Diversity, Retransmission Consent and Broadcasters’ Dubious Ownership Arrangements

Television broadcasters are raising hell in Washington because the FCC is finally cracking down on the dubious ownership arrangements they’ve been using to circumvent federal law. The law is designed to promote diversity and competition. But broadcasters are they claim, and what the law intends.

The shared-ownership arrangements that allow a TV company to own more than one station in a market, “in fact, greatly foster localism and diversity,” proclaims National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These ownership arrangements usually result in shared news and programming. That means there’s less diversity and localism. For instance, in Burlington, Vermont, there is a shared service agreement between WFFF (FOX affiliate) and WVNY (ABC affiliate). A 2011 study by the Local TV News Project at the University of Delaware found:

Almost six out of ten stories that were broadcast by the SSA group were presented on both stations. That is compared to under one quarter of stories for the independent stations. Further, when the SSA stations broadcast the stories on the both stations they did so using the same script almost three-fourths of the time and the same video for over eight out of ten stories. By definition, these stories were exactly the same on both stations. Logically, then, the diversity of news in the Burlington market was reduced.

The story is the same – if not worse – around the country. The study found that Peoria audiences “saw only two versions of the ‘reality’ of the market, rather than, perhaps as many as five views (given that five stations were involved in the agreements).” In Dayton, one local marketing/managing agreement (LMA) between a FOX affiliate and an ABC affiliate resulted in viewers of two stations seeing the same stories 98% of the time.

It’s not just diversity of content. The consolidation of TV stations, largely driven by companies seeking to cut costs while maximizing retransmission consent revenues, is also leading to less minority ownership.

In the last decade, according to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, the number of commercial television stations licensed to black owners has dropped from 21 to 3. Of those, 2 are operated under a sharing arrangement.

Broadcasters are cynically focusing on that one sharing arrangement, lining up allies to point out that the FCC’s intent to enforce ownership limits somehow amounts to “targeting a black TV station owner.”

Broadcasters want you to ignore the fact that the last retrans-fueled decade of TV consolidation has resulted in the elimination of at least 18 licenses held by black ownership.

In 2006, according to a study by Free Press, of the 1,349 commercial television stations in America, only 44, 3.26%, were owned by minorities. Today, according to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, that number is down to 5. As Clyburn has said, “the numbers are trending incredibly downward.”

Based on the lack of ownership diversity and the dearth of diverse perspectives in TV news, it’s clear that the ownership arrangements TV broadcasters are fighting to uphold have been incredibly destructive to diversity and localism.

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