Top Of Mind: Duopolies, Tribune, TV Violence
The NAB and individual broadcasters who have been intensely lobbying the FCC lately not to outlaw virtual duopolies received some encouraging words from FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell this week.
"The commission must resist calls for limiting, and therefore discouraging, the use of joint sales, shared service, and local news service agreements," he said in a speech before the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.
Through the use of such agreements, broadcasters have been combining station operations in markets — creating so-called virtual duopolies — where the FCC local duopoly rules say they can't own two stations outright.
Rather than relaxing the duopoly rules in the FCC's current review of the all its ownership limits to permit outright dual ownership, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to crack down on the sharing arrangements, maybe even forcing broadcasters to undo existing ones.
But that's all backwards, said McDowell. "These agreements provide efficiencies that lower operation and production costs for broadcasters enabling them to deploy more resources that benefit more consumers."
Such arrangements have benefited foreign-language and women- and minority-owned stations and maintained or increased the number of stations in small markets broadcasting news, he said.
"The commission must not regulate without a full understanding of how these agreements are used and how they enhance viewpoint diversity and augment local news and information programming in the places that need it most.
"By creating new counterproductive attribution rules targeting these agreements, especially with a dearth of evidence to support such a radical policy shift, the FCC may end up raising costs, reducing local programming and ultimately diminishing diversity."
Those are fine words, all right. Unfortunately, the sentiments are shared by only one of the other four commissioners, fellow Republican Ajit Pai.
The FCC's Democratic majority led by Genachowski seems inclined to curtail the sharing arrangements to one extent or another.
In their filings and visits to the FCC, broadcasters have been supplying ample evidence backing up McDowell's assertions and making a variety of other sound arguments.
That Genachowski can't seem to bring the ownership proceeding to a vote suggests that the broadcasters may be making some headway and that the Media Bureau staff — or at least one of the other Dems — is having second thoughts. Let's hope.
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I am rooting for Peter Liguori, the newly installed CEO of the Tribune Co. The country needs another big, strong media company with solid journalistic credentials.
In an interview with the flagship Chicago Tribune, Liguori confounds conventional wisdom by suggesting that he may not spin off the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, even though their well-documented financial struggles (along with the $13 billion of debt heaped on the company in the Sam Zell takeover) were chiefly responsible for plunging the company into its hellish and costly four-year bankruptcy.
In a separate interview in the Tribune's Los Angeles Times, Liguori says that he is obliged to hear out anybody interested in buying the papers. "But that runs parallel to my working with you guys on running the business on a day-to-day basis to maximize the value."
Liguori, who had his greatest success programming FX for News Corp., tells both papers he wants to make more of cable network WGN America. "I do think we should be ... investing in it and creating original programming which services the audience," he says in the Times. "If we do a good job at that, we're going to attract advertisers and be of greater value."
Liguori doesn't say anything in either of the articles about Tribune's 23 TV stations, presumably because he wasn't asked. That's surprising. I would guess that the stations have been the most reliably profitable part of the company for the last several years.
We reported a few weeks ago that Tribune is eschewing high-priced off-network sitcoms in favor of developing its own first-run programming that it could syndicate to other broadcasters. It will be interesting to see if the new Tribune sticks with the strategy.
I also have to wonder whether Liguori will stick with Nils Larsen as head of broadcasting. Larsen is a Zell man, the architect of the takeover bid that has to go down in history as one of the worst ever.
How bad was it? For that answer, I refer you to the four-part series on takeover and subsequent bankruptcy that ran in the Tribune this week (Warning: It's behind a pay wall.) You shake your head in disbelief that Zell was able to pull it off. But don't bother if you are looking for the sensational or the dramatic.
Reporters Michael Oneal and Steve Mills identify no real bad guys, only a bunch of dumb ones or perhaps smart guys blinded by greed and ambition. And there are no new revelations of one-time CEO Randy Michael's antics. That was disappointing, I'll have to admit.