- Danielle Coffey
The News Media Alliance has long advocated for the repeal of the 1975 ban on cross-ownership between a broadcast television or radio station and a newspaper in the same market. Over the past several years, the newspaper industry has experienced challenges. Despite record audiences, particularly on digital media, print revenue is in a steep decline and is not being proportionately replaced by digital advertising revenue. Investment is necessary to sustain quality journalism; therefore, we have sought to roll back these outdated regulations. FCC Chairman Pai has released a draft Order that would repeal the cross-ownership ban once and for all. We strongly support this move and applaud his leadership.
This 42-year-old ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership should be distinguished from several broadcast-specific regulations – unrelated to newspapers – that the order also addresses.
This 42-year-old ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership should be distinguished from several broadcast-specific regulations – unrelated to newspapers – that the order also addresses. Broadcasters have long argued that the “duopoly rule”, also called the “eight voices” rule, should be reformed. The rule prevents the combined ownership of any two television stations in a market (if it results in eight or fewer independently-owned stations remaining in that market). The draft Order repeals the “eight voices” requirement. Broadcasters have also argued against the Top-Four Prohibition, which prevents the common ownership of two top-four ranked stations in the same market, and which Pai’s Order has relaxed to review on a case-by-case basis. These are broadcast-specific provisions of the Order wholly unrelated to newspapers.
Further, there are two other pending items that are broadcast-specific and have created consolidation concerns from the Hill, interest groups and other parties. The pending merger between Sinclair and Tribune, which would create the country’s largest television group, permitting Sinclair to reach 72 percent of U.S. households, is one of those items. Another pending item addresses national caps that currently prevent broadcasters from owning more than 39 percent of broadcast television stations nationally, and the rules that allow owners to discount some of their stations in order to fall within this requirement. These items, too, have nothing to do with newspapers.
These broadcast-specific issues should be distinguished from the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban. In today’s market, newspaper properties continue to provide a critical role in reporting on local and community events and issues. Local papers cover issues that businesses and families want to know about — from the Friday game to city hall initiatives.
We do not expect widespread consolidation. Instead, repeal of the ban will allow potential broadcast owners that are deeply invested in the community – such as a families, civic leaders, nonprofits and foundations – to invest in their local newspaper. Once the rule is repealed, they will no longer be blocked from doing so just because they also have an interest in a local TV or radio station. It is that sort of commitment to journalistic values that we hope will be brought to local newspapers. The FCC itself elaborates on these benefits in the Order on circulation, concluding that “[w]ith the elimination of the NBCO Rule these localism benefits can finally begin to materialize.” (See Order at ¶¶ 28-30).
The newspaper-related provisions in the Order before the Commission today do not risk mass consolidation, and should not justify genuine backlash from even the most critical proponents. It just won’t happen.