Pardon us if, metaphorically at least, B&C puts its head in its hands and starts rummaging through the medicine chest for a couple of ibuprofens.
Consider that our response to the fact that there will be a several-more-months delay in the several-years-delayed action on FCC media ownership rules. It was probably politically unavoidable, but that doesn’t reduce the pounding in the temples.
It was only a week ago that FCC commissioner Ajit Pai was talking about the problem of government decisions taking years in a world that moves at the lightning speed of broadband.
Putting an exclamation point on all this was B&C’s discovery—with thanks to super-reporter Deborah McAdams of our sibling brand, TV Technology— that the FCC was quietly submitting rules to the Federal Register for publication that should have been submitted a decade or more ago.
Then came last week’s news that the FCC, and just about everybody else, is OK with delaying a vote on modest media ownership changes until an outside study on the impact of those changes on diversity of ownership can be completed.
Admittedly, it was hard for any stakeholder to just say no, since it would look like they were against ownership diversity, which we hope nobody is.
The Minority Media & Telecommunications Council’s request for the time-out while it conducts that study is actually a political plus for a number of the stakeholders. It gives FCC chairman Julius Genachowski a chance to shore up the three Democratic votes he wants for the ownership item, and it will make it easier to defend in court since this decision, whenever it is made, will be taken to court just like the last one.
Genachowski wanted to vote the item by the end of last year, but ran into pushback from minority groups concerned about the impact on diversity. The chairman appeared to have been taken by surprise by that response, though others were anticipating it as soon as they saw his proposal.
The delay also gives broadcasters more time to try to affect the outcome. While they have been attempting to get a decision out of the FCC for years, the current version is hardly their idea of regulatory relief. It does not lift the ban on TV cross-ownership. In fact, Genachowski went out of his way last week to suggest the ban isn’t even loosened. Technically, that is correct. The ban would be in place, but it would be relaxed for combinations of newspapers and TV stations in the top 20 markets, but outside the top-four-ranked stations.
That is hardly the relief broadcasters were seeking. And it could come packaged with counting some TV joint sales agreements—those where one station sells at least 15% of ad inventory for another—against local ownership caps. That would be welcome news to some cable operators. But for broadcasters, it would make a yes vote on ownership a mighty costly victory.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record—strike that, CD—strike that, download— Genachowski’s two predecessors as chairman, and his former boss (also a chairman) have said there is no justi!cation for the newspaper/ cross-ownership ban. And that was before the Internet was the game-changer it is today.
Genachowski even suggested as much last week in announcing the delay. In explaining his ownership proposal, he said it was based in part on “the growth of the Internet,” which he said is “changing the media landscape, including the economics of local newspapers and broadcasters.” That would seem a no-brainer, but the FCC has been reluctant to include the Internet in conversations about competitiveness of media markets. Genachowski’s emphasis that the crossownership ban remain—only the waiver has been changed—doesn’t square with the current market.
The problem then becomes that after the government has taken an eternity to rule, the result is usually sufficiently insuf!cient that nobody is happy. So stakeholders on both sides take it to court, delaying a decision even further.
And beyond the issues themselves, we are again frustrated by the process—a combination of regulatory tortoise-like movement and the Groundhog Day cycle of court challenges that means broadcasters operate in a state of endless regulatory uncertainty. Did we say two ibuprofens? We meant three.
Put all this together with Congress’ budget dysfunction affecting all of us—broadcasters, cable operators, magazine editors—and you have a government whose problems can’t be wished away.
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