Local Broadcasting In Extremis
Release 4.3 January 2008
by W. Kenneth Ferree*
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A previous short essay questioned whether politicians should be dictating what is broadcast on America's commercial airwaves. It focused, by way of example, on a piece of legislation recently introduced by Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA 14th) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI 2nd) that they call the "Broadcast Licensing in the Public Interest Act" (HR 4882). As discussed below, a better appellation might be the "Eradication of Broadcasting Act."
At the heart of HR 4882 is a desire that broadcasters carry more of the content Representatives Eshoo and Baldwin favor: local public affairs programming and political coverage. In their view, the public interest is served by such programming and not by other fare that is more popular with viewers. Their bill would therefore require the broadcast schedule to more closely resemble that of a cable community access channel.
Representatives Eshoo and Baldwin also apparently believe that broadcasters are giving local news short shrift (although elsewhere the bill finds that there is too much reportage of essentially local stories involving crime or accidental injury) and that they do too little local production. Accordingly, the bill would make broadcast license renewals conditioned on a showing of, among other things, a "dedication to local news gathering [and] local production of programming."
Thus, whilst demanding on the one hand that broadcasters carry less popular programming and thereby undermine their advertising base, HR 4882 would, on the other hand, have broadcasters invest more in local production and programming. The disconnect between these two inconsistent demands inevitably will further erode the local broadcasting business model and call into question the very viability of the service.
Whatever nescient critics might say, and however much nostalgia may blur our memory of television pre-cable and pre-Internet, the fact is that, today, broadcasters are in a desperate struggle for consumer attention against a wide array of competing media platforms. Fifty years ago, when many of the most vocal critics of modern media were growing up, popular television shows could expect to attract as much as 50% of the viewing audience. Thirty years ago, a highly rated show might be watched by 30% of viewers. That number continues to fall and, today, with an abundance of media available to every American, the top television shows earn scarce a 10% rating.
Unsurprisingly, the flow of advertising revenue follows consumers. While broadcast advertising revenue has stagnated, advertising on the Internet has exploded. Simultaneously, new recording technologies allow viewers to pretermit commercial material, further straining broadcast economics relative to media that do not rely solely on advertising revenues.
Against this backdrop, the bill offered by Representatives Eshoo and Baldwin can only be described as misguided. The Representatives blame the supposed failings of broadcasters on "drastic media consolidation," which, they claim, "has greatly diminished the broadcast licensees' performance of public interest obligations and broadcast media's ability to foster diversity, competition, and localism."
In fact, although the media markets are relatively less concentrated today than they were when three networks could capture 90% of the audience, the market reorganization that has occurred has been in response to exactly the same economic forces that threaten the continuing viability of local news and production. Indeed, in small markets the ability of broadcast outlets to attract the audiences necessary to sustain local news operations already is waning.
HR 4882 threatens to choke off the resources available for local broadcast service in medium and larger markets. As crass at it may sound to some on Capitol Hill, the ability of local broadcasters to "serve the public interest," to provide original local news programming, to engage in local production, and indeed to cover political events as Representatives Eshoo and Baldwin would have them, depends on their ability to be commercially successful. There is no tooth fairy leaving silver coins under the pillow to finance these efforts.
By requiring broadcasters to ignore market demands and instead carry programming to meet political demands, HR 4882 would enervate local broadcasters and undermine the very thing it purports to promote – local broadcast service. The goal of re-energizing and revitalizing local commercial broadcast service, if it ever is to be realized, will come only when Congress removes the shackles that bind broadcasters' ability to respond to new competitive pressures. That would include: eliminating outdated ownership restrictions so that broadcasters can organize in economically efficient ways, abolishing archaic broadcast speech restrictions so that broadcasters can compete with full First Amendment protection, and ending lowest unit charge limits on political advertising so that broadcasters can be fairly compensated for the value they provide the political process. HR 4882 fails on all accounts and instead would leave local broadcasters in extremis.