FCC targets black conservative in TV station fight

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“I’m ecstatic and blessed that I have a partner in [Sinclair Chairman] David Smith and Sinclair Broadcast that helps with the financial burdens through a joint sales agreement,” he said. “Without them, I would never have gotten a loan from the bank, and my stations would eventually have gone away from the public because they would have been bankrupt without these arrangements.”

The FCC tightly regulates ownership of local television to prevent a single company or individual from owning all of the broadcast stations in a town. The goal is to help preserve free speech and prevent a monopoly on outlets for a single viewpoint. Most entities aren’t allowed to own more than two stations in a single market.

The regulatory commission now is exploring whether partnerships like the Armstrong Williams-Sinclair deal are covertly allowing media conglomerates to scoop up all the broadcasting in the U.S.

Joint Sales Agreements are common in the media world to allow multiple stations to sell advertising together, making pitches to companies so they are able to buy ads on multiple stations at once instead of case by case. Shared service agreements cover a broad range of cooperation among stations to share resources such as two broadcasters using the same news helicopter or employing the same technicians to fix camera equipment.

Mr. Williams said the two TV stations he owns couldn’t survive without the agreements. “Our shared service agreements allow access to capital that would have otherwise been unavailable,” he said. “Access to capital and financing are the single biggest obstacles to new entrant and minority ownership.”

The FCC is debating rules that would count ownership of a station if someone controls 15 percent or more of the ads on that station, similar to rules governing radio broadcasters. It also would increase scrutiny on shared service agreements and look at just what exactly stations are sharing.

The issue is up for public comment.

Observers said it has been several years since the commission reviewed the rules but also noted that the movement on the regulations could be driven by recently sworn-in FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee.

Mr. Williams said he met with FCC officials last week to discuss sidecar deals and told commission leaders how critical the agreements are to the survival of his television stations.

The goal of possibly restricting the agreements is not to financially harm broadcasters, but to place greater scrutiny on the business, some media watchdogs say.

“At a certain level, all of these agreements should be attributable and subject to the FCC local rules,” said Matt Wood, the policy director at Free Press, an advocacy group focused on keeping media open and accessible. Otherwise, it can sometimes be a little difficult to tell who’s investing in what station where.”

Now, however, broadcast conglomerates are owning or operating hundreds of stations across the country, giving them as wide a reach as many of the major national broadcast companies such as Comcast. What’s more, the TV stations often share content, or work together on stories, meaning some audiences are seeing more of the same.

“We care very much about diversity of voices in local media markets,” Mr. Wood said. “You have the exact same stories and the exact same viewpoints being broadcast on two stations at once. The stations are sharing almost everything in their joint operations.”

But Mr. Williams argues that locally owned broadcast stations allow greater diversity and can more easily tailor coverage to meet local needs. The majority of people are still getting news from the local evening broadcasts.

“Sometimes you forget the role that broadcast television plays in this country,” Mr. Williams said. “Sixty-seven percent of people in all markets get their updates from these network affiliates.”

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