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Ruth: FCC move could close local TV newsrooms

By Daniel Ruth

Trying to keep up with current events out of Washington — or down the street — is about to become a whole lot harder.

But then again, those noble public servants at the Federal Communications Commission probably don’t want to bother you with needless, unpleasant stuff like the news. News, it can be so annoying.

Last week, in a 3-2 partisan vote, Republican appointees on the FCC rescinded a nearly 80-year-old rule that required radio and broadcast stations to maintain a local main studio in the communities they serve.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued that requiring local broadcast outlets to maintain production studios imposed an undue burden on radio and television stations because "the public these days is more likely to interact with stations (including accessing stations’ public access files) online. Additionally, technology allows broadcast stations to produce local news without a local studio."

Now there’s some poppycock, wrapped in phooey, enveloped in balderdash for you.

The decades-long requirement for local broadcast entities to maintain production studio capabilities was grounded in the quaint notion that over-the-air broadcast signals are owned by the public and therefore stations had a public service obligation to provide strong local content.

But Pai reasoned the elimination of the local studio rule would allow broadcasters to upgrade programming, improve equipment and news operations and other services that benefit consumers. Piffle.

By inviting broadcasters to mothball their studios, many mid- and smaller-market stations could seize upon the opportunity to save gobs of money now that they are released from their public service obligations to their communities. After all, nobody has ever confused the commercial broadcasting industry with being a bunch of altruists.

In a heavily competitive television market such as Tampa Bay, you are unlikely to see local stations shutter their studios. Tampa Bay broadcast newsrooms are huge profit centers. There’s a lot of money in all that hairspray and claims of fighting for you, taking action for you and being on your side, not to mention breathless reportage of big scoops about cockroaches being discovered in some hapless local eatery.

In a society already afflicted with no small amount of current events and civic illiteracy, the FCC’s move to further enable the dumbing down of America comes at a watershed moment for the broadcasting industry.

If, as expected, the FCC approves a nearly $4 billion merger of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and Tribune Media Co., Sinclair would become the largest broadcaster in the nation with over 200 television stations in 108 markets, covering roughly 72 percent of all households.

For many years the FCC limited the number of broadcast licenses a company could own to encourage competition and prevent monopoly ownership. The pending Sinclair deal scuttles that concept.

Sinclair, which has been a generous contributor to the Republican Party, is a notoriously top-down broadcast enterprise, often mandating its local news operations to air "must carry" far-right political commentary, including scripts sent by its corporate headquarters to be delivered verbatim by reporters and anchors.

Must carry editorial commentaries delivered by Sinclair executive Mark Heyman have argued that marriage is a solution to domestic abuse and defined terrorism as anything a "Muslim does."

Good grief, these folks make Fox News look like C-SPAN.

Some Sinclair newsrooms have pushed back by airing the bizarre "must carry" segments in the middle of the night. Do you wonder which local newsrooms may be among the first to be shut down?

For nearly 80 years, the FCC’s ruling to require broadcasters to provide local production studio capability worked reasonably well. And now Pai suggests that in markets where news production may be phased out (in favor of additional episodes of Wheel of Fortune, perhaps), residents in these deprived communities can remain reliably informed by going online or viewing canned (and highly politicized) content prepared in some distant corporate tower influencing as much as 72 percent of American households.

How does that serve the public interest? How does that remotely contribute to a better informed public?

Back in the 1960s then-FCC Chairman Newton Minnow decried the state of American television as a "vast wasteland." Perhaps. But the medium is quickly devolving into a vast toxic waste dump, courtesy of the very agency he once oversaw.

CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow, long considered one of the founding fathers of aggressive broadcast journalism, must be spinning in his grave. And nobody at the FCC, nor Sinclair, probably even remembers him — or cares.