Quiet on the set

FCC rule change lets cor­po­ra­tions close stu­dios, con­cen­trat­ing power of me­dia elites.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUT­LOOK -

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.

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