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Local TV stations attacked by pay-TV distributors, advocates and unions

November 14, 2011 | 10:48 am

A hodgepodge of cable and satellite operators, public interest groups, unions and lobbyists has teamed up to accuse local broadcasters of violating government regulations and slacking off on serving the public interest.

At issue are partnerships between local television stations in the same city. Government regulations were relaxed many years ago to allow for two stations to be owned by one company, but special approval is usually required. In Los Angeles, for example, CBS owns both KCBS and KCAL. News Corp. owns KTTV and KCOP, and NBC owns both KNBC and the Telemundo station KVEA.

Nowadays, local television stations frequently team up to share resources -- particularly in news and sales -- even if the stations have different owners. Often these partnerships occur in markets deemed too small by regulators to allow for common ownership of more than one television station. They are commonly referred to as local marketing agreements.

Such partnerships, the group argued, are an effort to get around the FCC's rules regarding the ownership of local television stations.

"In some cases, one station may completely absorb another local station while purporting to remain independently owned and operated," said a Nov. 14 letter to the Federal Communications Commission co-signed by satellite broadcaster Dish Network, Time Warner Cable, media watchdog Free Press, lobbying group American Cable Assn., the Newspaper Guild and the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.

These practices, the newly formed group said, "are adversely affecting competition, journalistic independence and jobs." The end result is "layoffs of station staff, reduced journalistic independence, and diminished competition for audiences, advertisers and multichannel video programming distributors that carry these stations."

The letter cites partnerships between stations in Denver, Syracuse and Peoria, Ill., as examples. "The resulting news product is essentially a rerun of stories produced by another station, which reduces content diversity in term of viewpoints, substance and issue coverage."

"A truly independently owned and operated station does not 'outsource' its rights and obligations to its competitors," the group charged.

Not all the groups writing to the FCC about consolidation of local television stations share the same agenda. Free Press is concerned about what media consolidation means to the number of independent voices providing news, and the unions are trying to protect jobs. The multichannel video programming industry's worries are about dollars. Time Warner Cable and Dish fear the leverage that such local station combinations have when negotiating distribution deals.

"Available evidence strongly suggests that common control or ownership ... in a single DMA (designated market area) results in an increase in broadcast carriage fees by at least 21.6%. In charging higher rates to cable and satellite TV providers, these arrangements lead to increased rates to subscribers," the letter said.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters, the primary lobbying arm of the television industry, said in a statement that "evidence shows that when a strong local TV station shares resources with another broadcaster, the result is the creation of more local news, weather and sports."

The letter was sent as part of the FCC's quadrennial review of its media ownership rules.


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-- Joe Flint