Local TV and radio stations no longer required to have local studios
The Federal Communications Commission today eliminated a decades-old rule that required TV and radio stations to maintain studios in the local communities they serve.
The FCC's Republican majority claims that the change will produce cost savings that broadcasters can use to improve "programming, equipment upgrades, newsgathering, and other services that benefit consumers." But Democrats say the change will instead make it easier for stations to abandon the cities and towns they serve.
Mignon Clyburn, one of two Democrats to dissent in the 3-2 vote, argued:
By eliminating the main studio rule in its entirety for all broadcast stations—regardless of size or location—the FCC signals that it no longer believes those awarded a license to use the public airwaves should have a local presence in their community. Yes, the very same majority that talks about embracing policies to promote job creation is paving the way for broadcast station groups, large and small, to terminate studio staff and abandon the communities they are obligated to serve.
Pai: No local studio needed to produce news
The rule was adopted nearly 80 years ago "to facilitate input from community members and the station's participation in community activities," the FCC said. But that's no longer necessary because residents "can interact directly [with stations] through alternative means such as e-mail, social media, and the telephone," the FCC majority said.
The FCC majority largely accepted arguments made by the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry lobby group.
"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," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.
Broadcast stations can produce local news without a nearby studio because of modern technology, Pai also said.
Stations will still be required to keep a toll-free or local number staffed during normal business hours.
Stations also still have an "obligation to air programming responsive to the interests of the community," Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said. When it comes to residents contacting a station, "it is more efficient and effective to call or e-mail a broadcast station, especially in times of an emergency, rather than visit the actual studio," O'Rielly said.
Changes could help conglomerates
Because of the rule change, Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy predicted that "local news production could be moved to places such as New York and Washington as the big networks buy up local stations."
Pai's FCC also recently rolled back broadcast TV station ownership limits, a move that could help Sinclair complete an acquisition of Tribune Media Company that would let it reach 72 percent of TV-owning households in the US.
Having a local presence is especially important during times of disaster, such as recent hurricanes, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said while dissenting from today's vote. A shortage of stations with strong community ties is already a problem, she said.
Rosenworcel said she got an e-mail from a man in Beaumont, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. There were floods, power failures, and ongoing rescue attempts, but "at midnight during the peak of the storm… not one single station in this market had live coverage of the storm," the man told Rosenworcel.
"Instead, he found his favorite stations broadcasting top 40 formats and national talk programs, oblivious to the trouble in the very community they purport to serve," Rosenworcel said.
While that happened before the rule change, Rosenworcel argued that getting rid of the rule will make things worse.
"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," Rosenworcel said. Wiping out the main studio rule "will hollow out the unique role broadcasters play in local communities," she said.
Rosenworcel and Clyburn both said they were willing to compromise. Instead of eliminating the rule entirely, Clyburn proposed a revised waiver process that would consider "market size and economic hardship."
Clyburn also suggested that stations removing local offices could be required "to directly use any cost savings to invest in services that are beneficial to consumers, including expanding local programming, and improving newsgathering in the station's community of license."
The Republican proposal "suggest[ed] that the savings could be used for such purposes, so why not tie the two together?" Clyburn asked. The Republican majority rejected her proposals, she said.