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Free Press: FCC Was Willing Accomplice to Destruction of Local Journalism - Broadcasting & Cable

Free Press: FCC Was Willing Accomplice to Destruction of Local Journalism

Media consolidation paper takes aim at big deals and joint sales, services agreements
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Free Press Research Director Derek Turner
wasn't afraid to give away the ending, titling his analysis of media
consolidation, "Cease to Resist: How the FCC's Failure to Enforce its
Rules Created a New Wave of Media Consolidation."

According to Turner
and Free Press, who are releasing the report Monday, local broadcast journalism
has been suffering from the "rampant media consolidation" of the past
two decades, and it isn't getting any better. He points a finger squarely at deregulatory
FCC policies, saying that the FCC has been a "willing accomplice to this
destruction of local journalism."

He concedes the
FCC's long-standing court battle to maintain ownership limits, but said at the
same time it signaled it was not going to examine covert consolidation
agreements. Turner is talking about the joint sales and services agreements
that are within the FCC rules but that Free Press and a number of cable
operators and MVPD's who have to negotiate retrans opposite those broadcasters
argue are a way to skirt/circumvent/subvert the FCC's local ownership caps.

Turner says the
"convenient lie" of "covert" consolidation is part of
runaway media concentration that has led to the control of 85% of the top four
affiliated TV stations in the top 25 markets by 13 companies.

"The U.S. broadcast
television industry is in the midst of a wave of consolidation, which one
longtime industry insider described as "the biggest wave ... in the history of
television," says Turner in the executive summary.

He says the trend is
driven by a combination of factors, including FCC apathy, improving local ad
markets, particularly political spending and the promise of more in a post
Citizens United world. Then there is the increasingly attractiveness of retrans
revenues.

Sinclair gets
special mention for leading the consolidation charge, growing from 58 to 160
stations and 22% coverage of the U.S. to 38.8% if the FCC
approves all its deals. But he also sites deals involving Gannett/Belo; Media
General/Young, and Tribune/Local TV deals.

Turner/Free Press
want incoming FCC Chair Tim Wheeler to block those deals and take other steps,
including counting sharing agreements against local ownership caps and get rid
of the UHF discount, which the FCC has tentatively voted to do.

In fact, Free Press
argues the FCC should no longer allow ownership of more than one station in a
market given that broadcasters are allowed to multicast on several digital
sub-channels in a market already. "If companies like Sinclair want to air
multiple stations, they can use multicasting technology with a single
over-the-air license. To do otherwise wastes our scarce public airwaves."

Under chairman
Julius Genachowski, the FCC raised the issue of counting joint sales agreements
toward ownership caps as they are in radio, but did not take any action on
modifying ownership rules, in part because of pushback over what diversity
advocates said was a lack of court-ordered review of the impact of any changes,
tightening or loosening rules, on diversity of ownership.

Under Acting FCC
Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, the FCC did vote to propose eliminating the UHF discount,
which only counts half a UHF station's audience toward the cap. That dates from
the analog days when UHF signals were inferior to V's. In the digital age, the
reverse is true.

An FCC spokesperson
was unavailable for comment.

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