Lawmakers Need To Act To Halt The Erosion Of Access To Local TV News
This past week, President Joe Biden spoke to the American people from the Oval Office regarding the wars in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine. Naturally he did it in primetime in order to reach as many people as possible, and all of the major networks — both broadcast and cable — carried the address live.
Whether or not you watched, I want you to imagine how current and future presidents might communicate with the public once a large swath of individuals no longer has access to live television either because they have cut the cord and rely solely on streaming channels or because their traditional cable systems have flipped over to the latest technology: replacing traditional cable boxes with internet set-top boxes, and effectively exited the regulated, cable video business. In just the past few weeks, Charter announced that all new cable subscribers would be “encouraged” to use their Xumo streaming box, which is billed as cheaper and more elegant than current cable boxes. But there is one critical element missing from Xumo for those who are complete cordcutters: local television stations.
Nowhere on the cordcutter’s Xumo box will you find your live local television stations unless you happen to subscribe to YouTube TV, Charter or a similar service.
This has me wondering how local television will continue to survive, let alone thrive, in a world hell-bent on leaving it in the dust. The traditional Big Four networks currently command an increasingly disproportionate share of the retransmission revenue secured by local broadcasters despite siphoning off primetime programming and live sports to their own proprietary streaming channels and diminishing the exclusivity and value of their affiliate stations in the process.
Because the networks control the negotiations with the likes of YouTube TV and Hulu+ Live TV, America’s broadcasters are already finding themselves forced to accept below-market rates for carriage of their local signals or risk the loss of carriage entirely and with it, material amounts of retransmission consent revenue, all of which is accelerating the loss of revenue that is directly funding local newsrooms and ultimately the local journalism American communities depend on each day.
In an ideal world, the FCC will act on the recent request from Sen. Ben Lujan and 19 other Democratic and independent senators by improving access to local media on all streaming platforms. In an ideal world, virtual MVPDs and other platforms providing access to linear video channels would be treated just like cable and satellite providers, allowing local broadcasters the opportunity to negotiate for carriage on their own behalf and not through the conflicted lens of television networks, which are hedging their bets and playing on both sides of the field.
Local TV and local TV news, in particular, will continue to be battered by declining revenues, technological upheaval and outdated video policies. All the while, local broadcasters will try in earnest to continue their sacred mission to inform and unify the communities they serve, but with diminishing resources funding their efforts.
The time to act is now. It would be a colossal mistake for our nation if the FCC and Congress allows one of the fundamental principles of our video regulatory policy — localism — to be squeezed out of this new world order. Without a reaffirmed commitment to this core value, we will most certainly continue to sow the seeds of division in a country and a world that can ill afford it any longer.
Emily Barr is the former president and CEO of Graham Media Group.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column incorrectly characterized Xumo box owners that are Charter Video subscribers as unable to access broadcast stations. While Charter offers one tier of channels that does not include broadcasters, most of its tiers include broadcast stations.