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Editorial: Show Don’t Tell

Broadcasters are taking the FCC to court over chairman Tom Wheeler’s effort to crack down on station sharing agreements, outlined in a March 12 Media Bureau advisory that drew immediate pushback from the industry. Those are the joint sales, shared services and news facilities agreements broadcasters have struck, in part, because the FCC has for more than a decade done virtually nothing to change the ownership rules even though the video marketplace has changed so dramatically that it is as unrecognizable as a Betamax machine.

There are hundreds of channels available in a market, and a host of online options from Netflix, Hulu and others. Content can be slung, time-shifted and place-shifted and is available on phones, tablets and, yep, even TVs. Meanwhile, broadcasters can’t own more than two TV stations in many markets, can’t even own two unless they are FCC approved, can’t team up with a newspaper—that powerhouse in today’s media marketplace—and can’t reach more than 39% of the country with however many stations the FCC lets them own.

Broadcasters’ frustration with limitations of lastcentury regs in a century racing toward ubiquitous video accessible from everywhere but the kitchen sink—and don’t think that isn’t on the drawing board somewhere—is understandably beginning to show. It doesn’t help that they face potential new hurdles in the FCC’s incentive auction, whose premise of getting broadcast spectrum into the hands of wireless companies is alone enough to send many of them running for an aspirin or antacid.

The National Association of Broadcasters says the FCC Media Bureau guidance on how it would vet sharing arrangements was arbitrary and capricious and illegal. A court will have to decide that. But if the FCC really does want the robust broadcast business to survive as it has said in so many words, it has a strange way of showing it.