Editorial: This Masquerade

3/12/2012 12:00:00 AM Eastern

Supporters and critics of the FCC’s latest media
ownership rule change proposals—and there
were plenty more of the latter—have weighed in.

Unfortunately, the regulatory certainty broadcasters were looking for seems just
as distant as it did a decade ago, back when the FCC, in an effort to anticipate
the new host of media competitors now upon us, tried to give broadcasters some
room to maneuver, given the importance (then as now) of free over-the-air TV.

Consolidation foes continue to argue that any regulatory relief for broadcasters
is just providing more bulk to conglomerates dominating the media landscape—
sort of like the communications equivalent of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. That
prospect seems as anachronistic today as a black-and-white sci-fi movie.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, find less than half a loaf in the commission’s
proposal, which retains broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership rules and local
ownership caps.

The fact that it leaves local duopoly rules in place means the smallest stations
that might be most in need of the financial support of a partner can’t get it, and
preserving the presumption against newspaper/broadcast cross-ownerships in
those markets doubles down on that discrimination masquerading as protection.

It bears repeating that a bipartisan collection of former FCC chairmen told
C-SPAN in a moment of unusual candor that they would have voted to scrap the
newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule long ago if they were not afraid of a
backlash from legislators.

To that keen display of invertebrate pragmatism one should add the FCC’s
continued refusal to consider Internet outlets as competitors to TV stations when
it counts voices in a market. This is the same FCC that in almost every other
action fawns over broadband with the devotion of an Elvis fan at Graceland.
This is also the same commission which maintains broadband is essentially the
future of communications, period. And not just future, but a transformative
technology today in healthcare and energy and security and education and job
creation and finance and video…but apparently not in TV markets, a zone that
is magically free of Twitter and social networks and, yes, local news sites.

Perhaps there is some hope in an FCC reform bill that just passed in the House
Energy & Commerce Committee—with, again, bipartisan support—that requires
the commission to include the Internet in a new biennial report on the state of
competition. Still, that is two years away, and if the FCC’s history of meeting congressional
report deadlines is any indication, one should make that three or four.

Broadcasters need help now, but with the FCC changes not going far enough
for them once again, and with consolidation critics calling them an unacceptable
rerun of Republican deregulatory efforts, and diversity groups lamenting that the
FCC is punting on better promoting diversity in ownership (which the Third
Circuit has asked it to do), whatever the FCC decides to do will likely wind up
in court yet again.

It looks like it is up to broadcasters to find a successful new digital business
model while still trapped within an old government regulatory model. No wonder
they are reluctant to give up any of the spectrum “oxygen” that could provide
the necessary breathing room. When it comes to any of these wanted reforms,
broadcasters shouldn’t hold their breath.