With a pool of newly independent stations forced to suddenly come up with new business plans, there is an urgent need for the FCC to stop debating and start deciding on new TV-station–ownership rules.
The arrival of The CW and My Network TV is not simply creating new programming choices for stations that are already the weakest outlets in their markets. This development is fraught with peril. In small markets, some of the stations that are forced to pick a new network—or go independent—are already surviving on the margins. If they make the wrong decisions now, they will pay dearly for their mistakes. Broadcasters need to be able to create the economies of scale that allow them to be competitive.
Smaller stations will have to compete with IPTV video, telcos, satellite, cable and wireless just as hard as stations in New York and L.A. But the little guys will have one hand tied behind their backs.
The current duopoly rules prevent two stations in a market from being commonly owned unless at least eight independent voices remain. The FCC allows combinations in large markets, where they are arguably more of a device to enrich the bottom line than they are an economic necessity. But the same FCC prevents duopolies in many smaller and midsize markets, where struggling stations could use a deeper-pocketed sibling. Those using the “scarcity of voices” argument a couple of years ago would have a hard time making the case stick today.
The last time the ownership-rules rewrite almost made it onto the agenda was July. Then, it was pulled from the monthly meeting because, according to Chairman Kevin Martin, the commission was “still debating some of the issues back and forth about how much time for comment [and] what we should do about making sure there is adequate public input.”
At the time, the commissioners said they recognized the need for speed and regulatory certainty. What followed was apparent amnesia and an industry forced to ask for waivers while the commission figures out permanent rules about what they can and can't own.
An FCC insider suggests that new Commissioner Robert McDowell likely will not be onboard until April. That, combined with the political sensitivity of the rewrite, probably means that nothing will happen until after the November elections. The station-ownership issue is not proceeding at a snail's pace. It's at a dead stop. FEMA could get you a glass of water faster.
It's time to confirm the president's choice for the final commission spot and get the rule review under way. June will mark two years since the Philadelphia appeals court told the FCC to better justify its reasoning behind the deregulatory changes it proposed. Some poor stations—and we mean that literally—don't have much more time to wait.