FCC inaction on media ownership suggests that it may not outlaw virtual duopolies. ~~ Peter Liguori, the newly minted CEO of Tribune Co., says he hasn’t ruled out holding onto the newspapers, one of which, the flagship Chicago Tribune, just this week demonstrated some first-rate reporting with a four-part series on what led toTribune's four-year bankruptcy nightmare. ~~ It’s hard to understand why TV programmers won’t step up and take any responsibility for the epidemic of gun violence — and offer something other than platitudes and volunteering to be “part of the conversation.”
Top Of Mind: Duopolies, Tribune, TV Violence
The NAB and individual broadcasters who have been intensely lobbying the FCC lately not to outlaw virtual duopolies received some encouraging words from FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell this week.
“The commission must resist calls for limiting, and therefore discouraging, the use of joint sales, shared service, and local news service agreements,” he said in a speech before the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.
Through the use of such agreements, broadcasters have been combining station operations in markets — creating so-called virtual duopolies — where the FCC local duopoly rules say they can’t own two stations outright.
Rather than relaxing the duopoly rules in the FCC’s current review of the all its ownership limits to permit outright dual ownership, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to crack down on the sharing arrangements, maybe even forcing broadcasters to undo existing ones.
But that’s all backwards, said McDowell. “These agreements provide efficiencies that lower operation and production costs for broadcasters enabling them to deploy more resources that benefit more consumers.”
Such arrangements have benefited foreign-language and women- and minority-owned stations and maintained or increased the number of stations in small markets broadcasting news, he said.
“The commission must not regulate without a full understanding of how these agreements are used and how they enhance viewpoint diversity and augment local news and information programming in the places that need it most.
“By creating new counterproductive attribution rules targeting these agreements, especially with a dearth of evidence to support such a radical policy shift, the FCC may end up raising costs, reducing local programming and ultimately diminishing diversity.”
Those are fine words, all right. Unfortunately, the sentiments are shared by only one of the other four commissioners, fellow Republican Ajit Pai.
The FCC’s Democratic majority led by Genachowski seems inclined to curtail the sharing arrangements to one extent or another.
In their filings and visits to the FCC, broadcasters have been supplying ample evidence backing up McDowell’s assertions and making a variety of other sound arguments.
That Genachowski can’t seem to bring the ownership proceeding to a vote suggests that the broadcasters may be making some headway and that the Media Bureau staff — or at least one of the other Dems — is having second thoughts. Let’s hope.
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I am rooting for Peter Liguori, the newly installed CEO of the Tribune Co. The country needs another big, strong media company with solid journalistic credentials.
In an interview with the flagship Chicago Tribune, Liguori confounds conventional wisdom by suggesting that he may not spin off the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, even though their well-documented financial struggles (along with the $13 billion of debt heaped on the company in the Sam Zell takeover) were chiefly responsible for plunging the company into its hellish and costly four-year bankruptcy.
In a separate interview in the Tribune’s Los Angeles Times, Liguori says that he is obliged to hear out anybody interested in buying the papers. “But that runs parallel to my working with you guys on running the business on a day-to-day basis to maximize the value.”
Liguori, who had his greatest success programming FX for News Corp., tells both papers he wants to make more of cable network WGN America. “I do think we should be … investing in it and creating original programming which services the audience,” he says in the Times. “If we do a good job at that, we’re going to attract advertisers and be of greater value.”
Liguori doesn’t say anything in either of the articles about Tribune’s 23 TV stations, presumably because he wasn’t asked. That’s surprising. I would guess that the stations have been the most reliably profitable part of the company for the last several years.
We reported a few weeks ago that Tribune is eschewing high-priced off-network sitcoms in favor of developing its own first-run programming that it could syndicate to other broadcasters. It will be interesting to see if the new Tribune sticks with the strategy.
I also have to wonder whether Liguori will stick with Nils Larsen as head of broadcasting. Larsen is a Zell man, the architect of the takeover bid that has to go down in history as one of the worst ever.
How bad was it? For that answer, I refer you to the four-part series on takeover and subsequent bankruptcy that ran in the Tribune this week (Warning: It’s behind a pay wall.) You shake your head in disbelief that Zell was able to pull it off. But don’t bother if you are looking for the sensational or the dramatic.
Reporters Michael Oneal and Steve Mills identify no real bad guys, only a bunch of dumb ones or perhaps smart guys blinded by greed and ambition. And there are no new revelations of one-time CEO Randy Michael’s antics. That was disappointing, I’ll have to admit.
But this is good, serious journalism that draws heavily on the bankruptcy filings and deposition to clearly describe all that went wrong. The series ends with what amounts as a critique of the convoluted bankruptcy system that distracted executives and ended up costing Tribune $500 million in legal and professional fees at a time when operations were bleeding and in desperate need of development funds.
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I am amazed that TV once again escaped any culpability for the gun violence that has been plaguing our nation. President Obama unveiled a multi-pronged campaign to curtail gun violence this week with most of the sharp prongs pointed at the makers and distributors of guns.
The president wants to ban assault rifles, conduct more thorough background checks on buyers and put limits on ammo clips. As for TV, well, it will be the subject of yet another study to see if imaginary violence provokes real violence.
I don’t believe this new study — or any study — will come up with the conclusive proof that would provide the compelling evidence the nation would need to curtail the First Amendment rights of movie and TV producers and distributors. But then again I don’t believe that TV should ignore the possibility that all the blood and guts it spills on big and small screens somehow contributes to the pathology that causes people to shoot up movie theaters and school houses.
Shouldn’t TV be doing something?
Right after the Newtown shootings, B&C dutifully tried to talk to the heads of the networks, but they were in hiding along with the NRA lobbyists.
Reporters earlier this month finally cornered some of the executives at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena and got a bunch of excuses for the high level of violence and no promises that he or she would try to bring it down a notch. Hey, they seemed to be saying, what can I do? People like it.
In a joint statement after Obama’s press briefing, NAB, NCTA and MPAA said they would be “part of the conversation” about reducing gun violence.
They should volunteer to be part of the solution.