Here are 12 suggestions for Julius Genachowski on what he can do to help rescue the country’s ailing over-the-air TV industry. Because if nothing is done, television broadcasting service will inevitably degrade and trigger a downward ratings spiral from which stations may not be able to recover. ~~ Also, a farewell to friend and former colleage Peter Lambert, who died this week after a long battle with cancer.
TO: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski
FROM: Harry A. Jessell
DATE: July 24, 2009
RE: TV Broadcasting policy
The TV station business is in a bad way, the victim of economic troubles, cutbacks in advertising and relentless and increasing competition for audience from cable and now the Internet.
Revenue, profit margins, stock prices, ratings and station values have plummeted. Over the past few years, a quarter of the industry’s revenue has evaporated and no one is certain if it is ever coming back.
Pappas, Tribune, Young, Equity Media, New Vision, Ion Media and Multicultural Broadcasting have sunk into bankruptcy and others are on the brink of it. Many stations may fall in the hands of bankers and other financiers with absolutely no understanding or appreciation of broadcasting’s long tradition of news and public interest.
Broadcasters have spent billions on the transition to digital, a move that opened up spectrum for new mobile services and brought consumers the wonders of high-definition television, but they have yet to earn a single dollar in return on the investment.
In the face of their troubles, stations have been aggressively eliminating jobs and cutting other expenses. They are well into the bone now. They are being outbid by cable for the best off-network sitcoms and telling the studios they have no money for premium first-run syndicated shows.
If nothing is done, broadcasting service will inevitably degrade and trigger a downward ratings spiral from which stations may not be able to recover.
To insure that doesn’t happen, the FCC needs to immediately address the troubles of TV broadcasting and take steps to bolster the financial health of the industry.
Policy Justifications for Action
1) Free, locally oriented television service has been a point of national pride for six decades and a model of how public policy and private enterprise can work together. Its ability to continue functioning in the “public interest, convenience and necessity” is now in jeopardy.
2) As the digital transition made evident, millions of America, including the poor, senior citizens and recent immigrants, still rely solely on broadcasting for TV service. Without it, they would be cut off from the mainstream of American culture and public affairs.
3) TV stations remain the No. 1 source of local news and information for most Americans. If TV stations fail or can no longer afford to provide news, it is unclear whether any other media can or will step in to replace it.
4) TV and radio stations are vital in emergencies and during disaster recovery. Broadcast reporters are usually only a few steps behind the police and firefighters when tornadoes strikes, hurricanes make landfall and fires break out. Their willingness to risk life and limb and work long hours in difficult conditions is part of the deeply ingrained broadcasting ethos.
1) Place a moratorium on the adoption of rules and regulations that would impose additional burdens on broadcasters. (Included here would be local programming quotas and reporting requirements and additional children’s TV obligations.)
2) Relax the local ownership rules so that small-market broadcasters can own two stations in a market just as large-market broadcasters do. At the very least, terminate the pending proceeding that proposes to make TV JSAs and LMAs attributable.
3) Eliminate the newspaper-broadcast crossownership ban in all markets.
4) Eliminate the FCC policy prohibiting a security interest in FCC licenses. This would enhance the ability of broadcasters to attract financing.
5) Signal a willingness to grant waivers of the 25 percent limit on alien ownership of holding companies with stations. The move would invite investment in stations groups by foreign concerns.
6) Expand cable’s must-carry obligations so that systems have to carry all TV stations’ digital channels offered free to the public.
7) Recommend to Congress that it pass no law weakening the ability of TV stations to negotiate freely for retransmission consent fees.
8) Recommend to Congress that it amend the All-Channel Receiver Act to require that all cell phones sold in the U.S. be equipped with mobile DTV tuners.
9) Recommend to Congress that it amend the compulsory copyright license so that Web sites can stream local TV signals in their entirety on the condition that the signals cannot be received outside their local markets.
10) Reverse and clarify FCC indecency rules to relieve broadcasters of liability for so-called “fleeting expletives” and other incidental use of “indecent” language.
11) Open a notice of inquiry to examine whether TV stations operating in the VHF band will have sufficient power to provide effective mobile DTV service.
12) Announce promptly the FCC’s interest to at least consider some or all of the above recommendations to reassure bankers and investors that the industry may soon get some regulatory relief.
I want to thank Erwin Krasnow, a prominent communications lawyer with Garvey Schubert Barer, for his help in preparing this memo. And I would encourage others to add to the Recommended Actions by using the comment function below. You may contact me directly at [email protected].
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I’ve been thinking this week about the good times I had working for Broadcasting magazine back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Editor Don West assembled staffs with the instincts of a great sitcom producer. They generated a lot of humor and camaraderie and just enough conflict to keep things interesting.
I’ve been thinking of those days because one member of that cast, Pete Lambert, passed away this week after a long battle with cancer. He was just 54.
Pete got a late start in journalism, talking his way into the copy boy job at the magazine when he was in his early 30s. It was the only break he needed. He quickly moved up and established himself as a smart and capable reporter.
I always look for three qualities in a reporter — good writing skills, good reporting instincts and the discipline to make a deadline — and am happy to find two in any one person. Pete had all three, which made him a hero of his assignment editors and the copy desk.
I also admired how quickly he could become expert on a subject as the best journalists will. His beat was technology and satellites. But he showed his versatility with solid work on whatever odd assignments came up.
In a hectic newsroom, Pete was a calm and upbeat presence seemingly unperturbed by tight deadlines, too much work or the volatile characters that came and went. He was a friend to all.
For a time, Pete and I carpooled from Silver Spring, a close-in Maryland suburb, to our office in downtown Washington near the Mayflower Hotel. Pete would pick me and my young daughter up in a decrepit Nissan Sentra he had bought from my brother. After dropping off Mary at daycare, we would crawl down 16th Street.
When you carpool with someone in Washington traffic, you get to know him rather well. He had had some rough times before locking into journalism, but with his success at Broadcasting all was coming together for him. His troubles had left no hard edges.
Pete was a gentle man, but he tended to dominate the Nissan’s cassette player. He had little tolerance for my music. So, I ended up listening to (and eventually sorta liking) some of his stuff — Sting, Steve Winwood and the like. Maybe I was intimidated by the fact that he was a talented musician.
On the rides home, we’d kvetch about all the goings on and injustices at work. Those conversations would often end with Pete declaring, “Hey, it beats carrying hod.” It surely was.
Pete left Broadcasting in 1992 or 1993 for better money at Multichannel News and then worked for a succession of publications that took him farther and farther away from me and conventional TV.
His last job was as a senior editor at ScreenPlays, where he would write long articles on advanced broadband technologies — all way over my head.
“Pete has been my ally and friend whose savvy and analytical skills were instrumental to making the magazine an important resource for decision makers in our field,” said the magazine editor’s Fred Dawson. “It’s been very hard to operate without him and harder still to know he will not be coming back.”
Pete was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan like me, although I can’t recall why anymore. He was born in Massachusetts and I believe grew up for the most part in the Washington area.
When I first learned of Pete’s illness over the past winter, I thought of visiting him at his home in Venice, Fla., in March, meeting his lovely daughter and taking him to a Pirates exhibition game not far away in Bradenton. We would check to see if there were any Clementes or Stargells in the making.
But I was busy and never got around to it. I’ll regret that for a long, long time. With Pete, it would have been fun.