NAB: JSA Item Will Kill Jobs, Chill Investment

Reaction to the FCC's announced proposals to make some TV joint sales agreements attributable under its ownership rules, ban some coordinated retrans discussions, and more drew immediate and divergent responses including broadcasters warning they felt they were being punished and pushed into spectrum auctions.

The National Association of Broadcasters had plenty to say about making JSAs attributable—broadcasters have been lobbying hard for the public interest benefits of those arrangements, while the FCC appears focused on them as a way to skirt ownership rules.

"NAB is disappointed but not surprised by this proposal from chairman Wheeler," said NAB president Gordon Smith. "Broadcast companies across America have demonstrated that sharing arrangements lead to more local news and provide robust competition to giant pay TV providers."

FCC officials said Thursday there would be a waiver process to accommodate sharing that promoted the public interest.

Smith was suggesting the FCC was waving goodbye to a lot of public interest value.

"The real loser will be local TV viewers, because this proposal will kill jobs, chill investment in broadcasting and reduce meaningful minority programming and ownership opportunities," he wrote.

He made no bones about whom he saw as behind the effort, at least in spirit, and raised the specter that the FCC was trying to kneecap broadcasters in the interest of getting them to limp into the auction.

"Coincidentally, two industries would benefit from today's proposal: Big cable companies who want less competition for advertising in local markets, and wireless companies who support punitive FCC actions that drive more TV stations into spectrum auctions."

On the other side of the coin was the American Television Alliance, whose members include cable operators, satellite operators and Public Knowledge, whose former boss, Gigi Sohn, is an adviser to Wheeler.

"Today's announcement is great news for American consumers," ATVA said of the move to reign in coordinated retrans—NAB had no immediate comment on that portion of the FCC proposal. "These dubious arrangements result in skyrocketing retransmission consent fees and consumer blackouts," said ATVA.

"When broadcast companies using the public airwaves are allowed to collude on retransmission consent negotiations they drive up costs for consumers and increase the harm of multiple station blackouts in local markets, depriving consumers of the very emergency alerts that broadcasters claim are so vital," said ATVA. "Collusion and blackouts are contrary to serving the public interest and the polar opposite of the 'free market.' We applaud this action and urge the full Commission to approve this measure on March 31."

Ditto for Charter, which is a member of ATVA.

"The chief factor in rising cable rates for consumers is the increasing cost of programming," said Charter in a statement. "Broadcasters jointly negotiating retransmission consent agreements has contributed not only to increased rates for consumers but also the number and severity of programming blackouts. Chairman Wheeler's proposal is a sensible way to ensure consumers are not held hostage by unfair collusion by broadcasters. We applaud this action and wholeheartedly support the efforts of the FCC to address this issue in a way that will directly and positively impact consumers.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a longtime media consolidation critic, applauded the chairman's moves.

“I welcome the Commission’s decision to consider changes to its broadcast ownership rules," said Waxman. "In particular, I strongly support the Chairman’s proposal to bring broadcast television’s attribution rules for Joint Services Agreements in line with broadcast radio. I am also pleased with the Chairman’s plan to examine shared services agreements. While there are many instances where broadcasters sharing resources is appropriate, such sharing arrangements should not be used to circumvent the FCC’s ownership rules and undermine localism, competition and diversity over the public airwaves."

Pai has argued that sharing agreements can boost diversity when they allow for programing or signal quality that would not be possible without that help. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing a waiver process whereby sharing agreements in the public interest—sharing a news helicopter, for instance—would be allowed.

“I also support new rules that would prohibit, or create a presumption against, separately owned broadcast stations in a local market jointly negotiating retransmission consent agreements," said Waxman. "Any time there is potentially collusive behavior, it needs to be closely scrutinized. Chairman Wheeler has struck a good balance with these rules and I look forward to working with the chairman and FCC commissioners in ensuring the adoption of these critical reforms.”

Free Press was buoyed by the move. 

"Today's announcement begins the process of righting FCC mistakes on media ownership," said Free Press president Craig Aaron. "The agency must close the loopholes in its rules and ensure corporations can’t use shell companies to hide the real owners of local stations and sneak through even more media consolidation. Viewers need competing sources of local news."

"The FCC should also be praised for abandoning the failed approach of previous administrations and preserving the important ban on newspaper-TV cross-ownership. Keeping these rules in place is a major victory for the broad coalition of public interest, labor and civil rights organizations, as well as millions and millions of Americans, who opposed FCC efforts to allow more media consolidation over the past decade."

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.