By CHERYL LEANZA
Good news for diversity in media ownership.
Today the Federal Communications Commission approved a number of transactions which will add ten new broadcast owners of color and women. Setting aside the details of each transaction, it is important to note, as Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn did today, that this welcome increase in African American, Asian American and women owners comes as a direct result of the FCC’s decision to start enforcing the ownership rules already on the books. Last spring the FCC recognized that some owners were using so-called “sidecar” or Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) between stations to get around federal rules barring broadcasters from owning multiple television stations in the same market.
The National Association of Broadcasters had filed a lawsuit this summer in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit in hopes of preventing the FCC from taking action on these arrangements.
But today’s action is a great example showing how the FCC’s media ownership rules are an important way the agency can ensure that we have a diverse media. The station transfers approved today took place because, once the loophole was closed, the existing owners were not permitted to keep stations in violation of the FCC’s rules. If the FCC’s rules had been enforced as they should have been for the last 15 years, perhaps our media ownership numbers would not be as dismal as they are now. According to the Leadership Conference On Civil and Human Rights:
- Only 6.3 percent of women own full power television stations
- Hispanics own 3 percent
- Asian Americans own 1.3 percent
- African Americans own 0.6 percent
- Native Hawaiians and American Indians own less than a percent combined
In contrast, White ownership has increased by 7.8 percent in full power television, 11 percent in Class A television, and 8.2 percent in low power TV.
The FCC can repeat today’s success in its currently pending 2014 Quadrennial Review of ownership rules, but only if it takes action now. While the FCC closed the loophole of JSAs (which stations used to jointly sell advertising), many other similar ownership arrangements continue under the moniker of “SSAs” or Shared Services Agreements. Not only are these agreements similar to JSAs in their ability to evade compliance with the FCC’s ownership rules, but they strike at the heart of the FCC’s core goal of ensuring media diversity by enabling televisions stations to consolidate news operations.
In several important markets in our country–for example in Honolulu–viewers see the same newscast on three separate TV stations. This not only limits multiple newscasts to one viewpoint, but eliminates jobs for journalists. These agreements are also problematic because they create “financial dependency,” as Wheeler and Clyburn put it, on the part of putative owners, depriving those dependent owners of capital and wealth.
SSAs are clothed in secrecy, because unlike JSAs, broadcasters are not required to disclose their terms to either the FCC or the public. The FCC missed an important opportunity last spring when it could have required these agreements to come under scrutiny. If the FCC wants to see more deals like the ones it approved today, it needs to require disclosure in the first half of 2015–so there is enough time to analyze these agreements and adopt rules eliminating the remaining loopholes as part of the pending review.
Evan as national events confirm once again, that, yes, race does matter in how we perceive so many important aspects of daily life and public policy, we see a glimmer of hope that the people with insight into the needs of communities who have so long been closed out of the mass media might have a chance to shape local news in some places in the years to come.
Cheryl A. Leanza is president of consulting firm, A Learned Hand, LLC. In this capacity, she serves as policy advisor to the United Church of Christ, Office of Communication, Inc. — the church’s historic media advocacy arm. Her other clients include the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Public Knowledge and Native Public Media.