The Tribune Company must be doing okay after emerging from bankruptcy several months ago. The corporation’s leadership announced Monday they are purchasing 19 television stations from Local TV Holdings, LLC for $2.7 billion in cash. The sale is still subject to FCC approval.
I wonder whether Seattle viewers realize three of the five news stations in town are now in some stage of ownership change? Sinclair is buying Fisher Broadcasting (parent company of KOMO-TV). Gannett announced its intention to take over Belo (operator of KING 5). KCPQ-TV has been a Tribune property since 1998, but the local Fox affiliate may soon be part of a much larger conglomerate consisting of 42 television stations.
Our local channels — with the exception of Fisher and KCTS— have not been locally owned or independent for some time, but there’s still plenty to lament. I don’t mean to say the new owners have bad intentions or will drive down the quality of news. They may continue to produce great award-winning content. I really hope they do. But when large companies gobble up smaller entities, it generally leads to fewer diverse perspectives on the air and less opportunity for ownership by women and people of color. Take a look at the 2010 charts by the media watchdog group, Free Press. The situation has not improved.
Media consolidation makes financial sense. Some might argue it allows companies — especially those formerly invested in newspapers— a chance to diversify their investments and reap the rewards that come with television ownership, including ad sales. At the same time, I worry the profit motives driving these sales will trump what’s in the public interest, which is strong, fearless programming that reflects the values and make-up of our diverse communities.
Last week, I wrote about how lawmakers like U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell are asking the right questions about cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same markets, but it doesn’t look like the FCC is going to do much to stop the trend. I’m not sure how many people really even care, which is too bad considering the airwaves used by television stations actually belong to the public. We allow these private entities to use those airwaves to broadcast popular shows and to turn a profit. In exchange they are supposed to provide a service to the public in the form of news and information to help us make informed decisions and maintain a strong democracy. We should ask ourselves whether they are holding up their end of the bargain, and whether the FCC is properly enforcing ownership rules.
As The New York Times’ Brian Stelter reports, the Tribune purchase looks like a rosy decision today, but that may not always be the case:
“The new management, postbankruptcy, clearly signaled that they were focusing on the broadcast side of the business,” said Alan D. Mutter, a newspaper consultant who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur. “It suggests they want Tribune to unmistakably be a broadcasting company.”
But he warned that these profits might not last long. “Local broadcasting is going to be the next big legacy media that undergoes what we like to call a painful paradigm shift,” Mr. Mutter said. “I actually question why everybody would be rushing into the local TV business.”
He said local stations were currently “a highly profitable business” but added “what happened to newspapers is about to happen to TV.”