To win relief on crossownership rules, Gannett and Media General are promising policymakers more public interest programming. Others are ready to trade for multicast must-carry rights.
With the Democrats running Congress again, broadcasters are ready to deal—at least some are.
They say they will accept new public interest programming obligations in exchange for regulatory relief—or help.
Leading the would-be dealmakers: Gannett and Media General, multimedia companies with substantial newspaper and TV station interests.
According to several Washington sources, the two companies are quietly floating a proposal under which the FCC would grant waivers of the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rule if the stations involved in the crossownership situations accept increased public interest obligations.
Details of the proposal are sketchy. But it is believed that the companies have suggested that their stations would air at least five hours of local news a week and hold public forums every quarter.
The sources say that representatives of Gannett, General Counsel Kurt Wimmer and attorney Gerry Waldron, have already bounced the idea off of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and the commission’s two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
Waldron, an attorney at Covington & Burling, is a former aide to House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Niether Wimmer nor Waldron could be reached for comment before deadline.
According to FCC records, Media General General Counsel George Mahoney met with Copps and Adelstein last week, but there is no word about the subject of the meeting.
Groups opposed to media consolidation don’t like the idea of quid pro quo. “No increased public interest obligations are going to override the concern we have about diversity,” says Derek Turner, research director for Free Press.
“Whatever proposal they’ll float around, I don’t think it will really get a lot of traction with the Democrats at the FCC, and not with the public interest community and, I doubt, with people up on the Hill.”
However, many broadcasters believe the key House lawmakers—Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Markey—are inclined to deal.
Indeed, Markey had at one time considered the idea of giving broadcasters a choice to accept more public interest obligations in exchange for must-carry rights for their digital channels.
But the proposal languished for a number of reasons. The Republican-controlled Congress was dead set against any type of multicast must carry.
Plus, reaching a consensus on what those new public interest obligations would be is not a simple task. Markey’s demands would not be meager.
During an FCC oversight hearing on Capitol Hill this morning, Markey indicated that increased public interest requirements for broadcasters is at the top of his mind. He pressed FCC Chairman Martin for a report on its an on-going public interest inquiry. “I just think that it is important for this committee and for the public to know what the obligations are going to be on the broadcasters in this digital era,” Markey said. “And I would urge the commission to resolve that this year.”
Martin said that the FCC has already extended children’s TV obligations to broadcasters digital channels and is considering mandating fuller public-interest disclosure reports from stations. Still pending is the question of whether the FCC should establish additional minimum public interest programming requirements, he said. “I am not convince that is necessary,” he added.
Other broadcasters say they, too, are willing to deal, not for regulatory relief, but for regulatory help.
“We’re a company that is very happy to discuss additional public service requirements with these digital channels in exchange for multicast carriage,” Dispatch Broadcast Group President and CEO Michael Fiorile said in an interview with TVNewsCheck last week.
“We would commit to additional public service in exchange for multicast carriage. Broadcasters that do not want to do any public service can opt not to have the additional channels carried,” Fiorile added.
Fiorile, who is a member of the NAB board, says others broadcasters would go along with such a deal.
In an interview that will appear in TVNewsCheck next Tuesday, LIN TV CEO Vince Sadusky endorses Fiorile’s idea. “Absolutely, sure,” he says. “It’s fine because the reality is we’re already set up to do it. We’ve got a set in most of our newsrooms where we do community forums and interviews. This kind of thing is in our DNA.”
Still, selling the concept to other broadcasters may also prove challenging. As one skeptical source put it: “If you want the relief, you have to let the FCC tell you how to program your station.”
And, again, the public interest community isn’t likely to embrace the “opt in-opt out” approach to broadcast regulation eagerly.
“We regard that as buying your way out of the draft,” says Media Access President Andy Schwartzman. “Our point is that every broadcaster has a public interest obligation,” he adds. It’s not something to be traded or waived.”