Editorial: Leapt Before Looking

Let’s review. The FCC last year proposed to make TV joint sales agreements of more than 15% of ad sales attributable as ownership interest. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.) then asked the Government Accountability Office to study TV station sharing arrangements, given that there were “serious questions” raised about the impact of those and other sharing arrangements.

Yes there were—including whether JSAs might be beneficial, and whether the FCC was basing its decision on a gut feeling or on actual facts.

The GAO last week came out with its report, which essentially did not answer those questions. That was primarily because the GAO claimed the FCC does not have enough data to determine whether or not its current or future policies toward station-sharing arrangements actually serve the public interest, a shortfall that could undermine its goals. (The commission has recently moved to limit those arrangements in some circumstances.)

Put more officially, “Without data and a fact-based analysis of how agreements are used, the FCC cannot ensure that its current and future policies on broadcaster agreements serve the public interest.”

In addition to the lack of data, “the long delays in completing FCC’s review makes it difficult to objectively determine the effect of the agreements on FCC’s policy goals of competition, localism, diversity,” GAO said.

At least the FCC waited until receiving the report requested by the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees it before adopting restrictions. Oh, wait; that’s right—the FCC voted to approve them back in March, based partly on the fact that the commission almost two decades ago restricted radio JSAs.

If you’re having trouble figuring out the timeframe-related sense in that move, join the club. Regulations that were appropriate for another service in another century—make that millennium— are not likely what’s needed in a competitive marketplace that looks nothing like the one in existence in the age of dial-up modems.

Hindsight is 20/20, but the FCC could have waited until it had some foresight from GAO.

Broadcasters should bring a copy of the GAO report when they seek waivers from the JSA restrictions. It shouldn’t have to take a GAO report to advise the FCC to be liberal in its waiver policy given that it has fired first, and has yet to definitively establish a target.