In Wednesday’s edition of The Seattle Times, the editorial board commended the Federal Communications Commission’s decision this week to crack down on media consolidation by ending the practice of joint sales agreements (JSAs). A majority of commissioners agreed that waivers should be granted only in cases where station leaders can prove that partnerships truly serve the public interest through quality and diverse programming on public airwaves, and not just to to increase profits for private companies.
Are you one of the millions of Americans still getting your information from your local television news? Here are five things you should know:
1. Media consolidation is real.
Fewer owners nationwide control what viewers see and hear. Imagine what that means for communities and American democracy, which relies on many perspectives to maintain a self-governing, informed electorate. Look at the interactive graphic featured in a Oct. 29, 2013 Opinion Northwest blog post.
In Seattle, the commercial stations are all owned by out-of-state conglomerates. Last year, Sinclair Broadcast Group bought KOMO-TV and Gannett purchased KING-TV. KIRO-TV is owned by Cox Media Group. KCPQ-TV’s parent company is Tribune. They are staffed by local (and beloved) news producers and reporters, but their financial interests are in the hands of owners who do not have close ties to the community.
That’s not to say the quality of news has gone down the drain, but the loss of local ownership is something to keep in mind next time you notice there’s a dearth of quality, local content and more packages stories from other markets.
2. Broadcasters have used JSAs to skirt federal rules and control more than one station in various markets.
Last October, The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey wrote a comprehensive report about the use of “sidecar” agreements, in which broadcasters such as Sinclair skirt federal limits and operate more than one station in some markets by outsourcing management duties. As noted in Wednesday’s Seattle Times editorial, the FCC should force broadcasters to disclose all shared-service agreements.
3. The consolidation is sweeping the country.
The graphic below, by the media watchdog group Free Press, shows where JSAs and other forms of shared-service agreements are in place around the country. Free Press calls these partnerships “covert consolidation.” (Read more about the ways broadcasters have violated federal rules on Free Press’ blog.)
4. Partnerships may keep stations open, but they do not always produce quality local news for viewers.
Industry lobbyists claim these partnerships are keeping many stations open. Allow former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to explain in a powerful February letter to viewers published by the Columbia Journalism Review:
Let me be clear: Not every transaction is bad. Consolidation may offer some limited benefits, as when stations pool money to buy a better weather radar. But there is a huge difference between that and merged stations reporting the same news by the same reporters.
So instead of making good things happen, I would be spending untold hours listening to big media tell me how their latest merger proposal would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms like yours being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism hanging by the most slender of threads. Instead of expanding news, the conglomerates cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you.
5. You can help to stop media consolidation, increase diversity of viewpoints on the air and encourage local ownership.
The FCC is getting ready to kick off its quadrennial review of broadcast ownership rules. Brush up on your knowledge of the connection between media and a vibrant democracy by visiting the Common Cause website. Support Free Press, or visit that nonprofit’s page dedicated to demanding the five-member commission get out of Washington, D.C. to hear the public’s concerns about seeing a greater diversity of perspectives on television. Show them you care.