File this under “be careful what you wish for.” When the FCC asked for comments on changes to the media ownership rules, it got just what it asked for—a wide range of opinion and heated debate.
The commission has proposed easing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban but leaving local ownership limits in place. It also wants to abandon the prohibition on radio-TV cross-ownership.
The NAB told the commission that its proposed modifications to the rules don’t go far enough. The broadcast lobby wants the FCC to allow duopolies in more markets, eliminate of the eight-voices and top-four stations tests, scrap local radio ownership limits, scrap the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, not count joint agreements toward ownership caps if it does preserve those rules and it should not increase disclosure requirements.
NAB took a shot at cable operators who argue that FCC rules should prevent broadcasters from having too much leverage in retransmission negotiations. The FCC should “refrain from addressing here the impact of sharing arrangements on retransmission consent negotiations,” the broadcast group said, calling them irrelevant to the quadrennial review.
Free Press, the public advocates, took the opposite view. “The FCC has no business relaxing its ownership rules when it has shown it can’t even hold broadcasters to the letter of existing law,” said the Free Press in comments. “The local TV ownership rule is supposed to promote competition between local stations, but some broadcasters are skirting the rules by entering into secret deals to combine local newsrooms and station operations. If it walks like a duopoly and talks like a duopoly, it should be treated like a duopoly under the Commission’s rules.”
Gray Television told the commission it should repeal the TV duopoly rule, using its recent WKYT-TV coverage of tornadoes in Lexington, Kentucky to argue that “innovative cost-sharing and services arrangements” would help provide even more such life-saving coverage.
Gray noted the FCC’s implicit suggestion that broadband penetration must be 100 percent before the Internet will be included as a competitor to broadcast TV when it comes to ownership rule reviews. The company argued that the Internet is already having a major impact that the FCC has not taken into account.
“Despite the profound changes in the media marketplace that have taken place in recent years, the Commission proposes no significant revision to the television duopoly rule, leaving broadcasters with a restriction that was last relaxed in 1999,” wrote Gray. “With the exception of that rule, very little about the world has remained the same since 1999. Thirteen years ago, a Blackberry was just a two-way pager; the Internet was accessed using a phone line; and Google, Facebook and YouTube were years away.“
The American Television Alliance, a coalition of cable and satellite operators, put out a press release (summarizing comments of its members) in which it said the FCC should enforce and tighten ownership guidelines in order to “prevent broadcasters from exploiting these rules to harm consumers.” ATVA, a strong advocate of retransmission consent reform, said broadcast network “interference” in retransmission negotiations hurts localism, that joint sales and services agreements are loopholes in the ownership rules that should be closed and that stations should be banned from affiliating with multiple networks in a market.
The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) asked the commission to completely lift the ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers. To leave it in place, the NAA said, would be arbitrary and capricious and thus a violation of federal law.
“The newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule is a relic that undermines the Commission’s goal of preserving strong journalism to serve the information needs of American communities,” the NAA wrote. “Eliminating this rule, and thus allowing newspapers to obtain investment from in-market broadcasters and other media companies, is the one action that the Commission can take to accomplish this goal.”
What the commission does with all of these comments remains to be seen.