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Future of Media Six-Pack for Broadcasters

Broadcasters did not exactly come out unscathed in the FCC’s Future of Media report. In fact, they came under fire for their “it bleeds, it leads” mentality and pay for play, as well as for newsroom cutbacks.

But anyone expecting a broadside against the industry instead found a broad survey of the media landscape, and recommendations that included at least entertaining the possibility that allowing TV stations to combine in smaller markets might, in some cases, be good for local news.

The 450-plus-page report carries no force of law, but the FCC can, and—given the time and energy invested in the project—likely will use some of its recommendations to guide its upcoming/ongoing review of media ownership rules and regs.

One sign that the report wasn’t going to be an exercise in broadcast bashing came when Patrick Maines, president of the Media Institute—whose members include major media companies—praised it as a “level-headed” assessment. Maines had been concerned that the report could become a tool for activist groups to push for extreme measures. On the other side, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps—who had been eagerly awaiting the release of the study—found it wanting when it did not push for stricter program reporting rules, and left rhetorical wiggle room for more media consolidation.

Below are some of the recommendations and observations that broadcasters should remind the FCC about at opportune times…like now.

■ “Most of the solutions to today’s media problems will be found by entrepreneurs, reporters, and creative citizens, not legislators or agencies,” the report advises. Broadcasters may want to consider putting that phrase on a desk sign and presenting it to every regulator at the FCC.

■ “TV news operations are more important today than they have ever been. Not only are they the leading sources of news on-air, they are emerging as key providers online. Government should make sure it places no unnecessary burdens on broadcasters that are attempting to cover their communities using a variety of media platforms.” Broadcasters should keep that phrase handy for the next broadside from spectrum-hungry consumer electronics or computer companies dismissing them as either squatters or dinosaurs.

■ “Broadcasters waste time filling out government paperwork, maintaining ‘issues/programs lists,’ that are often uninformative, and which few people read….The regulatory system for broadcasters is broken. And while this discouraging track record is due, in part, to muddy policy, it also reflects the reality that the important values embodied in the First Amendment rightly limit the federal government’s ability to take more aggressive action.” The recognition of those First Amendment limitations is an important acknowledgement, but broadcasters need to be wary of the report’s recommendations of a move to online disclosures that includes how much local reporting they do and how they use those multicast channels.

■ The report recommends that the FCC require broadcasters to include online as well as on-air notification for pay-for-play arrangements and video news releases. That could be a way to wrap up that longstanding FCC inquiry.

■ The report takes an even-handed approach to the question of whether consolidation hurts or helps localism and local news. While saying it will leave the recommendations to the FCC’s quadrennial review, citing separate studies targeted to those issues, it says it is “easy to see how newspapers and TV stations merging operations could lead to efficiencies and improved business models that might result in more reporting resources and, therefore, help reach the policy goal of enhanced ‘localism.’ Given the admission from a trio of ex-FCC commissioners not long ago that congressional pressure kept them from scrapping the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, it should be “easy” for the FCC to see that potential upside as well when they decide whether or not to finally remove the ban.

■ The report talks about helping noncommercial media, but also recognizes that helping commercial media includes boosting their bottom lines. The report recommends that the government steer its billion-dollar ad budget for military recruiting, the census and parks from national buys to local media such as broadcasters, saying it could save jobs and maybe even some money. This, however, was not simply a case of the FCC suddenly hitting on a brainstorm. That recommendation came after broadcasters pitched the report’s authors on the idea, saying it was now possible to recreate that national buy with a collection of local spots. “We have no opinion on how much the federal government ought to spend on advertising; but if it does spend money on marketing, it makes public policy sense to target it to a variety of local news media,” the report states. Do we hear a collective “amen” from local TV station account execs?

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