New Paper Takes the Air Out of Broadcasters’ Localism Claims

Concludes Retransmission Consent Rules Failing Original Goal of Supporting Local Programming

WASHINGTON, D.C. November 16, 2011 – “Retransmission consent provisions are not accomplishing their original goal of enhancing broadcasters’ commitment to localism,” states Fordham Business School Professor Philip M. Napoli.  In a paper released today, Napoli identifies this significant disconnect and urges the FCC to consider this “disappointing state of affairs” in its retransmission consent rulemaking.  The paper, titled “Retransmission Consent and Broadcaster Commitment to Localism,” was commissioned by the American Television Alliance and is available at this link.

In reviewing the original intent of Congress, Napoli notes that the retransmission consent provisions of the 1992 Cable Act, such as “must carry,” were designed by Congress to provide revenue that enhanced “local stations’ ability to provide local news and information to viewers.”   While retransmission consent payments have skyrocketed from $214 million in 2006 to a projected $1.3 billion this year, the paper shows that “national broadcast networks are seeking an increasing amount of this revenue stream” and local stations’ commitment to local programming has shown no meaningful improvement and has, by some measures, declined.  Napoli provides numerous examples of declines in local news, looking at the number of minutes broadcast stations devote to local public affairs and local news programming, the actual content of the local news, and resources invested in local news production. He cites an FCC study finding that most stations provide on average, fewer than 1.5 hours of local public affairs programming per week (under 1% of total available broadcast hours).

The Napoli paper also covers the “increased frequency of actual or threatened broadcast stations blackouts,” which “have the potential to be incredibly damaging to local communities.”  He cites the recent blackout in Mobile area as Tropical Storm Lee approached the Gulf Coast. He writes that “the tactics employed in these negotiations can take turns that literally threaten the physical well-being of citizens living in these affected communities during a time of crisis.”

The paper closes by noting that there is “little compelling evidence that retransmission consent revenues are being utilized by broadcasters to enhance their provision of local news and public affairs programming.  Rather, it appears that these revenues are being used in large part to fund the programming activities of national broadcast networks.”  As the FCC considers revisions to the retransmission consent rules, Napoli urges the Commission to “keep in mind the localism objectives underlying these rules, as well as to keep in mind the increasingly disappointing state of affairs in terms of the extent broadcasters dedicate themselves to serving the informational needs and interests of their local communities.”

Phillip Napoli is a Professor and Area Chair at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business. He is also the Director of Fordham’s Donald McGannon Communication Research Center, and has previously held academic appointments at Rutgers University and Boston University. Click here for more information on Napoli.

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