Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Time for the FCC to Roll Back the Clock

Television is at a crossroads and the FCC is at the steering wheel looking the wrong way.  The issue is whether or not five or six companies are going to control 90 percent of the television stations in the United States or if the FCC is going to serve the public interest by reigning in these corporate behemoths.  There are growing calls for the FCC to take a second look at its lax rules for television ownership and management.

Sinclair's purchase of KOMO in Seattle has stirred a hornet's nest because of the companies typical handling of a newly acquired property.  Sinclair goes through its new stations with a meat cleaver cutting staffing to the bone.  In a hyper-competitive news market like Seattle, KOMO will have to play the news game from now on with one hand tied behind its back, or actually with that hand chopped off altogether.

Sinclair has been a station buying binge for the better part of 20 years.  The company has dangled perilously close to bankruptcy anytime the nation's economy takes a dive.  Sinclair has piled up more debt than a 30-year-old heroin addict.  If the economy takes another dump anytime soon, Sinclair will likely go bankrupt after its latest binge of buying. 

Sinclair owns or operates 162 television stations across the United States.  Let me repeat that, Sinclair owns or operates 162 television stations across the United States.  When I started in television the FCC had the 7-7-7 rules.  That was the number of TV ,along with AM and FM radio stations, any single group could own.  By the mid-80's that rule went to 12-12-12.  Now ownership is based on reach, meaning the percentage of the population your combined television signals reach.  It's supposed to be less than 40 percent. 

Also there are rules in place aimed at stopping duopolies and triopolies in any given market.  Companies like Sinclair work around these rules by setting up shadow companies to "own" stations it actually operates in many of its markets.  So you have a single staff running two or three stations.  Ah, deregulation, you've got to hand it to those job creating Republicans. 

Politics aside, the losers in all of this are the viewers.  It just means there are fewer local voices delivering them the news.  Let's take a look at my television market, for example.  For years, the NBC affiliate WBBH, has openly flouted FCC rules by running the ABC station, sharing staff, management, reporters, even anchors.  One of those pesky shadow owners allows Waterman Broadcasting to run both stations.

The CBS affiliate, WINK, railed against the Waterman operation for years.  That all ended when the power behind the throne at WINK picked up the CW affiliate.  Now WINK staffers do news for both stations. 

That leaves my station, WFTX the FOX affiliate, the lone soldier going it alone.  We're profitable, don't get me wrong, but WINK and Waterman are hyper-profitable.  Plus, we have about a third of the staff, but I digress.

Fort Myers television viewers can watch 5 different stations doing news, but in reality they are only hearing 3 different voices.  By the way, WINK also owns and operates a number of radio stations in the market to boot.  The next step will be for Gannett (which owns the Fort Myers newspaper) or Scripps (which owns the Naples newspaper) to scoop up one or more of the local television stations.  The way the FCC is operating right now, it's a real possibility.

 The FCC reportedly considering whether it needs to stop the monkey business practiced by companies like Sinclair, Linn, Hoak and Nexstar to name a view, to get around long standing rules regarding station ownership and operations.  My guess is that the FCC will stay mute on the whole issue.  With the economy thriving we're going to see more and more consolidation.  Smaller broadcasting companies, will slowly but surely disappear, while lousy operators like Sinclair will be bigger and bigger.

 Maybe less choice is better.  After all it only means fewer voices for the viewer to choose among, fewer jobs for aspiring journalists and a horrible environment for strong journalism.

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