Quiet on the set
FCC rule change lets corporations close studios, concentrating power of media elites.
President Trump has railed against the growing consolidation of power in big media corporations, speaking out against mergers between AT&T and Time Warner as well as Comcast and NBCUniversal. If he’s serious about making war against media elitism, he’s not paying much attention to a decision reached this week by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC has eliminated a longstanding requirement imposed on local radio and television stations, an arcane regulation called the “main studio rule.” Now the big media corporations that control most of America’s airwaves no longer need to keep studios in the cities and towns where they’re licensed to broadcast.
With this ruling, the FCC has decided that companies awarded licenses to use the public airwaves no longer need to have a substantive presence in the communities they’re supposed to serve. No need for local newscasters, nor local disc jockeys, nor even a local receptionist answering the phones. Instead, they can just use their local transmitters as megaphones blasting out programming produced for national consumption. This is a giant leap toward greater concentration of power in America’s media landscape, a bad decision that needs to be reversed.
The main studio rule is a relic of a bygone era that’s nonetheless important today. During the earliest days of radio, there were no satellites or fiber optic connections to deliver crystal clear signals of national programming to radio stations. So they maintained studios where disc jockeys could play records and musicians could play in live performances. As wire connections became more clean and reliable, and as network programming expanded, the FCC established the main studio rule to insure stations would maintain a close connection to the communities they served. Television stations were later required to abide by the same rule.
A few months ago, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed eliminating the main studio rule as part of a wide-ranging plan to further deregulate American broadcasting, saying that it’s outdated in an era when the public can engage with station owners via email or social media. Among those supporting the idea was the National Association of Broadcasters, which argued that the rule imposed unnecessary costs on station owners. Broadcasting & Cable, an industry trade publication, quoted an NAB official saying, “we’re confident that cost savings realized from ending the main studio rule will be reinvested by broadcasters in better programming and modernized equipment to better serve our local communities.”
Pardon our skepticism, but we’re not so confident. Ask people who’ve worked in the radio industry during the last couple of decades and they’ll give you a bitter history lesson. Given what’s happened in the past, after they fire almost all of their local employees, big broadcasting corporations sucking advertising dollars out of the community are more likely to funnel whatever money they save toward paying down mountains of merger and acquisition debt.
Opposition to the FCC’s ruling comes from across the political spectrum. Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, a conservative media executive breaking ranks with his friend, President Trump, recently warned that “local news production could be moved to places such as New York and Washington as the big networks buy up local stations.” And Free Press, an advocacy group fighting media consolidation, warned in an FCC filing that eliminating the main studio rule would inhibit the dissemination of life-saving information during community emergencies.
Here in Houston, we witnessed firsthand the importance of local broadcasting during Hurricane Harvey. Allowing media corporations to use their transmitters merely as bullhorns for programs piped in from other cities betrays their obligation to the communities they’re licensed to serve. If they’re seriously concerned about concentration of power in American media, both the president and the Congress need to use their oversight authority to pressure the FCC to restore the home studio rule.