Is Starbucks “local”? Is Pizza Hut? How about Subway?
In many cities, a broadcast TV station is no more “local” than a franchise location of a national chain.
Let’s start with ownership of the stations.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 300 full-power local TV stations changed hands last year, “with big owners getting even bigger.” For instance, “If all the pending sales go through, Sinclair Broadcasting alone will own or provide service to 167 stations in 77 markets, reaching almost 40% of the U.S. population.”
But Sinclair isn’t content with 40% of the country. Sinclair CEO David Smith, said at the UBS conference in December 2013: “I’d like to have 80% of the country if I could get it. I’d like to have 90%.”
What’s driving Smith and the other large broadcast companies gobbling up local TV stations? Retransmission consent fees they can demand from pay-TV providers. Over the next five years, local stations will take nearly $25 billion for “free TV.”
These fees were supposed to go to pay for local news and public affairs programming. Today, around 50% of the average TV station’s retransmission consent revenues pay for expensive national programming.
The problem isn’t just that more stations are in fewer hands. It’s that stations are “separately owned on paper but operated jointly, a practice that has grown exponentially in the just the past two years.” According to Pew, various types of shared ownership “now exist in at least 94 markets, almost half of the 210 local TV markets nationwide, and up from 55 in 2011.”
The Justice Department recently told the FCC that broadcast companies were circumventing laws designed to limit ownership and increase competition and diversity.
Does consolidation have an effect on local news? Absolutely.
A 2011 FCC study found that 32 percent of local TV stations “did not air a single minute of news programming.”
Of the stations that do show local news, according to the Pew Research Center, “More than one out of four U.S. television stations that run local news get it from someone else.”
Only two out of every three stations are showing news and only three out of every four of those stations are showing local news. That means that around half the stations in America don’t show any local news. Don’t forget: all stations are sending about half of their retransmission consent revenues back to New York City for increasingly expensive network programming.
Need further proof that viewers around the country are consuming the same news? Check out this Conan O’Brien clip reel of the “local” news. Or this. Or this. (Thank goodness “local” news stations across America are covering the issue of whether dogs should have their own social network.)
Broadcasters can keep pretending that broadcast TV is truly about localism, but for far too much of the country, “local” TV is about as local as a fast-food meal.