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Editorial: This Masquerade

Supporters and critics of the FCC’s latest media ownership rule change proposals—and there were plenty more of the latter—have weighed in.

Unfortunately, the regulatory certainty broadcasters were looking for seems just as distant as it did a decade ago, back when the FCC, in an effort to anticipate the new host of media competitors now upon us, tried to give broadcasters some room to maneuver, given the importance (then as now) of free over-the-air TV.

Consolidation foes continue to argue that any regulatory relief for broadcasters is just providing more bulk to conglomerates dominating the media landscape— sort of like the communications equivalent of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. That prospect seems as anachronistic today as a black-and-white sci-fi movie.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, find less than half a loaf in the commission’s proposal, which retains broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership rules and local ownership caps.

The fact that it leaves local duopoly rules in place means the smallest stations that might be most in need of the financial support of a partner can’t get it, and preserving the presumption against newspaper/broadcast cross-ownerships in those markets doubles down on that discrimination masquerading as protection.

It bears repeating that a bipartisan collection of former FCC chairmen told C-SPAN in a moment of unusual candor that they would have voted to scrap the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule long ago if they were not afraid of a backlash from legislators.

To that keen display of invertebrate pragmatism one should add the FCC’s continued refusal to consider Internet outlets as competitors to TV stations when it counts voices in a market. This is the same FCC that in almost every other action fawns over broadband with the devotion of an Elvis fan at Graceland. This is also the same commission which maintains broadband is essentially the future of communications, period. And not just future, but a transformative technology today in healthcare and energy and security and education and job creation and finance and video…but apparently not in TV markets, a zone that is magically free of Twitter and social networks and, yes, local news sites.

Perhaps there is some hope in an FCC reform bill that just passed in the House Energy & Commerce Committee—with, again, bipartisan support—that requires the commission to include the Internet in a new biennial report on the state of competition. Still, that is two years away, and if the FCC’s history of meeting congressional report deadlines is any indication, one should make that three or four.

Broadcasters need help now, but with the FCC changes not going far enough for them once again, and with consolidation critics calling them an unacceptable rerun of Republican deregulatory efforts, and diversity groups lamenting that the FCC is punting on better promoting diversity in ownership (which the Third Circuit has asked it to do), whatever the FCC decides to do will likely wind up in court yet again.

It looks like it is up to broadcasters to find a successful new digital business model while still trapped within an old government regulatory model. No wonder they are reluctant to give up any of the spectrum “oxygen” that could provide the necessary breathing room. When it comes to any of these wanted reforms, broadcasters shouldn’t hold their breath.