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Editorial: A Rosier Future View

As with virtually anything that comes out of the FCC these days, there are some opportunities to leverage the commission’s newly released Future of Media report to try and gain spectrum from broadcasters.

Overall, however, the report did not wind up being a cudgel that could be used to beat them up or take them down.

After almost a year and a half in the works, the report was introduced to much fanfare—an FCC and Columbia University unveiling—and was received initially with some trepidation by those fearing broadcasters might be portrayed as not having much of a role in that future.

To his credit, Steve Waldman, who was brought in by his college friend, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, to oversee the effort, produced a balanced report that included broadcasters in the process, and gave them credit both for what they are doing right and the value—which turns out to be considerable— they still bring to the table. In other hands, the report could have been just another crowbar for prying spectrum from broadcasters, but was not.

There was still some sense of “use it or lose it” in the suggestion that broadcasters should file online reports of how much local news they are actually doing, and what they are using their multicast channels for. But if broadcasters are to remain relevant and competitive, they will need to leverage that digital spectrum and use it to its full potential for big-ticket items such as mobile, multicast, broadband backhaul and 3D.

Among the report’s most important points is that the Internet has not supplanted broadcasting as the go-to source for local news. Given the FCC’s jones for all things broadband, that finding would have put an exclamation point on the commission’s call for more spectrum. Instead, it gave broadcasters props for stepping up with their own creative use of the Web to complement what remains the most important source of local news and information.

There were several other findings that struck this page as particularly even-handed. One was the recognition that media consolidation is not the equivalent of Voldemort, or that guy with the top hat and black mustache tying innocent maidens to the railroad track.

While the report left the recommendations on media ownership rules changes to the FCC’s ongoing review of those rules, it advised the commission not to dismiss the potential upside to combining news operations out of hand.

Broadcasters have been trying to make that point for years in asking that the newspaperbroadcast cross-ownership ban be lifted and have so far been rebuffed, even as several FCC chairmen conceded they did not think the ban should remain and would have lifted it were it not for pressure from Congress.

The other issue was pay for play in the form of video news releases, or charging guests for appearances or, as some station sales forces have done, soliciting business with promises of news appearances to sweeten the deal. The last in that series is just plain wrong, while the first two are not a violation of FCC rules so long as they are clearly identified, and depending on how the FCC interprets the value of the news release to the station.

If the station does not charge for using the release, it doesn’t seem to us that the release itself constitutes an in-kind payment that requires on-air and online identification, as the FCC has tried to assert, though responsible journalists should identify it as such anyway in their own interest of maintaining credibility.

Any way you slice it, this is a journalistically queasy, grey area, and the report acknowledges that—while once again keeping its powder dry. Rather than simply hammering broadcasters, it suggests that if they must use pay for play—and we advise against the practice—they should be entirely up front about it.

One more thing we would give the report major props for: its realization that to continue to be the top source of local news, broadcasters need to be able to meet the payroll and invest in the product.

The report recommends that the federal government move a billion dollars of its ad budget from national ad buys to local media. Actually, we have to give a shout-out both to the report and to the broadcasters who pitched Waldman and company on the concept of being able to make that local buy as efficiently, and with comparable coverage, to the easier one-shot national deals.

The report is more a lay of the land than a call to action, but in either case, it is a thoughtful piece of work that does credit to the effort and its authors.