Editorial: No-Look Leaping

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said last week that facilities-based diversity—minority ownership of broadcast television stations—is waning in importance and that the fight for diversity has moved to an online battlefield. Perhaps, but that sounds disturbingly like yet another argument for marginalizing broadcasters, who remain an important resource for those diverse voices no matter how attractive their spectrum is for wireless operators.

This came after Wheeler slammed broadcasters for trying to gain economies of scale under FCC rules that haven’t changed in decades, and before he talked about how new networks are the future to be embraced, rather than “simply refighting the struggles of the past.”

Broadcasters=past; new networks= future. That’s as much a mantra, sotto voce, as is Wheeler’s competition, competition, competition exhortation. If promoting competition is so important, why not allow broadcasters to heavy up and team with newspapers to provide more of it to cable operators, satellite operators and online video providers?

The venue for Wheeler’s recent declaration was the annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications lecture, which honors a pioneering advocate for broadcast diversity. Wheeler also hammered broadcasters over what he called the “covert consolidation” of sharing agreements with affiliated financial arrangements. He said that major corporations had used “sidecar agreements” to “end-run” media ownership rules, which he argued has reduced ownership opportunities for minorities and women. Others dispute that, but Wheeler is convinced, as his word established.

But despite all the activity on broadcast ownership in the interest of diversity, Wheeler suggested it’s not a struggle the FCC should concentrate on refighting. “The reality is that—thanks to new broadband technologies—facilities ownership is less critical to diverse voices than ever before. Yes, we will continue to push for diversity in ownership,” he said. Though it came at the beginning of the sentence, it sounded more like an afterthought. “But, just as important in the Internet Age, we need to exploit our new networks for ownership diversity and content diversity.”

Yes, broadband is inarguably a communications powerhouse, and the importance of online diversity is undeniable, and clearly on the FCC’s radar in the net neutrality proceeding.

But as long as millions of people, disproportionately minorities, still rely on broadcasting for local news and information, it remains a key venue for diverse voices—one of the reasons some broadcasters want to hold on to spectrum to deliver diverse multicast channels.

We would like to believe the chairman when he suggests that broadcast and Internet diversity are of equal importance, but that’s a tough pill when he says in the same speech that “the fight for the diversity of viewpoints… has leapt to the Internet.”

We advise the FCC to look harder at the value of broadcasting before it makes that leap.