That's an important question in Washington, DC, where cynics, "public interest" groups and the occasional misguided regulator often mock the role that local TV stations play in providing service to community.
Inside the Beltway, the politically polarizing cable networks provide what passes for riveting cocktail conversation for Washington elites. But in the real world -- outside of a few square miles of the DC bubble -- local television reigns supreme as most-watched and most-valued. The Pew Research Center confirms that local TV stations remain the most trusted and most-watched source for news across America -- especially with early hour, noon and late evening newscasts driving growth in viewership.
Moreover, local TV is a lifeline for the needy and less fortunate.
DC elites may scoff at the charitable contributions of broadcasters, but those efforts are real and they are remarkable. Broadcasters contribute mightily to community well-being; stations from coast-to-coastoffer airtime for food drives, sponsor marathon runs against cancer, and galvanize multi-million dollar relief efforts when disaster strikes. One would be hard-pressed to find a city in America where a local broadcaster is not partnering with groups like Toys for Tots, Children's Miracle Network, and St. Jude's to make a positive difference.
Ultimately, it’s commitment to community that defines "localism."
The countless contributions of local TV stations to support individuals, families and municipalities in need should not be dismissed nor taken for granted as federal regulators consider changes to U.S. video rules that govern TV stations. Otherwise, the consequences could be dire. Who, for example, will fill that the localism role that defines the lifeblood of a broadcaster?
One only has to look to dedication and commitment of local TV broadcasters who, this month, risked their own safety in providing real-time updates to viewers on Hurricane Joaquin and the deadly flooding that engulfed vast regions of the East Coast. In Columbia and other parts of the Carolinas, local TV stations went wall-to-wall with lifeline flood reporting, and then joined with the Red Cross and Salvation Army to help spur a sustained relief effort that’s collectively seeking to raise millions of dollars to help storm survivors.
Broadcasters’ commitment to community is constant: Last month Raycom Media's NBC affiliate WFIE-TV in Evansville, IN helped raise $293,000 as part of its “14 Hours for MDA” fundraiser to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It marks the 45th consecutive year that WFIE has sponsored this fundraiser. And, in August, Bahakel Communications' ABC affiliate, WBBJ-TV helped lead efforts in Jackson, TN to raise $1.3 million as part of the 32nd Annual “Circles of Hope” telethon on behalf of the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
Those goodwill snapshot anecdotes of localism occur across America every day. They may be taken for granted in Washington, but make no mistake: society is unquestionably better off because of the commitment of broadcasters to localism.
Research shows that three-quarters of America’s television viewers are watching local news and programming, network primetime entertainment and live sports daily on multiple screens. And that is important. Equally important is the commitment that local broadcasters make in delivering emergency alerts and weather warnings, investigative reporting of scandals at City Hall, and coverage of local politics and political debates. That's what sets broadcasters apart from most of the chattering by national pay-TV networks, and that's what's being threatened in proceedings now pending before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The reality is that there’s a strong possibility that many local TV stations in smaller and medium-sized markets will be diminished or forced off the air if federal regulators change the regulatory paradigm in a way that creates added financial pressures. In a world of pay-TV giants --where just four companies control 79 percent of all pay-TV homes -- localism is fostered by exclusivity and retransmission consent rules that allow broadcasters to remain competitive. So yes, localism matters -- and localism is sustained by revenues that allow broadcast TV stations to produce quality local news and that prevent marquee sports and entertainment programming from migrating to cable and satellite TV.
Critical choices are now before the FCC. And yes, the very essence of "localism" and the future of local TV stations that deliver the news and programming Americans turn to the most hangs in the balance. We hope the Commission makes the right choice.
Kenny is director of public affairs for TVfreedom.org, a coalition of local broadcasters, community advocates, network TV affiliate associations and others advocating for preserving the retransmission consent regime. He is a former press secretary at the FCC.