As The FCC Dithers On The Top 4 Rule, The Case For Consolidation Grows Stronger

Stagnant regulations and a constricting economy may force the number of TV stations producing news to narrow. Ironically, that could also lead to an increase — and improvement — of news.

Hank Price

If you follow The Gauge, Nielsen’s media tracking report, you know that last month streaming captured 31.9% of total viewers, compared to 24.4% for broadcast.

Seasonal viewing comes into play, but one cannot escape the fact that streaming continues to grow at the expense of both broadcast and cable. With network owners pouring money into their streaming products, the problem will continue to grow. For local television to thrive in the future, it must find new ways to expand audiences.

Expansion is a hard thing to do right now because another reality is that the FCC continues to stand in the way of modern business models that would revitalize local television, adding new products and generating new audiences.

Right now, most television markets have at least four stations producing what is essentially the same local news product, all competing for the same audience. Some stations do a great job, some do a poor one, but the very presence of so much similar product, filling so many hours of the day on so many different stations, cannot help being a factor in the decline in television viewership.

The logical answer to this problem is to narrow the number of stations producing local news.


A good friend and fine broadcaster who is committed to excellence in local news told me just last week that he hates the idea of losing any news voice. I understand his point, but the economic and coverage cases for local consolidation are overwhelming.

Almost every market has at least one player just sort of hanging on, committed to news only because it is the key to political ad billing. Without political, some of those newscasts would be gone already. Unless the Top Four rule is changed, many of those stations will eventually have to exit news the hard way, possibly during the next recession.

The economic case for consolidation is strong, but I think the case for democracy is even stronger. Right now, television news departments cover the same stories, often with the same leads, same live shots and pretty much the same body copy. That means resources that could be used to expand news coverage are tied up in duplicated effort. Stepping back, that does not make sense.

What if instead of four stations doing news, there were two? Before you clutch your heart, there is a case to be made that content would increase.

Let’s assume the two surviving stations were the currently leading ones with strong commitments to local news and to their communities. Sure, they might still have the same lead stories, but they would also have the resources to add much broader and richer individual content, especially on their digital platforms, something that must happen if the user base is to grow.

Yes, they would generate more money, but that means they would also have the resources to go deep, creating a breadth of local content newspapers can no longer provide. This would not be simply replacement of newspapers, but something far richer and more compelling: hyperlocal, multiplatform, video-rich, some of it user-generated. Each platform could play to its strengths, not simply repurpose television content.

Why do this? There is a vast and untouched local audience of all ages waiting to be served. Many members of that potential audience have a much broader idea of what constitutes news than those of us still locked in the straitjacket of traditionalism. They care about their local world and are eager to consume information about it, but they will not come to us. We must go to them with products and platforms that serve their needs.

Why would stations make such a commitment? Because that is where the growth is; the economics make it compelling. It would only take one station. The other would then be forced to compete.

None of this will be easy. To build the future we must have a paradigm shift. That will happen only if we also have an economic shift that encourages investment. Sadly, that shift is being blocked by the FCC.

For longer than most people would imagine possible, the FCC has dithered about the Top Four rule as if it were a sacred scroll instead of a relic of the past. The rule was put in place during a time when television dominated media. The old saying was that stations had basement printing presses turning out cash. Today, those presses are full of rust and local television competes in a sea of many other providers, but the regulations remain stagnant.

Local television is the most important information force in America; one that represents the heart and soul of most communities. It is a force that not only informs and brings people together but is also the last bastion of citizen trust. If all that were not enough, time after time it has also saved lives.

If the critical role local television plays is to be preserved, we must have an orderly transition to the future. The FCC can — and should — ensure that future by removing the Top Four rule this year. If not, market forces will eventually reduce the number of stations producing news with unpredictable results. For the well-being of local communities across the nation, the FCC must act now.

Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.

Comments (4)

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timeshavechanged says:

June 27, 2022 at 10:46 am

I hate to be the realist here, but you are way off base. In most markets, in your hypothetical future, those left standing would be Nexstar or Sinclair in most markets as they are already running duopolies or triopolies. If you honestly think either of those companies would add coverage or improve their coverage, you are kidding yourself and know nothing of what is left of this industry. I’ve worked for both of them and what will happen if they are left standing is that they will take the extra revenue to shareholders, and debt payment, and all of the executives will cash big bonus checks. They have no interest in “news quality” or “serving their communities”

They are sales organizations that must do news to have something to sell.

Stephen Soboroff says:

June 27, 2022 at 12:14 pm

That “let er rip” mentality has left the radio industry with few voices and much less service to local communities.

[email protected] says:

June 28, 2022 at 12:16 am

Viewers have their favorites station for news mine is Wood TV & Fox17 as I prefer GR over Kazoo and BC even know I live in that area than GR, I’m one of the few that does in this area as they prefer WWMT over the 3 that are more GR base Wood TV does have Kazoo news studio with just a reporter. I’m not a local news junkie like I use to be say 20 years ago as I have other things I like to watch when the news is on I watched largely for the local weather.

I’m surprised that WXMI Fox17 is the only local news station to have a 4PM newscast since 2014 I think that about to change in the fall when Wood TV will start a 4PM newscast that will fill Ellen timeslot come the fall Wood TV hasn’t said yet which I’m not going to be surprised about. I was surprised that WZZM didn’t add a 4PM newscast last fall and still airs reruns of Judge Judy at 10AM to 11AM and then again at 4PM to 5PM.

As for getting rid of the Top 4 in West Michigan that shouldn’t happen, it’s still too big for TV stations to own 2 top 4 in this market in my opinion I get in a smaller market like what happened in SD where Nexstar & Gray own the networks there in Sioux Falls SD which I have no problem with as that is a very small market in my opinion. I’m more case by case with the top 4 rule more with smaller cities/towns and some mid-size markets as well

Hopeyoumakeit says:

July 15, 2022 at 7:59 pm

I have been selling local news for 3 decades. I simply cannot agree with your assertion that 2 newscasts are better than 4. Non White people would become invisible in local newscasts.