including studios for MSNBC, offices of WPIX, and the studios for WXTV Channel 41, the New York affiliate of the Spanish-language network Univision. At one point, local officials foresaw Secaucus becoming a center for communication rivaling Burbank.

But over the next decade, MSNBC, WPIX and WXTV relocated out of Secaucus and New Jersey.

WWOR, since becoming a Fox-owned television station, shut down its entire New Jersey-based news operation in 2013, and included layoffs while absorbing some staff at the company’s Fox 5 affiliate, WNYW-TV, in New York City.

“WWOR subsequently replaced its local newscast with ‘Chasing New Jersey’ – now called ‘Chasing News’ – a half-hour, TMZ-style program produced by an outside company,” the two senators said. “WWOR now provides just three hours of weekly news programming compared to an average of 56 hours by comparable broadcast stations in the overlapping New York City and Philadelphia media markets.”

You can bet with Fox owning the company, very few minutes of those three hours are singing Menendez’s reelection praises.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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