Senator Calls to Revoke Fox's WWOR-TV License Over TMZ Knockoff

New Jersey's Robert Menendez tells the FCC that the station has abandoned its community responsibilities by getting rid of its nightly newscast.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez isn't happy that a local TV station in his state has replaced the evening news hour with a show "like TMZ."

In a letter to the FCC on Tuesday, the New Jersey Democrat urges a "prompt and thorough review of News Corporation’s application to renew the license for WWOR."

The missive comes as the TV station, one of the biggest in the New York media market, launched Chasing New Jersey in lieu of its usual half-hour newscast titled My9 News. The magazine-style show features fast-paced interviews, flashy graphics and pop music.

Menendez isn't impressed.

He writes, "In light of WWOR’s decision to drop their nightly news programming, a decision which affects millions of New Jerseyans, it is becoming increasingly critical that the FCC make a determination about WWOR’s license and whether they are adequately serving New Jersey as the law and FCC rules stipulate. From my perspective, News Corporation is not."

(After News Corp.'s corporate split, the station is now controlled by 21st Century Fox.)

Here's what the new show looks like:

According to Menendez, the station is under a legal obligation to “devote itself to meeting the special needs of its new community (and the needs of the Northern New Jersey area in general).”

(The station appears to have a license that explicitly states this.)

That might be true, but starting in the 1980s, the FCC began deferring to broadcasters to decide what was in the best community interest. The agency hoped that deregulation was the best approach and that the marketplace would take care of what was good vs. bad on local TV.

Over the years, there have been some calls for the FCC to become more active in making sure that public airwaves are put to good use, especially when economic pressures are seen as conflicting with serious journalism. For instance, FCC commissioner Michael Copps in 2010 proposed a "Public Value Test" for broadcasters when they file their license renewals. One of the factors to be considered, according to what Copps suggested, was a meaningful commitment to news and public affairs programming.

"Commissioner Copps’ ideas were never adopted, though there are still proposals floating around in FCC rulemaking proceedings to at least require the reporting of the quantities of news and information programming by specific stations," says David Oxenford, an attorney who represents broadcasters at Wilkinson Barker Knauer.

He adds, "What the FCC would do with that information, I don’t know."

WWOR's license expired in 2007, but The New York Times notes that the FCC hasn't revoked it either. The station is scheduled to complete a new review soon.

Dianne Doctor, the station's vp and station manager, tells The Times that "Chasing NJ is a news program immersed in all aspects of the state. Politics. People. Issues. It’s enterprise journalism that no one else is doing."

The prospect of the FCC making a stand seems remote, but there's always a chance given a Democratic administration and a new incoming FCC chairman that might wish to make a mark. According to Oxenford, there were a few stations such as WHDH in Boston that had their licenses pulled in the 1970s for failing to better serve the public interest.

But that was before the FCC adopted a “renewal expectancy” for incumbents. Any rejection of WWOR's license would also probably draw a First Amendment challenge from 21st Century Fox. Oxenford says, "Now you have to show that the licensee is such a bad actor that their license should be revoked, and that license has to be revoked, before a new party can apply for it."

Twitter: @eriqgardner