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'Least It Could Do'

FCC Local Content Proposal Insufficient and Will Have Modest Impact, Commenters Say

An FCC proposal prioritizing processing of applications from broadcasters that offer local programming (see 2401180074) won’t have much of an effect and doesn’t do enough, according to a wide swath of comments filed to docket 24-14 by Monday’s deadline.

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Strange bedfellows such as Sinclair Broadcasting, Common Frequency, REC Networks and others reacted similarly to the proposal, finding it unobjectionable but also ineffective. Broadcasters are unlikely to take on the expense of constructing local studios just to have an application granted “15 to 45 days faster than normally processed,” said Common Frequency. “If the Commission is interested in supporting local journalism, this is the very least it could do,” Sinclair said.

License renewal applications are generally granted quickly, and the FCC lets licensees broadcast while applications are pending. As such, having a renewal proceed faster isn’t an incentive, said low-power FM entity REC Networks. Most station sales involve distressed local entities sold to larger broadcasters that are more likely to emphasize national programming, so faster processing for those applications would serve to decrease local journalism, REC added.

We cannot see how this proposal will make for an expedited experience unless it means extending the handling time on applications where a certification of local programming cannot be made,” said REC Networks. If FCC resources “are so constrained that not all applications can be processed expeditiously,” the proposal risks “creating a scheme in which a de-prioritized application is effectively denied because it is never reviewed” due to prioritized applications bumping it out of line, said noncommercial educational (NCE) broadcaster Educational Media Foundation.

"Although this rule will likely have just a modest impact, it is nonetheless quite worthwhile,” said local journalism advocacy group Rebuild Local News. The proposal would be more effective if the threshold for priority processing were 10 hours per week rather than three, the group said. “A mere three hours per week of locally originated programming is a very low threshold,” said joint comments from the musicFIRST Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition, supporting the proposal.

Commenters suggested a host of alternate policies that they said would help local journalism more. For example, Sinclair called for a hard shot clock on license renewals and FCC action in the virtual MVPD docket, while Rebuild Local News said the FCC should enact privacy rules to target surveillance advertising. NPR called for policy improvements that would benefit local public radio stations, and Common Frequency and REC Networks said the agency should take up a proposal to increase power for low-power radio stations. The Copia Institute, the think-tank arm of the entity that operates TechDirt, said the FCC should condition broadcast license renewals on broadcasters pledging not to block platforms that stream broadcaster content obtained via local antennas, as did Aereo and Locast.

Sinclair and other commenters disagreed on the NPRM’s apparent condemnation of the FCC’s elimination of the Main Studio rule in 2017. The NPRM explicitly cited Sinclair’s closing of local stations in the wake of that rule's demise. “We are perplexed as to why the NPRM appears satisfied to conclude that the difficult decisions we were forced to make in those markets” stem from the elimination of the rule or would be prevented by faster application processing, Sinclair said. Those news operations were losing money, the company said. “Broadcasters have two sources of funding for local news, advertising and retransmission consent, and neither of those sources is secure in the long term,” said the Sinclair filing. If the FCC seeks to preserve and expand local news, it “must acknowledge that broadcasters’ ability to provide such coverage turns entirely on the economics of the broadcast industry.” Since 2017 “we have observed a trend in commercial FM radio of a general decrease in localism rather than an increase,” said the Future of Music Coalition and the musicFIRST Coalition. “The deregulatory measure sanctioned that last-mile evisceration of localism,” said Common Frequency. “There is no way to justify resurrecting a scheme in 2024 that was rightly discarded in 2017,” said Bible Broadcasting Network.

EMF and other NCE entities oppose the proposal because it disadvantages stations that broadcast content from a central studio, as many religious broadcasters do. The proposal could also provide an avenue for groups to petition against licensees by challenging their certification that they provide local programming, said both the Bible Broadcasting Network and Relevant Radio in similar filings. “The prudent licensee” won’t take advantage of the incentive because it isn’t worth the risk, BBN said.

America’s Public Television Stations, PBS and NPR objected to the item’s lack of application to public broadcasting and narrow definition of local. “Public TV stations are very rarely involved in broadcast transactions,” said a joint filing from APTS and PBS. The NPRM proposed defining local content as having been produced in a station’s service area or contour. The FCC fundamentally redefining “local” with a definition that wouldn’t include the kind of issue responsive but often not locally produced content of public TV stations would “be contrary to congressional intent, FCC precedent, and public broadcasting’s mission,” APTS and PBS said.