FCC gets an earful on localism


NAB’s Marcellus Alexander pointed out at yesterday’s FCC Localism Forum that broadcasters cater to their local audience or they go out of business. Eleven other witnesses, including Capitol Broadcasting’s Jim Goodmon agreed, at best, in part, or not at all.

Goodman asked that no changes in ownership rules be made until the new realities of digital broadcasting are fully understood. He said in the new paradigm, his two Raleigh television stations could well be the equivalent of eight, and that one FM station could equal three. Why would anyone loosen the rules until that situation is sorted out? He said the thing to do is finish the regulatory framework necessary to get the digital switch done. Also, he openly acknowledged the withering criticism leveled at broadcasters and did something you rarely hear management do — he volunteered for more paperwork. He said he’d welcome the opportunity to provide a quarterly report detailing exactly what his stations do for their local community, and asked only that a proceeding be initiated to define just what public interest means in real terms.

Free Press’s S. Derek Turner took a shot at the semi-blessing the Third Circuit gave to broadcast/newspaper cross-owned pairs when remanding the 2003 ownership rulemaking to the Commission. He didn’t dispute the notion that such combinations are often the class operation of their market; the problem is that they are so good, they discourage head-on competition in the news arena and the result is less news and information content at the market level. Further, newspaper reporters, who are the journalists most likely to delve deeply into local matters, and who are often available to whichever local broadcast outlets wish to interview them (thus promoting the newspaper) suddenly are available only to the co-owned broadcast outlets, to the detriment of the entire market as a whole.

Turner also noted that newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership combinations aren’t even an economic advantage except in the two largest markets, confirming a recent trend in which multimedia companies are splitting the two businesses apart.All of the other witnesses, including Jesse Jackson (who strongly attacked the pending XM/Sirius merger), Bob Edwards and others, were critical of consolidation, the low level of minority, female and small business ownership. NOW’s Kim Gandy noted that such owners in existence are extremely local by definition, since they generally are active in only one market, and at that, with a single station. However, they have a difficult time competing with large conglomerates for ad dollars.
Media Access Project’s Andrew Jay Schwartzman praised Goodmon and other dedicated local broadcasters, of whom he acknowledged there were many. Responding to NAB touting wall-to-wall coverage of the California wildfire by one TV station in San Diego, he said it’s not about that station, it’s about the others in the market with no locally originated programming, that haven’t done nothing during the current crisis. He noted that these are stations are never called in to testify. The NAB does not put these companies on panels, but that’s who Schwartzman wants to hear from on Capitol Hill and at the FCC.

RBR/TVBR observation: This is the second time in two weeks that we have heard a prominent regional broadcast owner refuse to take a bullet for the big consolidated broadcast companies that seem to be the cause of most of the heat being directed at the business. Goodmon followed Russ Withers, who declined to defend his competitor Clear Channel under questioning from Byron Dorgan (D-ND) at a 10/14/07 Senate Commerce Committee hearing. To underscore, Goodmon said no to deregulation and yes to public interest standards and reporting requirements. Extraordinary.

Testimony summaries

Marcellus Alexander, NAB/NABEF (EVP Television):
The record shows that broadcasters are committed to localism. They have to: Local relevant programming is essential for local competition, otherwise people change the channel. Countless public officials have testified to broadcast commitment to local content. Katrina, CA wildfires provide evidence of broadcast commitment to community in times of emergency.

Bob Edwards, AFTRA/XM Satellite Radio (formerly with NPR): Testifying on behalf of AFTRA. National satellite broadcaster can’t provide local news, and national conglomerates are increasingly abandoning provision of local news. FCC should not allow further deterioration of local service by increasing consolidation. Commission should consider how large companies behave when deregulated. Too much focus on bottom line.
Lisa Fager Bediako, Industry Ears: Women of color in distress/being abused receive almost no industry coverage. Civil rights movement relied on black radio to report what other stations would not. Now, with many Urban stations owned by Clear Channel, minority news outlets are disappearing. 75% or Urban stations carry syndication, limiting local voices, jobs, stifles info/news to local communities. Washington is a great example. Four Urban stations; three out of four are syndicated, only one carries news. Also, stuck with national playlists supported by corporate payola practices. Corporate violators got off with slap on the wrist.

Kim Gandy, President, National Organization for Women: Local owners air 20-25% more local news content than conglomerates, and is even more likely to occur with female or minority owners. There are few such owners, but where they exist they are predominately headquartered in the market wherer their station is. Most are single station owners, and focus on local community. Local owners are being squeezed out by consolidation. Hard to compete with conglomerates for programming, ad dollars.

Jim Goodmon, Capitol Broadcasting (Raleigh NC): 3rd Generation of company founded by grandfather in 1929. 1. Please don’t do anything about ownership — we’re going into the digital transition. Two TVs = eight; one FM = three. Why make a change during a period of technical change? And you can’t look at TV, radio, cable, newspaper separately. Do it all together. 2. Please do the 3rd Periodic to move on with digital transition. 3. Localism: Broadcasters say we’re wonderful. Watchdogs say broadcasters are terrible. Have broadcasters report quarterly on what they ARE doing — I have some ideas what should be on that questionnaire. Define minimum public interest standards — that would be a healthy exercise for everybody. Generally, it means you do local community broadcasting.

Wade Henderson, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: Believe in value and power of free market of ideas. Cookie-cutter media is eliminately local forum. It provides one voice, not many. Local intergration in news management means local communities generally aren’t properly represented in the media and their story isn’t being heard. Media was critical to advancement of civil rights movement, and further consolidation damages
Dan Isett, Parents Television Council: Consolidation has led to coarsening of content, owners who ignore news unfavorable to them, and turning cable into a cartel. The reason there has been limited public outcry over court decision on fleeting expletives is because big corporations are refusing to cover it. In a more diverse media environment, their position would be challenged by other media companies. CBS entered into consent decree on indecency with behavioral requirements, then proceeded to ignore it. How can they be called responsible stewards of the airwaves then be given more access to it? Six conglomerates own most cable systems, force carriage of their own stations via bundling. Calling for a la carte. News Corp. is flexing conglomerate muscle to force carrige of its new business channel despite lack of any demand.

Jesse Jackson Sr., Rainbow PUSH Coalition: I’m here on behalf of millions of Americans who will never have a seat at this table. Media policies have been made behind closed doors. Result, too few own too much. The FCC should not just give us an opportunity to speak, it should listen and do something, particularly to address lack of diversity. Coverage of minority issues is best done by minority owners. Minority buyers, victims of discriminatory lending practices, can’t complete with conglomerates for licenses. Sirius/XM merger: Business combination of the two largest satcasters, creating a monopoly with no possibility of competition, and allowing programming decisions to be made in one office at the expense of diverse programming. It’s a bad deal, not in the public interest.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, Media Access Project: After 30 years of sitting on these panels, I’ve heard broadcasters who provide great local service, including my friend Jim Goodmon. This is not about them. It’s not about Channel 7 in San Diego, it’s about the others that have no locally originated programming and have done nothing during the current crisis. These are the stations the NAB does not invite to appear on these panels. The number of Goodmons is decreasing, number of mediocre broadcasters is increasing. 1200 TV stations have no news — how can they be considered to be broadcasting in the public interest? NAB didn’t mention radio in San Diego, because noncommercial station is handling most of the load there. Would like conglomerates operating stations from hundreds or thousands of miles away to testify on localism. Unless and until FCC can answer these questions it cannot consider this a closed process. Fix? 1. Meaningful license renewal process. 2. Reduce term to three years, and require local, licensee produced programming. Double minority/female ownership in five years. More local low power stations.

Christopher Sterling, George Washington University: Three points: 1. Localism issues are of long-standing concern dating back to the 1920’s. Newspaper domination of broadcast prompted three-year FCC investigation in the 1940’s. 2. Plenty of local outlets, but far too few voices. Plethora of outlets too often offer little diversity in points of view. Drop-in FMs of 1980’s, LPFM are often cut off by incumbents. Growing reliance on marketplace competition rather than public interest/behavioral standards has hurt localism and local origination. 3. Can broadcast localism be revived. Yes but will take more than lip service. Create public affairs trust among commercial stations and place the responsibility on noncommercial stations — in return commercial stations can abandon localism. Or revisit proposals for public affairs responsibility on digital, or on side channels. Minority/female/small business ownership must be increased. FCC should strive for viable mechanisms to make localism real again.

S. Derek Turner, Free Press: How do FCC rules further localism, competition and diversity? Gutting the few remaining rules will be a disaster. 1. Where newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership exists, that company may provide more news, but total news in the market is decreased. Other holes in theory that relaxing this is good. Very little evidence that there’s even an economic benefit to this except in largest markets. Internet is no substitute for broadcast for local news. Internet is a short-term challenge but a long-term opportunity for print and broadcast, but consolidation is immaterial to that. FCC can listen to Wall Street or Main Street. Public is tired of companies using airwaves as their personal ATMs.

Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation of America: FCC planned to explore localism through this procedure, supposedly to pay critical role. Then it just disappeared, and apparently will have no effect on regulatory results. Evidence is overwhelming that localism is not being served now and needs help. A lengthy laundry list of localism points were completely ignored in the FCC’s ten ownership studies. Is there minority programming sensitive to local populations? Is there local minority ownership? Etc. Until the FCC finds answers to these questions with time for public comment, there should be no rulemakings. You simply cannot solve the deficit of localism and diversity without solving core problems at the local level.