A debate is raging at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the so-called program exclusivity rules. Under these rules, local television stations can turn to the FCC in certain limited circumstances to stop cable operators from bringing duplicative television programming from distant markets into local communities.
Some say the rules are unnecessary – the byproduct of an obsolete era – and should be eliminated. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you consider the real purpose of the rules – encouraging and enabling television stations to serve their local markets – the rules are more important today than ever.
In a nation as broad and diverse as ours, different areas have different needs and interests. Each of those areas deserves to be served by local radio and television stations. This is at the essence of localism, one of the FCC’s longstanding core principles. As a nation, we recognize our diversity and adopt rules and policies to promote broadcast service in local communities. What could be more democratic? Even in the internet age, localism is a policy that is still important and worth pursuing.
Local television stations provide news, weather, sports and important emergency information specifically aimed at the people who live within their coverage area. Of course, it takes money to produce this local programming. Stations make money by selling advertising. Earlier in my career, I managed a small UHF television station in Meridian, Mississippi, where local advertisers were our lifeblood. Without those advertisers, we were out of business.
This is where the program exclusivity rules come in. Without these rules, it would be very difficult for local stations to acquire and maintain the rights to provide popular programming in their market. Cable operators have been very clear that they want to bring in out-of-market stations carrying the same national network and syndicated programming already airing on local stations. When that happens, it diminishes the local stations’ audiences and undercuts the revenues those stations rely upon to provide news and other local programming. In some cases, it could mean life or death for those stations, leaving local communities without quality local news service.
The FCC should be particularly concerned about small television markets, like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Charlottesville, Virginia and St. Joseph, Missouri, for example. Let’s face it, providing good and profitable local service in small markets is not easy. The potential audience and ad revenues in these markets are smaller to start with – and, in our current fragmented marketplace, viewers are increasingly drawn to other channels and outlets for entertainment. To lose audience to duplicate programming on an out-of-market station could well be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
At the end of the day, the FCC must retain localism for one simple reason: Local communities need a local voice. Think how important it is for people in Myrtle Beach to know what to do when a hurricane threatens or people in St. Joseph to know that a tornado is bearing down on them.
The program exclusivity rules provide a practical and sensible way for stations to continue to be the voice of their community. Abandoning such rules in a pluralistic, democratic society would be reckless, irrational, shortsighted, and contrary to the public interest.
Pluria Marshall, Jr. is the President & CEO of Marshall Broadcasting Group, a leading minority broadcaster with television stations in Texas, Louisiana and Iowa.