The chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says the agency should prioritize license renewal applications from radio and television stations that produce and air community-oriented programming.
On Tuesday, FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said prioritizing license renewal applications in that manner would help support radio and TV stations that produce local journalism and other programming that matters to members of their regional communities.
“There’s something special about when you hear a local voice on the airwaves or see a familiar face on your television set in the evening,” Rosenworcel said in a statement distributed by the FCC. “Over time we’ve come to trust those voices, and they provide an important service to these communities. We want to recognize that dedication when it comes time for license renewals and transactions, and this proposal does just that.”
The proposal comes at a time when broadcasters and public interest groups find themselves on opposite sides of a unique argument in which local news programming has taken center stage.
On one side are broadcasters who have urged the FCC to impose cable-like carriage rules on upstart streaming services like Fubo TV, Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV, which would require those services to negotiate retransmission consent agreements directly with the companies that own local ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW Network affiliates. Currently, those deals are negotiated with the owners of the networks themselves, which broadcasters say deprive them of much-needed revenue to invest in their local news products.
At the same time, some broadcasters who are pushing the FCC to impose retransmission consent rules on streaming services are pulling back on some of their local news output. In the last few months, executives at the E. W. Scripps Compay and Sinclair Broadcast Group have shut down newsrooms and laid off journalists in an effort to cut down on expenses.
In May, Sinclair shut down a handful of small local newsrooms and replaced their newscasts with “The National Desk,” a morning program produced from Washington. Last week, Sinclair made a similar move in Tulsa, eliminating its local news bureau there. The company’s Oklahoma City station will now produce news for that city and Tulsa.
Scripps has taken a similar approach, replacing some local newscasts with programming from its national streaming channel Scripps News (formerly Newsy). Earlier this year, Scripps said it was laying off 300 workers across the company, most of which originated in local newsrooms.
Streaming services are on the other end of the argument, with executives pointing out the apparent contradictions between the various pledges broadcasters make to their local communities and what they actually do in the interest of their businesses.
To that end, executives at streaming services have urged the FCC to reject calls to impose cable-like retransmission consent rules on their products, saying it would allow broadcasters to charge higher fees for their stations, which would trickle down to customers in the form of higher bills.
Rosenworcel’s proposal appears to find a middle ground without actually wading into the fight between broadcasters and streaming services. The rule — which would apply equally to radio and television stations — incentivizes broadcasters to produce community-oriented content in the areas where they are licensed.
The term “locally originated programming” isn’t defined in Rosenworcel’s proposal, but it’s clear by her comments that Rosenworcel views local news content as the easiest way to tick this box. That said, radio and television stations could also provide non-news programming — like community call-in shows or the occasional high school sports event — to demonstrate their commitment to locally originated programming.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for those who want to challenge a broadcast station’s license renewal application, in that it would allow individuals and public interest groups to challenge whether a station is actually producing local programming that would warrant a priority review from the FCC.
That said, the lack of local programming wouldn’t necessarily mean that a station’s broadcast license isn’t renewed — only that it would fall behind other applications that are pending at the FCC at any given time.
Eventually, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on the proposed rulemaking and offer comments on if they think the proposal goes far enough.