FCC Gives Broadcasters A Lump Of Coal For The New Year

Entrenched in the past, the commission has held firm — and even tightened — its deeply out-of-date regulations, dealing a deep blow to broadcasters.

Hank Price

In a ruling that would be more at home in the 1960s than the third decade of the 21st century, the FCC last week reaffirmed its commitment to long out-of-date regulations that threaten the long-term viability of local television service.

Specifically, the FCC slammed the door on the idea of combining any two ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC affiliations in a single market. Adding insult to injury, the FCC broadened the prohibition to include secondary channels and low-power TV stations.

Pretending that America still lives in the era of LPs and 45s and console radios, the FCC’s three Democratic commissioners proclaimed that musty, typewritten rules formulated in the days before word processors are still valid because all is well with local television station competition.

One can’t help but think of Lt. Frank Drebin from the Police Squad movies standing in front of a raging fire yelling into a microphone: “Nothing to see here! Please disperse!”

Never mind the fact that consumers now spend more time viewing streaming content than watching network television.


Never mind the fact that network owners have gutted their primetime television schedules to feed their insatiable streaming platforms.

Never mind the fact that Google, Facebook and now Amazon, as well as dozens of other national players, are sucking revenue from local television markets at a record pace.

Never mind the fact that local television news viewing continues to decline, due in part to a massive oversupply.

And perhaps most importantly, never mind the fact that none of local television’s new competitors are regulated.

None of this seems to matter to the FCC. Instead, and this is hard to believe, the commission actually said combining any two networks would “result in the remaining networks paying less attention to viewer demand for innovative, high-quality programming.”

The FCC also claims that keeping the current rules “increases the bargaining power of local broadcast affiliates and enables them to influence Big Four broadcast network programming decisions in ways that better serve the interests of their local communities.”

What innovative, high-quality programming is the FCC talking about? What local station influence on network programming? It has been a long time since any network expressed interest in what local general managers thought about network programming. Quite the opposite is true.

As for innovative programming, all of that is at the station or group level these days, not at the networks.

The FCC’s decision is hard to understand because it reaches illogical conclusions that fly in the face of reality. It’s as if the FCC believes nothing in the world of local media has changed since 1980. Do these commissioners own smartphones? Do their cars have cruise control and airbags?

Not content with making a specious argument, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel even added a red herring by saying: “No entity can own all the television stations in a single market.”

To my knowledge, no group owner has suggested there should only be one owner per market. There is a small market where one company is affiliated with all four networks, but that is an outlier and not the norm.

All stations want is reasonable consolidation that would allow fewer, but stronger, stations to compete against each other. A market that now has five or six separately owned stations might end up with three or four.

Some station consolidation is essential because the current business model is unsustainable. Continuing threats to advertising revenue and retransmission payments, combined with an explosion of competitors, means the alternative to consolidation will be the eventual demise of weaker players, leading to a last-man-standing scenario. In other words, chaos.

Strengthening and ensuring the viability of over-the-air television is critical to the well-being of our nation. At a time when the FCC should be encouraging innovation, it is instead throwing up roadblocks from a long-past era.

The current FCC majority is entrenched in the past. Let’s hope either Congress, or a more enlightened future commission, is willing to take a more constructive approach to today’s broadcast issues than simply saying “no” to the future.

Hank Price spent 30 years leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett while concurrently building a career in executive education. He is the author of Leading Local Television and two other books.

Comments (9)

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Former Producer says:

January 2, 2024 at 8:51 am

Never mind the fact that the airwaves are a public resource in the United States.

Never mind the fact that broadcasters are required, by federal law, to operate in the public interest.

Never mind the fact that large broadcasters gobbled up stations, not to serve the public interest, but to have more leverage in renegotiating retransmission fees.

Never mind the fact that large broadcasters already have and currently use loopholes that allow them to control more TV stations through what are effectively shell companies (Nexstar and Mission, Sinclair and Deerfield and Cunningham, etc.).

In case I haven’t made it clear, I don’t sympathize with the broadcast industry here. Broadcasters ignored the possibilities of digital and streaming news as far back as the 1990s. Broadcasters effectively ignored their duty to operate in the public interest in favor of operating in the shareholders’ interest. Yet, they signed up to play this game when they sought and received FCC licenses to broadcast on the public airwaves. How surprising that they must play by the rules of the very game they signed up to play.

Or, to quote a line from the 1980 comedy classic Airplane…

“They bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into. I say, let ‘em crash!”

metrojoe says:

January 2, 2024 at 9:46 am

Sounds like FORMER PRODUCER has an axe to grind. Broadcasters have long served their communities with local news, information and entertainment. The most successful stations are highly engaged with non-profit organizations to help meet needs in their markets. Try and imagine recovering from disasters without the services that local broadcasters provide long after the national spotlight is gone. The FCC decision is at best tone deaf and at the politically motivated.

Former Producer says:

January 2, 2024 at 10:59 am

An axe to grind? Nah, I’m calling out the obvious.

The days of local broadcasting, with the emphasis on local, are done! Most of the TV stations in the United States are owned or controlled by Nexstar, Sinclair, and Gray. Each company is homogenizing local news to various levels, and in some cases, are eliminating local news altogether because it is no longer profitable. What do you think will happen in those news markets when a disaster hits and in the days and weeks afterward? Don’t forget that private equity companies like Apollo Global Management slid into the local news business because profit must be made!

Do you honestly think these companies are truly interested in the public interest? I say no! They’ll pay lip service to the idea but pay more attention to bringing in the profits for shareholders. But when those dang ol’ FCC regulations get in the way of those unmitigated efforts to bring in money? Oh boy, that’s when these companies howl and scream about how unfair it is to play by the rules of the very game they chose to play.

Cosmo says:

January 2, 2024 at 11:22 am

I think we all know why FORMER PRODUCER is a former producer. If he lives in tornado country, will he able to turn to the tornado warnings he will get from Netflix and Prime since he’s looking forward to local TV’s demise? As for the airwaves being a public resource, the airwaves may be public but last time I looked the govt. is not making the payroll or buying cameras, cellular backpacks or transmitters.
Must be tough to be prematurely retired from your chosen profession; it shows.

BeyondTheBeltway says:

January 2, 2024 at 11:39 am

The FCC couldn’t put that genie back in the bottle if they wanted to. At best, they can only prolong the agony. Technology is the culprit and a very unforgiving one at that. The buggywhip manufacturers learned that lesson the hard way. Broadcasters need to stop looking for regulators to save them and start adapting or get out of the business while they still can walk away with some equity.

Former Producer says:

January 2, 2024 at 11:59 am

I don’t live in Tornado Alley. However, in those regions, TV stations do give priority to weather coverage, and rightfully so! It is a matter of life or death when a tornado hits. I used to live and work in the Southeast U.S., and when hurricane season came through, we handled it just the same as our colleagues in the Midwest handled tornado outbreaks. Yes, local weather is the number-one reason why people still watch local TV news, and I think local meteorologists do a tremendous and important job…and yes, a public service too.

I’m not looking forward to local TV’s demise either. It’s already happening! Blame whatever and whoever you want for it. What’s clear is fewer people are watching local TV news because they no longer see it as relevant. Especially younger viewers who get their news from their smartphones and see no reason to watch TV news.

For all of the hand wringing I hear on here about the FCC, I don’t hear anyone point out that billion-dollar broadcasting corporations are just as much, if not more, to blame for the industry’s state of affairs. These corporations bought up local TV stations in a frenzy and ran the stations with an emphasis on revenue and profit, NOT public service. Now that the advertising revenue is starting to dry up, these corporations are feasting on retransmission fees charged to cable and satellite companies that are likewise losing subscribers and are likewise hesitating to pay. It’s a risky business model!

And what happens then when that tornado hits a community? People go to their TV and realize their cable company doesn’t carry that important local channel anymore. Why? Because [FILL IN THE BLANK BROADCASTER] wanted even more money from [FILL IN THE BLANK CABLE/SATELLITE COMPANY]? Goodness, you mean to tell me a broadcast company that made billions in revenue put business ahead of a public service?

As for being “prematurely retired?” Well, that’s you making assumptions. I chose to leave the business. I work fewer hours and earn a much-better salary as a result. Thanks for asking!

AIMTV says:

January 2, 2024 at 12:38 pm

So, the only key to saving broadcasting is more consolidation and less regulation? It seems we’ve been on a 20-year tear of that, and it’s only contributed to the slow-motion train wreck we find ourselves in today. Profit motive without a viable vision for the future is a doom spiral. The innovators with the answers are the smaller guys who play within the rules, not the big trying to get bigger ones by throwing out any rules.

jcrollman says:

January 2, 2024 at 5:17 pm

Broadcasters have spent the last 20 years stringing along consumers with retransmission fee battles, blackouts and lackluster content when they should have been focused on understanding and delivering on what consumers want. It’s not the FCC that is killing broadcasters. It’s old-fashioned bad business. says:

January 3, 2024 at 12:52 am

Alpena MI one station owns all of the big 4 but that is a very small market they maybe granted wavier in that case. Yeah, the FCC doesn’t seem to get it pick on the broadcasters and not go after Big tech which is rivals to the broadcasters in my opinion with a lot of choices this is backwards and abuse of power 3 commish that clearly don’t know how things work. This is going to the courts and be years before the rules ever take effect maybe never will be a rule because the supreme court could rule in the broadcast favor in my opinion. The FCC is a joke the current FCC 3 commish have no spine whatsoever.