In a ruling seen as a major win for the largest media conglomerates in the country, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the Main Studio Rule, a 77-year-old regulation that required local television and radio broadcasters to maintain physical studios in the communities they serve.
The Tuesday vote, along party lines, with Republican commissioners supporting repeal, clears the way for major media companies to continue buying up local stations and eliminating positions for journalists, while centralizing programming decisions.
One of the primary arguments made by media companies petitioning the FCC for the repeal was that social media renders local stations an anachronistic requirement of the past.
The National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group for major broadcasting companies, argued that local studios are no longer necessary because stations today “are active on multiple social media platforms” that allow them to interact with their audience.
Nexstar Media Group, a conglomerate that owns 170 stations, including KRON-TV in San Francisco and the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, told the agency that consumers prefer to interact with their “stations through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.” Trinity Broadcasting and McCarthy Radio Enterprises made similar arguments in the filings, claiming that social media sites such as Facebook can replace the interactions with the local community that physical studios once provided.
Univision, in its filing, noted that “Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.” are better platforms for facilitating “continuous community-station discourse,” rather than hosting multiple personnel at physical locations.
One of the most brazen arguments came from the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, a group long viewed as a front for industry.
In its filing in support of repeal, MMTC celebrated further media consolidation, claiming that streamlining “labor, rent, utilities and similar overhead expenses” will bring more efficiency, which, depending on your definition and goals, could be true enough. But the group also argued that local journalism can be replaced by ordinary citizens using social media. “It has become increasingly apparent that every smartphone user is potentially a ‘broadcast journalist,'” the MMTC filing claims. The best way to interact with the audience, according to MMTC, which echoed the concerns of the broadcasting industry, is to use sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
MMTC receives significant funding from broadcasting interests, such as the National Association of Broadcasters, iHeartRadio, Univision, CBS Corp., and Media General, the broadcast television station conglomerate that recently merged with Nexstar.
After the repeal vote, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly claimed that eliminating the rule would boost local programming because the cost savings associated with eliminating local studios would be invested in better local content.
But there is little evidence to suggest that broadcasters are itching to spend more to develop high-quality, locally driven content. In fact, the recent experience of Sinclair Broadcasting is quite the opposite. Sinclair, which is set to own 200 stations after a recent buying spree, has used its market position to centralize news operations into partisan, Republican Party-friendly programming.
There is nothing in the rule that prevents the cost savings from shuttering local stations from flowing directly to company shareholders. Following its merger with Media General, Nexstar posted increased revenue of 139 percent, a boost that brought the company a record quarterly profit.
Despite soaring stock prices and profits from their parent companies, broadcasters have engaged in a wave of layoffs, cutting or, in many cases, eliminating entire journalism teams. Free Press, one of the only public interest groups to oppose repeal of the rule, noted in its filing that by 2014, 86 percent of local television stations did not employ a single statehouse reporter. After buying a local NBC affiliate in Toledo, Ohio, Sinclair later laid off staff and outsourced the news operation to another Sinclair-owned station in South Bend, Indiana.
“At a time when so many local journalists are struggling to find and keep their jobs, it is tremendously shortsighted to trumpet the savings broadcasters may accrue from laying off local staff,” Free Press policy analyst Dana Floberg noted.
Driven by profits, broadcasters have lobbied to weaken the public’s access to quality information about their elected representatives. Broadcasters, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, which unleashed a torrent of ad dollars, are increasingly reliant on political advertising. That creates perverse incentives for how the stations engage with well-heeled interest groups seeking to influence the public. As The Intercept has reported, broadcasters routinely lobby aggressively against campaign finance reforms, including a proposal to allow candidates equal access to the airwaves, and even a minor requirement that political advertising disclosures must be posted online.
In the last election, as broadcasters fired journalists, they cheered on the wave of negative, manipulative super PAC advertising and the rise of carnivalesque political coverage. “The more they spend, the better it is for us. … Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” Les Moonves, head of CBS Corp., a major broadcast radio and television station owner, memorably told investors.