future of broadcast media

Every year, about this time, I dust off the crystal ball to offer a look at the year ahead to see what Washington has in store for broadcasters.  This year, like many in the recent past, Washington will consider issues that could fundamentally affect the broadcast industry – for both radio and TV, and affecting the growing on-line presence of broadcasters.  The FCC, Congress, and other government agencies are never afraid to provide their views on what the industry should be doing but, unlike other members of the audience, they can force broadcasters to pay attention to their views by way of new laws and regulations. And there is never a shortage of ideas from Washington as to how broadcasters should act.  Some of the issues discussed below are perennials, coming back over and over again on my yearly list (often without resolution), while others are unique to this coming year.  Issues unique to radio and TV, and those that could affect the broadcast industry generally, are addressed below.

Television Issues

Spectrum issues have been the dominant TV concerns in past years, first with the digital transition, and more recently with the "white spaces" rulemaking and the proposals advanced as part of the FCC’s Broadband Plan to reclaim part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband uses.  These issues remain on the FCC’s agenda, as do new issues dealing with the carriage of television stations by cable and satellite television providers.  Specific issues for TV include:

Spectrum reclamation:  The initial proposals for the reclamation of part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband were laid by the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in November, looking at how the TV spectrum could be used more efficiently, and how incentive auctions encouraging some TV stations to vacate their channels could be conducted.  Congress still has to pass legislation to allow such auctions, and it will probably also mandate a spectrum inventory to determine if the reclamation of the TV spectrum is really necessary to provide for wireless broadband needs.  At the same time, some TV operators have begun to talk about television stations themselves providing broadband service with their excess spectrum.  While Congress will probably act on the auction bills this year, and there will be much debate about the details of the reallocation issue, so don’t expect final resolution of this matter in 2011.

White Spaces:  The FCC has authorized the operation of wireless devices in the television spectrum, resolving many of the concerns about interference to television operators by requiring all wireless users to protect operating TV channels in specific areas based on databases of existing users, not on spectrum sensing techniques.  But implementation issues still need to be worked out – including finding parties to compile and administer the databases to make sure that all existing spectrum users who are to be protected are registered.  Expect action on these matters this year, but no actual white spaces use until after these implementation efforts are completed.

LPTV Digital Transition:  While many members of the general public may consider the digital television transition to be complete, many Low Power TV stations and TV translators are still operating in analog.  The FCC has commenced a proceeding to require the transition of these stations to digital, suggesting that the transition be complete as early as the end of 2012.  Expect controversy on this issue.  Many LPTV stations feel that being forced incur the costs to covert to digital is premature and could imperil broadcast service, especially to rural areas and minority populations who rely on translators and LPTV stations, if spectrum repacking caused by any future repurposing of TV spectrum for broadband forces further technical changes.  These issues will be considered by the Commission this year.

Retransmission Consent Reform:  At the end of 2010, there was much controversy over retransmission consent issues, as there were instances where broadcasters and cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors had difficult negotiations over the carriage fees to be paid to the TV stations.  FCC sources stated at the end of the year that a proceeding will be initiated to determine if the rules governing the negotiation process should be changed.  The multichannel video programming distributors and some public interest groups argue that the FCC should protect viewers who may have their TV service disappear if a TV station does not reach a deal with a MVPD, while the broadcasters argue that the ability to remove the station is the heart of the negotiation, and removing the risk of the MVPD losing the right to carry the station would negate the negotiation.  Look for this proceeding to commence early in the year but, as it will no doubt be very controversial, it may take some time to resolve.

DMA Boundary Issues:  The FCC has also begun a proceeding to look at DMA boundaries that cross state lines to see if every television viewer should be guaranteed to receive service from cable or satellite providers of a station in his or her state.  Television stations fear that this guarantee could upset traditional television markets, and could have an impact on retransmission consent negotiations in border counties.  Comments in this proceeding are due on January 24th, 2011.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – What Washington Has In Store For Broadcasters in 2011

So does the mid-term election have any impact on broadcast regulation?  While no one knows for sure what the political winds of Washington will have in store, in reading the analysis of the Tuesday election results, I was struck by the conclusions contained in one Op-Ed article in the Washington Post on the message of last week’s Mid-Term elections, and the contrast of that perceived message to an article that had run in the same pages just a week before.  The earlier article dealt specifically with the future of media in the 21st century, and the suggested that, rather than cutting back on taxpayer funding of public broadcasting, as some have suggested, the government should take more steps to provide funding.  this article suggested that there be a tax on commercial broadcasters, and the monies received from the tax should be used to fund public media.  A similar proposal had been included in a Federal Trade Commission staff discussion draft issued earlier this year in the FTC’s exploration of the effect of new technologies on newsgathering.  Both of these proposals were made in the name of providing funding to public broadcasting sources to produce more news in light of the struggles of commercial news outlets in today’s media world.  The FCC’s own Future of Media task force is expected to issue a report before the end of the year on how the government should take steps to ensure that the media in the 21st century provides citizens with the information that they need to make informed decisions on civic issues.   Proposals made in both the FTC and FCC proceedings involve everything from changes to copyright law to provide more Federal protection to news reporting, to suggestions similar to those made in the FCC’s localism proceeding for specific mandates as to how much and what kind of news and information programming licensees must provide.

The proposals for the government to get involved in making the media better stuck me as being in stark contrast to the findings of a Democratic pollster reported in Sunday’s Washington Post, finding that the voters in last week’s elections were most interested in a government that was limited and efficient.  Voters were not totally adverse to government involvement – but favored that involvement only in connection with issues where it was perceived that the action could really make a difference, and only where the involvement was clear, efficient and effective.  While this opinion piece had nothing specific to say about media regulation – if in fact the article accurately reflects the message of the election, does it make sense that the government should be getting involved in the decisions about the future of the media?  Will any regulation that comes out of these proceedings be regulation that will be efficient and effective, with a minimum of red tape?  From my discussions with broadcasters, many are afraid that it will not. 


Continue Reading The Mid-Term Election and Broadcasting – What’s the Effect on the Future of Media?

The NAB Radio Show in Washington two weeks ago was a upbeat reflection of the present state of the broadcast industry.  But sandwiched around that conference, in the last three weeks, I have spoken at three digital media conferences – and as someone who has grown up on over-the-air radio, and based a career on representing radio stations, the discussions at these conferences raised many questions about the future of the radio industry. At the Radio and Internet Newsletter (RAIN) Summit East in DC, prior to the NAB Radio Show, I gave a summary of the royalty issues facing Internet Radio operators. At the Future of Music Policy Summit in DC the next week, I spoke on a panel on the Future of Radio. And at the Digital Music Forum West in Los Angeles last week, I moderated a panel on music licensing issue for digital media companies. At each of these conferences, the focus was on the digital media, not on over-the-air broadcasting, and many times the question was raised as to whether traditional radio was still relevant in the digital age. I’m not sure how many times I was asked, when I told someone that I am a lawyer who represents radio stations, what I plan to do next when my clients are extinct? Even in media-related industries, many seem to regard radio broadcasters as old-school – a throw back to some other entertainment era. Yet, what surprised me was how these same people who questioned the relevance of radio were all able to talk about what songs were or were not being played on the local rock station, or about the crazy thing some local DJ said that morning and the contests running on radio stations in their market, or about the story on NPR that kept them in their car seats when they were sitting in their driveway at home the night before.

At each of these conferences, in listening to the discussions of the issues facing all the new media (like how to make money), the dark view of radio seemed overblown.  Radio still seems to be a vital medium, especially if it can emphasize the advantages that it has. Harnessing the power of radio with digital media creates platforms that neither has on its own. In many ways radio, of all the traditional media, is best able to use its place in the media landscape to expand in the digital world. Radio has always excelled in reaching niche audiences, in much the same way that the Internet now does. By playing to its strengths, whether that be music, news, talk or sports, or some combination thereof, radio can expand its connection and provide broader and deeper services to its listeners, and serve its audiences like never before.  And all the digital media companies seem to recognize this potential, but seem to be discounting radio’s ability to capitalize on its advantages. 


Continue Reading Reflections on the State of Radio – A Month of Discussions at The Radio Show, State Broadcasters Meetings and Digital Media Conferences

FCC Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker recently delivered a speech in Washington, DC, where she addressed calls for the government to take action to assist the traditional media deal with the economic issues brought about by the new media.  From time to time, there have been calls for the government to assist the traditional media, either through some sort of direct subsidies, or through regulatory changes that could assist in their news coverage to make these entities competitive in the new media world.  While the Commissioner’s speech did not detail those efforts, calls have, for the most part, not suggested direct government subsidies to support traditional news media sources.  Instead, more indirect efforts have been suggested to insure that these media sources continue to serve their communities.  Calls have been made to change tax laws to allow newspapers to operate as nonprofit entities (while still soliciting advertising).  In a draft FTC option paper, there was a suggestion of taxing commercial media to provide more support to noncommercial public broadcasting entities.  Other proposals have been more direct – simply mandating more news and public affairs programming from broadcasters (with little or no discussion of the source of the revenues for such mandates).  In her speech, the Commissioner noted that some suggestions may be forthcoming from the FCC’s own Future of Media report due at the end of the year (see our summary of the issues that they are exploring here), but she seemed to rule out these types of proposals, instead suggesting that the Commission could assist companies meet the new media challenge by loosening FCC restrictions on ownership.

The Commissioner suggested that no government action to bail out the media is necessary to preserve service to the public – citing the many examples of how that service is provided through new media sites that serve all sorts of communities and community groups – providing timely and detailed information on specific topics, often on a neighborhood level.  We have made that same point on these pages – the new media is already filling any void that may exist in local media coverage.  Some of these sites are produced by old media companies – as TV stations, newspapers and others develop microsites targeted to very local needs and interests.  Other sites are totally independent – developed by local interest groups or new media entrepreneurs.  So how can the Commission help these sites to develop?


Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Baker Suggests No Government Support for Media, But Possible Relaxation of Broadcast Ownership Rules

The FCC’s Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on Multiple Ownership has been published in the Federal Register, setting July 12, 2010 as the deadline for comments, with July 26 as the deadline for reply filings.   We previously outlined many of the questions asked in the wide-ranging Notice of Inquiry. The questions deal with the entire spectrum of media ownership issues, from asking questions about how the new media landscape changes the considerations given to media ownership restrictions, to inquiries into the way in which the consumer gets needed news and information programming from broadcast outlets, and the impact of consolidation on that information.  Filing comments in this proceeding before the deadline will help to shape the discussion that will occur. The FCC claims to be intent on finishing its review of the ownership during this calender year but, as the comments in this proceeding must be distilled into more specific proposals to be reflected in a subsequent  Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which must itself be subject to public comment, this would seem a very ambitious task given that there will be less than 6 months remaining after the comments are replies on the NOI are submitted. Nevertheless, the short 30 day comment period on the NOI seems designed to speed review – so time is short for interested parties to draft and submit meaningful comments on the fundamental and wide-ranging questions that are being asked..

Further highlighting the difficulty in completing the ownership review this year, is the FCC’s Public Notice that was just released – announcing that it is seeking bids for nine different studies to review various issues relevant to the media ownership proceeding. According to the Public Notice, studies will look at many of the issues on which the Commission has sought comment in the NOI, including studies of how consumers receive local news and information, the effect that media consolidation affects the diversity of programming and the degree of civic engagement in a community, and even requesting a study to design a model to be used to measure the degree of media consolidation in a market.  the Commission also asked for suggestions as to other studies that it could conduct relevant to this proceeding.  Comments on other potential areas of study are due by July 7.


Continue Reading Comments Due July 12 on Multiple Ownership Notice of Inquiry – And FCC Solicits Bids for Proposed Media Ownership Studies

The Commission is worried about the future of the broadcast media, and they are trying to figure out what they can do.  The last two weeks have been full of news about actions being taken by the FCC which may or may not lead to a reshaping of broadcasting as we know it.  We wrote about the discussion of re-purposing some or all of the television spectrum for wireless broadband users.  We also told you about the workshops to be held this week as the first step in the Commission’s Quadrennial review of it multiple ownership rules – looking at whether to allow more media consolidation to help broadcasters compete in the new media landscape or, conversely, whether there should be a reexamination of the existing rules to make them more restrictive against big media.  Last week, the Commission announced two more actions – the appointment of a Senior Advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to study "the future of media in a changing technological landscape", and a workshop on "Capitalization Strategies for Small and Disadvantaged Businesses."  What is the impact of all of these actions?

The appointment of the Senior Advisor, Steven Waldman, is perhaps the most interesting action.  Mr. Waldman, the founder of the website Belief.net (recently sold to News Corp), is charged with determining how the FCC can assure that the media will serve the public interest in the 21st century, and that "all Americans receive the information, educational content, and news they seek."  He is instructed to work with all Bureaus to determine how best to implement these ambitious goals.  It is interesting that, while one might be inclined to look at this with the assumption that his charge is to look at broadcasting, the public notice announcing his appointment and his charge does not once use the word "broadcast" or "broadcasting."  Instead, it talks almost exclusively about the new media and technology and the potential that they have for serving the public good.


Continue Reading FCC Senior Advisor to Chairman to Study Media Change and a Workshop on Media Financing for Small Business – Looking to Reinvent the Broadcast Industry?