Over the last six months, the Federal Communications Commission has eliminated requirements that have kept local news broadcasting a mainstay of local television, culminating with a vote on Tuesday that removed a requirement for local broadcasters to maintain newsrooms in the communities they serve. The outcome will likely be the elimination of many American communities’ primary lens for understanding the impact of local politics and policies, as well as a primary source of guidance when emergencies occur.
Until today, the so-called “main studio rule” required “each AM, FM, and television broadcast station to maintain a main studio located in or near its community of license … to ensure stations would be accessible and responsive to their communities,” according to the FCC. In Tuesday’s 3-to-2 party line vote, the FCC chose to eliminate that rule two years shy of its 80th birthday.
Without the main studio rule, national corporations that own most local television broadcast stations—NBC Universal, Tribune Media and Sinclair Broadcast Group—can eliminate the overhead costs of a local studio and produce programming out of their main offices in New York, Chicago, and the Baltimore suburbs, respectively.
The action follows a separate FCC action in April that removed a barrier to the approval of a merger of Tribune and Sinclair, which would put the local television news of 70 percent of U.S. households in the hands of one company. Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic FCC commissioner that voted against the elimination of the rule, cited a recent Washington Post op-ed by Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, who argued that this change clears the way for “local news production could be moved to places such as New York and Washington as the big networks buy up local stations.”
Together, these actions could mean a significant change in local television programming and have significant implications for the future of policy discussions at the state and local level. While local news blunders are often the butt of internet memes and jokes, the local news does provide a significant service, and local media newsroom elimination would have significant implications for state and local governing and public awareness.
Last year, the Pew Research Center found a strong correlation between those who are “most civically engaged” and those who “use and value local news.” Specifically, the study found those who watch local news are more likely to always vote, be attached to their community, as well as be more active in political activity or a local group.
Local television news has been declining for a decade, along with many other forms of local news (such as the local paper and radio station). However, according to Pew, “[e]ven with these viewership losses, local TV news still garners more viewers on average than cable and network news programs.”
In fact, ensuring local programming that reflects the community it serves is part of the FCC’s charge. As the FCC notes: “Broadcasters are considered public trustees, afforded their spectrum so that they may serve the needs and interests of their communities of license. The obligation to provide such local service is fundamental.”
“Localism is sort of part and parcel of diversity,” Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel for Public Knowledge, told Route Fifty. With the potential for the elimination of local studios, Berenbroick believes we are “going to see some negative impact on the depth and breadth of local news coverage.”
“If I’m a broadcaster that owns a bunch of stations across the country and I’m based in Washington, D.C., the issues before the local school board in some community I serve in Minnesota are probably not going to be top of mind of the things that I cover, whereas if I was actually based in that community that would probably be something of concern that would make the nightly or afternoon newscast,” he remarked.
Local radio and television news also plays a key role in informing the public when emergencies occur.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who also voted against the rule change, released a statement emphasizing the need for local broadcasters being present in the community for when disasters occur, stating: “There are many broadcasters who do an extraordinary job serving communities during disaster. But let’s be honest—they can only do so when they have a real presence in their area of license. That’s not a retrograde notion—it’s a fact.”
Today @FCC continues march to dismantle localism that has long been essential part of how broadcasters serve their communities. I dissent.— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) October 24, 2017
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claims this is an outdated rule in the era of YouTube and online media. In his statement today, he claimed “technology allows broadcast stations to produce local news even without a nearby studio.”
Berenbroick disagrees with the technology argument. “Whether can people access news online or not, it’s not really a replacement for a local broadcaster because most content you’ll find online doesn’t tend to be local—it tends to be national. So you have a diversity problem there that Congress was frankly concerned about when it passed the Communications Act.”
In addition, Berenbroick said the FCC’s position makes the assumption that everyone has access to high-speed, affordable broadband, something not necessarily true in many rural areas or among poorer communities. Despite these barriers, he says, “the FCC has been moving down that path as if the internet is a panacea.”
Pai cited support from commenters who believed “getting rid of the rule will help broadcasters serve viewers and listeners, especially those in small towns and rural areas where the cost of compliance dissuades broadcasters from even launching stations.” This included supportive comments from the National Association of Broadcasters, major broadcasting companies, and non-commercial broadcasters like NPR.
Rosenworcel and Clyburn seemed to give this concern some credence, acknowledging the rule needed reforms for areas where the costs of a local studio are prohibitive, perhaps through a waiver process based on market size or potential economic hardship.
In Clyburn’s statement, she said that the commission was “taking a sledgehammer to the main studio rule” where a measure of modernization might be more appropriate.
“Why would an industry, that repeatedly extols the virtues of its local roots, want to eliminate their only real connection to that very same community?” Clyburn asked.