Skip to main content

GAO: FCC Can't Ensure Station-Sharing Limits Further Public Interest

The FCC does not have enough data to determine whether its current of future policies toward station sharing arrangements—it has recently moved to limit them in some circumstances—actually serve the public interest, a shortfall that could undermine its goals.

That is one of the principal observations in a new Government Accountability Report on whether the FCC should review the effects of those broadcasters sharing arrangements on its media policy goals of competition, localism and diversity. GAO suggests that answer is yes, but leaves it up to the FCC to decide.

"[The] FCC does not collect data and has not completed a review on the prevalence of agreements, how they are used, or their effects on its policy goals and media ownership rules," said GAO in releasing the report, "yet federal standards for internal control note the importance of agencies' having information that may affect their goals. Without data and a fact-based analysis of how agreements are used, [the] FCC cannot ensure that its current and future policies on broadcaster agreements serve the public interest."

In addition to the lack of data, "the long delays in completing FCC's review makes it difficult to objectively determine the effect of the agreements on FCC's policy goals of competition, localism, diversity," GAO said.

In response to the report, FCC Media bureau chief Bill Lake agreed with the need for more info, and pointed out that the FCC has proposed requiring disclosure of sharing arrangements as a way to better understand their terms and prevalence in the marketplace.

But he did not suggest that the recently adopted policy on making some joint sales agreements between TV stations attributable as ownership interest, which will require many to be unwound, was not supported. He also said that while the FCC considers the proposed new disclosure requirement, the commission would coniteinue to consider those agreements, "in appropriate cases," when deciding whether a particular station transaction is in the public interest.

GAP, which is essentially the research arm of Congress, conducted the report at the request of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.), who asked for the report in May of last year after the FCC proposed to make JSA's of over 15% of ad time attributable as ownership.

The FCC voted March 31 in a 3-2 vote to approve that change, which mirrors one it made to radio JSA's in the 1990's. At the time the Republican commissioners, who both dissented, called it an evidence-free vote. Commissioner Pai had called for the FCC to collect more data before it voted.

“The GAO’s study confirms that the FCC instituted its JSA crackdown ‘without conducting a fact-based analysis’ of how those agreements were being used," said a spokesperson for commissioner Pai. "Had the FCC conducted such an analysis, perhaps it would have realized that JSAs are essential to the survival of many small-market television stations.  But because the FCC acted before gathering the necessary information, stations in South Carolina, Alabama, North Dakota, and Nebraska are already going dark, and additional stations are sure to follow.” 

For the report, GAO "reviewed relevant FCC proceedings; conducted a literature review; interviewed officials from FCC, industry, and consumer associations; and conducted nongeneralizable case studies in 6 markets (3 with agreements and 3 without) selected from small and medium-sized markets."

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.