The fate of local television is now before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The agency is currently reviewing public input on whether it should maintain its broadcast exclusivity rules, which protect the right of local broadcast TV stations to enter into exclusive contracts for the distribution of network programming.
Content – and the right to protect it – is at the heart of local broadcasting. Without it, cable and satellite TV providers would be free to bypass local TV stations and distribute ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Univision signals from New York City on a nationwide basis – eviscerating the local news and local advertising that communities rely on today.
The current FCC rules enable local broadcast TV stations to enforce local distribution deals for their popular programming so that they may compete on equal footing for local advertising revenues – the very dollars necessary to produce local news and programming for the benefit of the communities they serve. This highly valued local broadcast TV programming includes breaking news updates, Amber alerts, severe weather alerts and warnings, and coverage of local sporting events, social activities and civic-related matters.
The unique benefits of localism would quickly be lost if pay-TV providers get their way. Cable and satellite TV providers are seeking to eliminate the FCC’s existing enforcement rules so they can distribute broadcast network signals from a single megalopolis to every community in America. If approved, the pay-TV industry’s request would allow cable and satellite TV providers to make even more money, while eliminating their subscribers’ access to local broadcast TV programming.
In addition to this immediate consumer harm, eliminating broadcast exclusivity would result in crippling losses in advertising revenues for local broadcasters, eventually forcing TV stations in small and mid-size markets off the air. This will leave tens of millions of television viewers, including those who now rely on free, over-the-air broadcast TV, without access to local programming in vast areas of the U.S.
In an FCC filing this month, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) highlighted a new analysis by Compass Lexecon that finds that exclusive programming rights resulted in a 24.4 percent higher primetime Nielsen viewership rating for 10 local TV stations in eight markets as a result of the existing FCC protections. Higher Nielsen viewership ratings help local TV stations succeed in obtaining the local advertising revenue they need to support their public service activities. The study demonstrates that local station revenues would plummet if pay-TV providers were allowed to do an end-run and carry national signals instead. Reversing course on this key protection for broadcasters would spell the end for localism in small and mid-size television markets across America.
It is disingenuous on the part of cable and satellite TV providers to position their calls for elimination of the rules as being in the interest of consumers, when, in effect, it will diminish millions of viewers’ access to the reliable and trusted programming provided by local TV broadcasters.
A series of recent FCC decisions aimed at the nation’s media landscape have advanced an anti-competitive and anti-consumer agenda. These actions beg the question as to whether, under chairman Tom Wheeler’s leadership, the agency actually values the news, entertainment and emergency alert programming local TV stations deliver to viewers.
Chairman Wheeler has a choice: Does he support broadcast exclusivity rules that have allowed America to have the most vibrant and successful system of local broadcasting in the world? Or does he believe local broadcast TV is not important to tens of millions of viewers across this country?
The choice is his.
Robert C. Kenny is the director of public affairs for TVfreedom.org, a coalition of local broadcasters, community advocates, network TV affiliate associations, and other independent organizations; he formerly served as press secretary at the FCC.