On Oct. 9, Elizabeth Jensen of the Los Angeles Times reported that a "conservative TV group," the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, planned to force its 62 television stations to preempt their regularly scheduled programs roughly ten days before the election to air a 42-minute film, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal." The film is an attack on John Kerry's activities as a Vietnam War protester.
Jensen's report set off a firestorm of protest during the ensuing weeks. The protests came from an FCC commissioner, members of Congress, Sinclair shareholders and advertisers, and from hundreds of thousands of citizens. Sinclair ultimately bowed to pressure and instead cobbled together a show called "A P.O.W. Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media." Quite rightly, a number of organizations claimed victory.
This episode is rich with lessons. Perhaps the most surprising lesson is that the goal of fair and balanced political discussion on local television matters tremendously to millions of Americans. Sinclair has performed the valuable service of reminding Americans of the problems caused by recent broadcast regulation.
That one corporation based in Baltimore could force 62 local stations in places as different as Buffalo and Las Vegas to join its political crusade is the nightmare scenario of media consolidation. In addition to its 62 stations, Sinclair operates six stations through Cunningham Broadcasting, a company owned by Carolyn Smith, the mother of Sinclair President and CEO David Smith. How does one company come to have a federal license to operate, directly and indirectly, 68 TV stations?
Two fundamental and long-standing premises of U.S. communications policy are 1) that local owners are best suited to serve the needs of local communities; and 2) that "antagonistic" sources of information best provide citizens with the diversity of views they need to make decisions in a democracy. These basic premises have been undermined over many decades by the relentless drive of the communications industry toward consolidation.
By 1954, the FCC had relaxed its strict ownership rules put in place in the 1930s and extended the number of stations one owner could control to seven. In 1984, the ownership limit was extended to 12, with a 25 percent cap on the national audience reach. But the great unraveling occurred in 1996, when ownership limits were effectively eliminated and the national audience cap was extended to 35 percent. Within nine months of the passage of the 1996 Act, the number of different broadcast television licensees dropped 21 percent. While Sinclair has been a federal broadcast licensee since 1971, it began buying and selling television stations like pieces on a Monopoly board in 1996.
In addition to allowing an increase in the number of stations one owner could control, the FCC has gradually allowed owners to control more than one station in a single market. Sinclair now owns or controls two or three stations in at least 21 markets.
While the justification for these changes has changed from the 1950s to the present, the drive toward market domination is hardly a new policy idea. The most recent argument is that broadcast concentration is less of a concern given the growing importance of alternative information sources such as cable television and the Internet. As Pew reported earlier this year, while the numbers of people who regularly learned about the campaign and the candidates from cable news (38 percent) and the Internet (13 percent) rose, most Americans (42 percent) still relied on local television to get information about the presidential campaign. But even if you can be convinced that we have enough diversity regarding national news, few would argue that cable news and the Internet are adequate sources of information about local issues.
Advocates for big media also argue that bigger operations are able to combine resources to provide better products. The Sinclair case amply demonstrates the problems with that argument. While Sinclair beefed up its national news staff and regularly force-feeds conservative commentary on important issues, it has significantly decreased the ability of several of its local stations (in St. Louis and Oklahoma City, for example) to gather and report local news. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has noted, Sinclair "short-shrifts local communities and local jobs by distance-casting news and weather from hundreds of miles away."
The FCC is now in the midst of a proceeding on localism. This proceeding was prompted by the public explosion caused when FCC Chairman Michael Powell attempted to force through rules allowing companies like Sinclair to own even more stations. Many of the Powell rules were either modified by Congress or have been rejected and sent back to the Commission by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition to rules that would allow one company to own or control more stations in the same market, or to reach a larger percentage of the national audience, the Commission is considering relaxing rules to allow broadcast licensees to own newspapers in the same market. Just imagine if the Los Angeles Times were owned by Sinclair. Would we even have learned about Sinclair's plans for the anti-Kerry program?
Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.