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Broadcasters, Cable Fight Intervention

THE FCC has professed an interest in salvaging the news business, or growing a new variant. But concerned broadcast and cable operators keep asking the same question: Could the combination of the economic downturn and systemic changes be misinterpreted or leveraged into government intervention in their business—or be a thumb on the scale of their noncommercial competition?

Broadcasters are fighting a several-front war for their future. The broadband plan is a threat to their spectrum holdings; the future of media could marginalize them; and the FCC is considering changes to the retransmission consent rules that could include outside arbitration or even standstill agreements preventing broadcasters from removing their signals during retrans impasses, even though the contracts to carry those signals have expired.

Facing that trifecta of troubles, the National Association of Broadcasters last week announced—on the eve of The Cable Show in Los Angeles—that Fox and CBS had rejoined the association, providing it not only with more than 50 additional station members, but a more unified voice on those issues.

While broadcast and cable are at odds over retrans, they are on the same page about the FCC and government intervention. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association argued that if the FCC wanted to look to the future of journalism, it should tune in to local, regional and national cable news and public-affairs nets.

The NCTA pointed to those nets, CSPAN and even their retransmission of broadcast news to argue that the marketplace is awash in news and information. The group also cautioned against government intervention, saying it was not necessary, pointing out that the commission’s authority to regulate cable content is strictly limited.

Despite that pile of evidence, traditional media companies have reason for concern. While the FCC wants to make sure the public can still get news and information, the commission states that it is not out to save any particular medium. That said, the FCC has also proposed creating a fund to support noncommercial media as part of the national broadband plan.

In an interview not long after the inquiry, Steve Waldman, recruited by the FCC from Beliefnet to oversee the effort, told B&C that the goal was to preserve certain functions. “If all the newspapers and TV stations disappeared tomorrow,” he said, “in theory that could be fine if they were immediately replaced by something else that would serve the same function for citizens and democracy.”

“Professional media associations are justifiably upset that the FCC might take it upon itself to save journalism,” says Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University. “Journalism’s financial and ethical struggles have been real in recent years, but having the FCC or any other agency step in to ‘help’ is not a good idea….I think it is fine that the FCC raise concerns about the state of journalism and even scold the media industry for its performance. But FCC involvement should stop at jawboning.”

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