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Editorial: It’s Past Time

Year’s end is a good time to take stock of the future of broadcasting, which should include some overdue pruning of broadcast regulations that are as anachronistic as, well, we were going to say rabbit ears but with all the cord-cutting going on those may soon be back in vogue.

The FCC wants as many broadcasters as possible to give up their spectrum so wireless operators can have it. The commission rather than loosening ownership rules, in 2014 tightened local TV ownership rules to match those of radio, though Congress was looking like it would grandfather pre-existing JSAs last week, a ball-spiker for NAB.

If the FCC has its way, after the auction if there is any spare spectrum in the TV band, it will be reserved not for new TV stations or new services provided by the stations that stuck around, but for speculative unlicensed uses.

And yet, the bulk of the most-watched programming remains on broadcast TV, the go-to local news remains from local TV stations, politicians who want to reach votes overwhelmingly vote for TV stations with their pocketbooks. And yes, the occasional hyberbolic invocations notwithstanding, TV stations continue to provide emergency information that saves lives in their local communities.

Even FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has conceded broadcasting is an important service, though sometimes that seems merely lip service while he is courting the broadband future to which he is wedded lock, stock and barrel.

So, local broadcasting is an important service, and popular even in the face of a wealth of new, less regulated, competition. It follows, then, that regulations applied when broadcasting was the only game in town are out of step with that new reality.

The FCC is under a self-imposed 2016 deadline to finally finish its quadrennial review of those ownership rules. Wheeler, who tightened the JSA rules, has shown no inclination to give broadcasters a break, but if only one other Democrat would admit that, say, the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules should be eliminated, they would surely have two Republicans on their side.

That would not be a heavy lift, and would send a signal that the FCC recognizes that times have changed and broadcasters need to be able to change with it.