Washington

Editorial: A Rosier Future View

6/20/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

As with virtually anything that comes out of the FCC these days, there
are some opportunities to leverage the commission’s newly released
Future of Media report to try and gain spectrum from broadcasters.

Overall, however, the report did not wind up being
a cudgel that could be used to beat them up
or take them down.

After almost a year and a half in the works, the
report was introduced to much fanfare—an FCC
and Columbia University unveiling—and was
received initially with some trepidation by those
fearing broadcasters might be portrayed as not
having much of a role in that future.

To his credit, Steve Waldman, who was brought
in by his college friend, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski,
to oversee the effort, produced a balanced
report that included broadcasters in the process,
and gave them credit both for what they are doing
right and the value—which turns out to be considerable—
they still bring to the table. In other hands,
the report could have been just another crowbar for
prying spectrum from broadcasters, but was not.

There was still some sense of “use it or lose
it” in the suggestion that broadcasters should
file online reports of how much local news they
are actually doing, and what they are using their
multicast channels for. But if broadcasters are to
remain relevant and competitive, they will need
to leverage that digital spectrum and use it to its
full potential for big-ticket items such as mobile,
multicast, broadband backhaul and 3D.

Among the report’s most important points is that
the Internet has not supplanted broadcasting as the
go-to source for local news. Given the FCC’s jones
for all things broadband, that finding would have
put an exclamation point on the commission’s call
for more spectrum. Instead, it gave broadcasters
props for stepping up with their own creative use
of the Web to complement what remains the most
important source of local news and information.

There were several other findings that struck
this page as particularly even-handed. One was
the recognition that media consolidation is not
the equivalent of Voldemort, or that guy with the
top hat and black mustache tying innocent maidens
to the railroad track.

While the report left the recommendations on
media ownership rules changes to the FCC’s ongoing
review of those rules, it advised the commission
not to dismiss the potential upside to combining
news operations out of hand.

Broadcasters have been trying to make that
point for years in asking that the newspaperbroadcast
cross-ownership ban be lifted and have
so far been rebuffed, even as several FCC chairmen
conceded they did not think the ban should
remain and would have lifted it were it not for
pressure from Congress.

The other issue was pay for play in the form of
video news releases, or charging guests for appearances
or, as some station sales forces have done,
soliciting business with
promises of news appearances
to sweeten the deal.
The last in that series is just
plain wrong, while the first
two are not a violation of
FCC rules so long as they
are clearly identified, and
depending on how the FCC
interprets the value of the
news release to the station.

If the station does not
charge for using the release,
it doesn’t seem to us that the release itself constitutes
an in-kind payment that requires on-air and online
identification, as the FCC has tried to assert, though
responsible journalists should identify it as such anyway
in their own interest of maintaining credibility.

Any way you slice it, this is a journalistically
queasy, grey area, and the report acknowledges
that—while once again keeping its powder dry.
Rather than simply hammering broadcasters, it
suggests that if they must use pay for play—and
we advise against the practice—they should be
entirely up front about it.

One more thing we would give the report major
props for: its realization that to continue to be the
top source of local news, broadcasters need to be
able to meet the payroll and invest in the product.

The report recommends that the federal government
move a billion dollars of its ad budget from
national ad buys to local media. Actually, we have
to give a shout-out both to the report and to the
broadcasters who pitched Waldman and company
on the concept of being able to make that local
buy as efficiently, and with comparable coverage,
to the easier one-shot national deals.

The report is more a lay of the land than a call to
action, but in either case, it is a thoughtful piece of
work that does credit to the effort and its authors.

September
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