Will the Justice Department Thwart Minority Broadcast Ownership?

As one of only three African-American owned TV station licensees in the country, I recently wrote the FCC voicing strong support for the advancement of minority ownership and diversity. I saw the pending Tribune-Sinclair merger as presenting an historic opportunity for the FCC and Justice Department to advance minority ownership within the context of the divestiture requirements the government would require for regulatory approval.

The government generally, and the FCC specifically, has acknowledged the need to enhance minority ownership for 40 years. Congress also has recognized the poor state of minority ownership. The 1996 Telecommunications Act contains language aimed at increasing female and minority ownership of broadcast licenses (and other important communications mediums), and requires the FCC to limit and remove “market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses” and to do so by “favoring diversity of media voices.”

As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, the necessity for that diversity to be reflected in business becomes all the more important. Congress and the public both have an obligation to help the Department of justice understand the importance of minority ownership in broadcast television in a diversifying landscape. Diversity of thought, culture, and ideas should be equally represented. Giving more minorities access and opportunity to ownership will foster the right environment to do just that.

So, imagine my deep concern when I heard the Justice Department was wavering in its decision to allow station divestitures to my African-American owned companies, where the transaction included joint sales agreements (JSA), shared service agreements (SSA), and loan guarantee agreements. Such arrangements were routine for the FCC until it hastily implemented television Joint Sales Agreement attribution rules in 2014, under the previous Administration’s Chairman, Tom Wheeler. Those rules, however, were reversed and eliminated on Nov. 20, 2017. The Department of Justice should respect that decision.

For example, broadcast ownership has permitted Howard Stirk Holdings to create an incubator for African American journalism students by providing tuition scholarships, while providing field experience outside of the classroom. If we were not broadcast owners, I am sure none of that would have been possible .

It also gives us the opportunity to cover the stories that others are not covering, for whatever reason. We tell the stories of everyday people that are often overlooked. As part of our public interest obligation, we vow to continue doing this with our live town halls across our regional affiliates where we discuss family, community and other critical cultural issues. Our town halls provide a unique platform for the long form discussion of key issues that are important to many American communities--both black and white. We have covered in depth the water crisis in Flint, the Charleston church terrorist attack, Las Vegas terrorist attack, the Manchester terrorist attack live from Europe, the moral challenges facing America, and many other topical issues. We need more of these forums and not less. This is critically important to African American communities especially as media voices they identify with are diminishing daily.

In 2013 when we were able to acquire my first two stations, in Saginaw (Flint), MI and Florence (Myrtle Beach), SC, we used JSAs, SSAs, and loan guarantees by Sinclair. If I had not had the opportunity to enter into those arrangements, as an African American, I would not have been able to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a TV station owner. The arrangements allowed me to obtain access to capital that would have otherwise been unavailable to me. Make no mistake about it, access to capital and financing are the single biggest obstacles to new entrant and minority ownership. JSAs and SSAs provided the means to overcome those obstacles, and accordingly advanced diversity, opened opportunity, and generally served the larger public interest. Diversity in thought and opinion are what make America as great as it is today.

Moreover, these arrangements are not a token deal. Similar agreements have been common in the television industry for years, as the FCC recognized when it removed its JSA Attribution rule last month. I guess the difference is that typically all the players are white. Nevertheless, the Justice Department should not make it more difficult for minority broadcasters to become owners in the broadcast industry by denying them the same opportunities to utilize JSAs and SSAs as vehicles for ownership. In the interest of diversity and fairness, DOJ should apply the same rules and standards to all potential owners. That is and always will be the American way.

In its November 2017 Order, the FCC concluded that television JSAs did not confer on the brokering station a sufficient degree of influence or control over the core operating functions of the brokered station to warrant attribution. Moreover, it noted that the record on television JSAs contained ample evidence of the public interest benefits they provide. Even if the FCC in 2013 had correctly determined that television JSAs involving more than 15 percent of the brokered station’s weekly advertising time confer sufficient influence to warrant attribution, it nevertheless concluded that the potential benefits of television JSAs outweighed the public interest in attributing such JSAs. Bottom line, JSAs and SSAs work and help the broadcast industry provide a wider variety of content and service to the public. They also aid minority ownership.

I hope the DOJ will not turn a blind eye to this legal and market reality. If it were to deny a qualified minority the opportunity to buy divested stations as part of the Sinclair - Tribune merger, that would be unfair and a true travesty of Justice.

Mr. Williams is manager / sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the year.

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