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Editorial: Amazing Local Races

Competition is in the air this fall, perhaps more than ever before. Broadcast networks are kicking off the primetime derby this week, beginning another hard-fought campaign to secure a slice of the pie that isn’t getting any fatter. Next-generation ad platforms, online video networks and social apps are in a scrum, sensing opportunities to connect with restless consumers. And on the regulatory front, decision-makers are taking on the task of ensuring fair competition in the cable and broadband space, even as a backlash grows to the FCC’s tightening of restrictions against JSAs (see Washington).

Local broadcasting may offer the most vivid illustration of the merits of competition, Sir Thomas Malthus be damned. In this week’s Cover Story, Michael Malone tackles a question debated by everyone in the station business: Which U.S. market is the most competitive? It’s not a new question and, as his illuminating story notes, each one of the official 210 DMAs believes it is the most hotly contested. But the answers he got from a host of industry vets from coast to coast will likely surprise you, as will the ultimate (albeit qualified) winner.

Once bragging rights are sorted out and ratings books scrutinized, the more important matter is how stations reckon with their competitive environment. Toss-up markets—which are the vast majority—afford opportunities to the contestants to develop content and innovation that can give them an edge. But along with that opportunity lies the trap of simply “keeping up” with competition—covering news in predictable ways and exercising news judgment in a way that serves the ratings, but not necessarily the viewers. As long as stations retain their values of community service and editorial integrity and resist the temptation to follow the pack, the station sector can continue its recent resurgence of relevance and financial value. That means the biggest competition will be over who gets to own the stations themselves.