The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has sent a twelve page missive to the Federal Communications Commission urging the agency not to loosen its restrictions on how many radio and TV stations an entity may own in a market. AFTRA also wants the FCC to take a closer look at joint news agreements, “a pernicious development further diminishing consumer choice,” in the filing’s words.
“Relaxing ownership rules will lead to a less competitive media marketplace that is less responsive to the public need for information,” AFTRA warns. “Moreover, the continued and widespread use of joint news agreements will exacerbate those harms, by rendering any rules less effective.”
The FCC is currently reviewing its Media Ownership Rules. These include limits on how many television and radio stations an entity may own locally. The Local Radio/TV Cross-Ownership rule, AFTRA’s concern here, is summarized as so:
(1) in markets with at least 20 independently owned “media voices” (defined as full power TV stations and radio stations, major newspapers, and the cable system in the market) an entity can own up to two TV stations and six radio stations (or one TV station and seven radio stations); (2) in markets with at least ten independently owned “media voices” an entity can own up to two TV stations and four radio stations; and (3) in the smallest markets an entity may own two TV stations and one radio station. In all markets, an entity must comply with the local radio and local TV ownership limits.
The FCC argues that this rule can be set aside. Given the current Local Radio Ownership Rule cap of eight stations in a large market, and the TV ownership rule of two at most, “the effect of eliminating the radio/television cross-ownership rule will be small,” the agency suggests. And: “the local radio and local television rules will continue to prevent a significant increase in the consolidation of broadcast facilities.”
AFTRA disagrees, arguing that any consolidation will make a bad situation worse. “In radio, the recent trend has been toward more national broadcasts and fewer local—today only 14 percent of news programming is produced locally,” the statement notes. “The total number of commercial all-news stations has fallen from 50 in the mid-1980s to 30 today. Only 30 to 40 percent of Americans live in an area with an all-news station.”
The filing cites the FCC’s report on the Information Needs of Communities, with its assessment of the impact of the Internet:
the Information Needs report indicates that new media sources have contributed to declining access to local news, rather than serving as an antidote. The report presents a narrative describing how technological change (e.g.widely available and searchable electronic information databases; cheap and easy Internet distribution of content) has made for increased information gathering and dissemination, resulting in more productive professionals but also the widespread entry of amateurs. The lower barriers to entry have allowed for lower journalistic standards to “reporting,” with a growing proportion of “news” sites merely aggregating or commenting upon other outlets’ reporting.
As for joint news agreements, AFTRA observes that about one third of TV stations say they now run news produced at another station, diminishing local content and encouraging layoffs.
“The winners in this narrative have been broadcast owners, who have consolidated and shed costs, through acquisitions, layoffs and partnerships,” the commentary concludes. “The losers in this narrative have been the public, left with diminished access to news of a lower quality, and with less of the type of investigative journalism so critical to an informed public.”