August is generally the sleepiest month in D.C., as legislators head home to start convincing their constituents to send them back and the FCC commissioners get in some R&R or fact-finding outside the Beltway.
Not so much this time around, with the spectrum incentive auction in full swing (though its first swing was a miss)—determining how many billions broadcasters will walk away with and just how soon winners and losers can start planning their futures.
Then there was the official nail in the coffin of broadcasters’ efforts to get the FCC to join the 21st century.
When we say the FCC we mean the agency’s majority, who voted not to get rid of or loosen the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rules, the local radio ownership rule, the radio/TV cross-ownership rule and the dual network rule, and even reimposed limits on TV station joint sales agreements and added a new restriction on affiliation switches.
There appeared to have been a majority in favor of eliminating at least the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, according to one of the two Republican commissioners who dissented— but Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn made it clear she was not in favor of scrapping the rules.
The FCC did approve a new “failing newspaper” waiver policy similar to its failing station waiver. But that means a newspaper has to be at death’s door for it to be able to combine resources with a TV station, or meet some “viewpoint diversity” test, which would insert the FCC into decisions about content and programming where it doesn’t belong.
Wouldn’t it be better to allow a paper to save itself before it had already been administered the last rites?
For an FCC that’s as focused on broadband as an omphaloskeptic on its own navel and touts broadband’s importance (rightly so) as the most transformative technology since Mr. Lincoln’s telegraph, it’s curious that whenever broadcasters note the marketplace for video is wildly competitive (thanks in part to all that broadband video), suddenly the web shrinks to the size of a pea and can’t be considered part of the market for video competition. The web irrelevant? Hmmm.
Commissioner Ajit Pai raised a point in his dissent that bears considering. The FCC has approved the huge mergers of Comcast/NBCUniversal, Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House and AT&T/DirecTV, but when it comes to broadcasters and struggling print journalists, it continues to balk. Allowing newspapers and stations to combine would allow for more investment in reporting than either could undertake on their own. Three FCC chairs from both parties have conceded there was no reason to retain the cross-ownership ban and it remained on the books due to pressure from Congress. That is hardly a reason to continue to prevent newspapers and stations from getting together in a world that bears no resemblance to the media marketplace of 1975.
Pai’s conclusion: “It makes no sense at all.” We agree.