THE Federal Communications Commission should be commended for closing a loophole on Monday that many broadcasters have used to sidestep ownership limits and to run multiple stations in the same market.
Monday’s action, which barred stations from operating joint sales agreements (JSAs), was overdue.
It potentially opens a new era for the FCC, which has been asleep at the wheel as a handful of media conglomerates such as Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune took over local TV stations at a frenetic pace. The FCC’s efforts to preserve competition, localism and diversity on the public airwaves have become a joke.
Many conglomerates use JSAs to sell advertisements for numerous stations in the same market, ensuring higher profits and less competition. There are 128 JSAs around the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports.
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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler understood the consequences.
“JSAs have been used, skirting the existing rules, to create market power that stacks the deck against small companies seeking to enter the broadcast business,” he said during Monday’s hearing.
The FCC is right to allow broadcasters two years to dismantle these agreements or seek a waiver if they can prove they serve the public interest.
Regulators must define what that means — it should mean providing quality local news programming — and set the bar high. They should make media diversity a priority. Fewer than 7 percent of TV licenses are owned by women and just 3 percent are owned by minorities.
The FCC is also set to begin its quadrennial review of media-ownership rules. The review has been used in the past to try to ease ownership limits. Lawsuits prevented some ill-advised changes, but constant vigilance is necessary.
For instance, the commission seeks public comment during the review on whether stations should be required to disclose other types of shared-service agreements that allow control of more than one station per city. The answer is a resounding yes.
When out-of-state media titans gain more control over local TV stations, they can also exert influence over the editorial content viewers see on the air. The audience may recognize the anchor reading the news, but beware who is really setting the agenda. Corporate motives should balance profit with the public interest, but that’s not always the reality.
Chairman Wheeler’s leadership shows early promise in limiting the effects of media consolidation, but more must be done to strengthen democracy and the quality of local news.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).