Chain versus Independent Television Station Ownership: Toward an Investment Model of Commitment to Local News Quality

Article excerpt

In June 2003 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to relax ownership restrictions of broadcast and print media, allowing a single company or individual to own up to three television stations, eight radio stations, one daily newspaper, and one cable operation in the largest media markets. Further, the commission raised the ceiling from 35% to 45% of the nationwide audience that a broadcast group owner could reach with its television stations (Munro & Vaida, 2004). Most of those proposed guidelines were blocked by a U.S. Court of Appeals on September 3, 2003, while allowing an interim compromise ceiling of 39% to stand (Plamondon, 2003). Even without the 45% ceiling, U.S. media ownership is more concentrated than at any time over the past 40 years (Turner, 2004). It has been estimated that five media companies control 75% of prime-time programming and 90% of the top 50 channels on cable (Hollings & Dorgan, 2001).

The controversy concerning the proposed revisions to FCC regulations on broadcast-media ownership limits has sparked an intense debate regarding localism. Localism is one of three widely recognized public policy goals [1] used by the FCC to help define the "public interest, convenience and necessity," (McChesney, 1995, p. 18) the standard of performance that broadcasters must meet in order to retain their licenses. Essentially, localism requires a broadcaster to serve the interests of the community covered by its transmission signal; if localism is successfully met, then the public interest is said to be better served. Napoli (2001) defined localism "in terms of a program's geographic point of origin. Thus, any program produced and presented within a local community" (p. 376) can help a broadcaster meet the goal of localism. In the early 1960s as television developed into the dominant medium of news and information, the FCC developed regulations designed to encourage television news decision makers to embrace localism. Further, the Courts have affirmed the importance of localism. In Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. F.C.C. (1994), the Supreme Court stressed the importance of local news, local public affairs programming, and matters of local concern (Plamondon, 2003). In the current context of increased media-ownership concentration, one of the important questions that emerge is whether or not broadcasters are meeting--or even attempting to meet--localism.

Proponents of the proposed FCC regulations contend that large media companies have advantages over smaller ones, arguing that the resources of large media groups actually increase the quantity and quality of locally originated news. Then-FCC Chair Michael Powell asserted that network owned-and-operated stations produce 50% more local news than local affiliate stations and have won 200% to 300% more quality awards for their local news content (Crystle, 2003; Online NewsHour, 2003). It has been further observed that large corporate owners of local media have deeper economic resources that can be invested in the qualitative production of local news (Compaine, 2004).

Opponents of the proposed FCC regulations fear that economies of scale will encourage large media chains to homogenize the news they distribute. Critics predict that liberalized ownership rules will cause media channels to become simple "content providers" by using the same news stories across multiple group-held properties (Corrigan, 2003, p. 30), and that group-owned broadcast news departments will rely more on syndicated feeds with no authentic local connection and less on locally produced, locally relevant news. Clement (2003) observed that, in order to cut costs and to increase profits, many larger media chains produce generic news stories that are repackaged by local reporters at each station in order to imprint those stories with a local look and feel (p. 43 A). Such is the practice of NewsProNet, an organization that produces generic news-you-can-use stories and in-depth investigative reports, distributing them nationally to resource-starved local broadcast-news operations. …

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