FCC Gives Broadcasters A Lump Of Coal For The New Year
In a ruling that would be more at home in the 1960s than the third decade of the 21st century, the FCC last week reaffirmed its commitment to long out-of-date regulations that threaten the long-term viability of local television service.
Specifically, the FCC slammed the door on the idea of combining any two ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC affiliations in a single market. Adding insult to injury, the FCC broadened the prohibition to include secondary channels and low-power TV stations.
Pretending that America still lives in the era of LPs and 45s and console radios, the FCC’s three Democratic commissioners proclaimed that musty, typewritten rules formulated in the days before word processors are still valid because all is well with local television station competition.
One can’t help but think of Lt. Frank Drebin from the Police Squad movies standing in front of a raging fire yelling into a microphone: “Nothing to see here! Please disperse!”
Never mind the fact that consumers now spend more time viewing streaming content than watching network television.
Never mind the fact that network owners have gutted their primetime television schedules to feed their insatiable streaming platforms.
Never mind the fact that Google, Facebook and now Amazon, as well as dozens of other national players, are sucking revenue from local television markets at a record pace.
Never mind the fact that local television news viewing continues to decline, due in part to a massive oversupply.
And perhaps most importantly, never mind the fact that none of local television’s new competitors are regulated.
None of this seems to matter to the FCC. Instead, and this is hard to believe, the commission actually said combining any two networks would “result in the remaining networks paying less attention to viewer demand for innovative, high-quality programming.”
The FCC also claims that keeping the current rules “increases the bargaining power of local broadcast affiliates and enables them to influence Big Four broadcast network programming decisions in ways that better serve the interests of their local communities.”
What innovative, high-quality programming is the FCC talking about? What local station influence on network programming? It has been a long time since any network expressed interest in what local general managers thought about network programming. Quite the opposite is true.
As for innovative programming, all of that is at the station or group level these days, not at the networks.
The FCC’s decision is hard to understand because it reaches illogical conclusions that fly in the face of reality. It’s as if the FCC believes nothing in the world of local media has changed since 1980. Do these commissioners own smartphones? Do their cars have cruise control and airbags?
Not content with making a specious argument, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel even added a red herring by saying: “No entity can own all the television stations in a single market.”
To my knowledge, no group owner has suggested there should only be one owner per market. There is a small market where one company is affiliated with all four networks, but that is an outlier and not the norm.
All stations want is reasonable consolidation that would allow fewer, but stronger, stations to compete against each other. A market that now has five or six separately owned stations might end up with three or four.
Some station consolidation is essential because the current business model is unsustainable. Continuing threats to advertising revenue and retransmission payments, combined with an explosion of competitors, means the alternative to consolidation will be the eventual demise of weaker players, leading to a last-man-standing scenario. In other words, chaos.
Strengthening and ensuring the viability of over-the-air television is critical to the well-being of our nation. At a time when the FCC should be encouraging innovation, it is instead throwing up roadblocks from a long-past era.
The current FCC majority is entrenched in the past. Let’s hope either Congress, or a more enlightened future commission, is willing to take a more constructive approach to today’s broadcast issues than simply saying “no” to the future.
Hank Price spent 30 years leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett while concurrently building a career in executive education. He is the author of Leading Local Television and two other books.