If Sohn Fails In FCC Bid, Broadcasters Need One Of Their Own
Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel gets her confirmation hearing for another term today before the Senate Commerce Committee and I expect it to go well and that she will be confirmed and sworn in as the first permanent female FCC chair before the end of the year.
I’m not so sanguine about her fellow Democratic nominee, Gigi Sohn. That she isn’t on the undercard for the hearing today and other rumblings suggest that her nomination may be in trouble.
That is not a big surprise. During her long career — first on the outside as liberal activist and then on the inside as an aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama years — she has managed to antagonize just about every industry the FCC regulates, including broadcasting.
Now I am not going to take a position on Sohn, but should she fall, TV broadcasters should seize the opportunity and demand that an experienced broadcast journalist be appointed to the commission, one who will champion local journalism by unabashedly championing broadcasting.
With local papers trapped in a downward spiral and local digital still flailing about for a viable business model, it’s going to be increasingly up to TV broadcasters to carry the local journalism load.
The moment is ripe.
There is a lot of interest among the Democrats on Capitol Hill to do something to buck up local journalism, which has been decimated by newspaper closings and massive staff cutbacks.
The interest is manifest in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits for newsroom employees as well as for consumers who subscribe or donate to local media and small businesses that advertise with local media.
Introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), the legislation has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), and 63 in the House, including 15 Republicans.
The sponsors have attached the measure to Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill, which has a good chance of passage through the reconciliation process.
As I wrote Monday, the Sustainability Act is a good idea, except I would exclude TV stations from the largess. They are making plenty of money right now. They don’t need tax credits.
What they do need is a pro-broadcasting FCC commissioner who, through his or her advocacy and voting, would help ensure the long-term viability of TV broadcasters so that they never get to a point where they have to go begging for government subsidies.
Such a commissioner could:
- Advocate for relaxing broadcast ownership restrictions to allow for more scale and efficiency. That’s the path to greater profitability and more reporters on the street. For starters, I would suggest preserving the UHF discount and putting in place a process for allowing network-affiliated duopolies on a case-by-case basis.
- Be ever vigilant for any efforts to weaken broadcasters’ retransmission consent rights. Without the ample and growing flow of dollars from cable, broadcasting will be trapped in the same downward spiral as newspapers.
- Guard against Democratic efforts to use the agency to regulate political advertising not by going after the campaigns, which are beyond their reach, but by deputizing reluctant TV stations to do the job. Like retrans, political advertising is vital ($4.5 billion in 2020) to broadcasting and you don’t want to do anything that would cause candidates to shift dollars to media that ask fewer questions.
- Lead the FCC out of the thicket of indecency enforcement. With the internet in everybody’s pocket, it is long past time when it should be punishing stations with hefty fines for airing dirty words or a bare bottom. (Was there ever a time?)
- Seek out and mark for destruction outdated regulatory chores that strain station budgets and serve little practical purpose. I would start with the public inspection files. Half the stuff in there doesn’t need to be.
- Defend TV broadcasting from further spectrum grabs and interference from other wireless services. On its own dime, broadcasters have built a reliable distribution system that reaches virtually every TV home. The FCC should not be allowed to degrade it.
A commissioner from the ranks of broadcast journalists is a long shot. But if Sohn gets bumped, the NAB and state broadcast associations should ignore the odds and lobby Capitol Hill and the Biden administration to nominate an alternate willing and able to steer the FCC in a way that helps rather than hinders local broadcasting and its local news.