Tales of the Sausage Factory

“Will Comcast Join the NAB?” Measuring the Merger On The Trade Association Scale

Few rivalries in the media world match those of cable operators and broadcasters. Since the first cable regulation by the FCC to prevent cable operators from importing blacked out sports events and “distant signals” that threatened local broadcast content back in the 1960s, broadcasters and cable operators have constantly sought regulatory advantage over one another. Broadcasters once ruled video as its unchallenged masters. Then came cable, which became the dominant platform for delivery of video. But broadcasting continues to aggregate mass audiences and produce more popular programming. Despite all the yapping about how no one can tell broadcast and cable apart anymore, neither one can survive without the other, but both have radically different interests. As a result, the broadcasters and the cable operators, and therefore their trade associations, are constantly at loggerheads.

The fact that Comcast, after acquiring NBC’s broadcast stations, will be eligible to join the National Association of Broadcasters, underscores just how radically and completely the proposed Comcast acquisition of NBC extends Comcast’s reach into every sector of communication. In ideological terms, it is rather like Vatican City joining the Arab League. But that’s not the only powerful trade association Comcast would now be eligible to join. Comcast will also be able to join the MPAA. Depending on how it develops its broadcast spectrum and other wireless assets, it could join CTIA and other wireless trade associations. These, of course, join the already impressive list of trade associations Comcast already belongs to as the largest broadband access provider, one of the largest residential phone companies, purchasers of telecommunications equipment, etc.

So I propose a new metric for measuring antitrust impact of mergers, the uniquely Washington “Trade Association Scale.” How many trade associations will you qualify for after the merger. If the number is too high, that shows you are getting into far too many lines of business to be healthy, because you have too much influence on everybody else’s business. And on the Trade Association Scale, the Comcast/NBC merger ranks a 10 out of 10.

More below . . .

Read More »

Posted in Cable, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

This Genuine Commemorative 1993 Petition for Recon Available If You Act Within 30 Days

Back before I finished law school, my employer Media Access Project was arguing that broadcast stations that did nothing but air program-length commercials (aka the Home Shopping Network and its various clones) did not serve the public interest and therefore did not deserve one of the scarce licenses made available for broadcast television. This being back in the day when there was still some expectation that broadcasters needed to demonstrate that they served the “public interest, convenience and necessity” as required by the statute, you understand. i.e. a long time ago.

As part of the 1992 Cable Act, Congress forced the FCC to have a proceeding to determine if stations that did only home shopping served the public interest. Unsurprisingly, the FCC found that there is a vital public interest need for people who could not otherwise get zirconium diamonds or commemorative collectors plates.

And you wonder why we learned to treat the “public interest” as a joke?

Anyway, my boss, Andy Schwartzman, filed a petition for reconsideration after the FCC issued its decision in 1993. Under the statute, you must file a petition for reconsideration before going to court. So MAP filed, arguing that the Commission had not really done its job when it claimed that Home Shopping Network and other such stations served the local community, and that the Commission had failed to consider other valuable uses of the spectrum.

And there the matter sat — for fourteen bloody years! — with us unable to go to court until the Commission resolved the damn thing. It became something of a joke. Every year, Andy would have a meeting with the Chairman of the FCC, and every year would ask about this petition. Every time someone new got named as head of the FCC’s Media Bureau, we’d trundle over with our wish list of outstanding proceedings, and at the top of the list was always Petition for Reconsideration in Docket No. 93-8. And every time, the Chairman or the Chief of the Media Bureau would promise to look into the matter. And the matter sat….and sat…..and sat….

Until Kevin Martin, under pressure from the new Democratic Congress, started putting the squeeze on the FCC staff to get the damn backlog under control. And then — Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles! — the staff decided to address our pending Petition for Recon. Of course, by this time, the record had gotten a tad “stale” (more like “mummified”) so the Bureau issued a Public Notice soliciting comment to refresh the record.

Aside from my personal venting, however, why should anyone care? After all, how many home shopping channels are there at this point (not broadcasters who run infomercials from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., I mean broadcasters who only show home shopping)?

Because, as explained below, this proceeding actually provides an important opportunity to make two points. First, that the public interest really does matter. After years of neglect, there is (I hope) a body of very angry people ready to tell the FCC that the Commission cannot get away with treating the statutory requirement to serve the local community as a joke; that endless chances to buy adorable porceline figurines of kittens do not make up for the total absence of local programming and coverage of meaningful local news. Second, that there are plenty of more valuable uses for broadcast spectrum, like say opening it up for unlicensed use.

Read More »

Posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Media Ownership, Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

“Our Viewers Don't Need News! One percent of time is too much already!”

In the last week of December, my employer Media Access Project filed Petition to Deny the television license renewals in the Portland-Salem market in Oregon. As detailed in the Pettition to Deny, the broadcast stations spent only 1% of time in October covering local elections. We argue that this amounts to a complete failure under any standard by these stations, individually and collectively, to meet their obligations to their local viewing areas. (We filed similar Petitions, still pending, against stations in Milwaukee and Chicago.)

Bill Johnstone, spokesman for the Oregon Association of Broadcasters did not dispute the findings of the study on which MAP based the Petition to Deny. Instead, Mr. Johnstone asserted that the the one percent was too much. Mr. Johnstone argued that one percent of time devoted to local political news for the people of Oregaon (or at least, the Salem-Portland market) was “more than our fill.” Indeed, Mr. Johnstone reckons that folks is generally sick of all that politics and news stuff because (and I am not making this up) “Very few politicians can tell the truth.” Mr. Johnstone also opined that it served the puiblic to make broadcast a local-politics free zone because “given everything else that the public has access to — the Internet, the ads they see and hear, the billboards, the unwelcome calls from candidates” the public must be plum sick of news.

This, of course, explains why broadcasters keep dropping the amount of local news available to the public (as documented in places like the Project on Excellence in Journalism). It’s a public service to provide viewers with a refuge from all that unwelcome input from reality.

At least they are no longer relying on the obviously false statement that they are only ”giving the public what they want“ and that ”if people wanted to see more ‘hard news, we’d broadcast that.“ As surveys and analysis continue to show audineces fed up with the lack of news fleeing in droves to other media. No, apparently the public is best served by making the broadcast media a ”safe haven“ from news. And broadcasters are courageously willing to take the hit on audience share to do it!

Now some of you might think that if, as Mr. Johnstone thinks, most politicians can’t tell the truth, that actual journalists might have the job of exposing those lies and challenging these politicians. In fact, if local news programs started doing that regularly, politicians might try lying less and telling the truth more.
Silly people! That is no longer what we rely on ”journalists“ and ”news“ for. According the the FCC, we now rely on such programs and ”Howard Stern,“ the ”Tonight Show,“ and ”Good Morning America.“ Each of these, the FCC has assured us, is a bona fide news program. And, as the broadasters constantly tell us at the FCC, we have the internet now! ”The internet“ amazingly gives us all our news. In fact, as Mr. Johnstone explains, the internet and paid political advertising provide so much news that it falls to the brave broadcast media to provide a ”safe harbor” where we can insulate ourselves from all this inconvenient news by getting updates every five minutes on the latest celebrity scandal, heartwarming pet trick, or desperate family missing their vacation in Disneyworld due to snow in Denver.

So keep hope, people of Portland and Salem Oregon, you’re local broadcasters are looking out for you! If you, like Mr. Johnstone, thought 1% of time covering local politics in 2006 was too much, then sleep easy. We can promise you that, if things keep going as they’re going, you’ll be even safer from accidental exposure to news in 2008.

Or, if you feel different, you can meet the rest of us down at the National Conference on Media Reform this week and help us plan on how to turn things around.

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in General, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

NAB Turkey of A Report

As reported at Consumers Union Hearusnow.org blog The National Association of Broadcasters has done its best to show that owning broadcast stations loses money. Unsurprisingly, they recommend relaxing local ownership rules to allow owners to chase the happy, mythical synergy rainbow that has proven such a winner for Clear Channel, Tribune, Viacom and growing list of companies that absorbed profitable businesses and turned them into failing operations ladden with debt.

We shall leave aside the absurdity of the NAB’s arguments for the moment to get to something even sillier, the absurdity of the NAB’s math. Not since fictional Fundamentalists supposedly redefined Pi as 3 has ideology so distorted the basic precepts of mathematics. Worse, these are not accidents or “fudging.” I count no fewer than two major errors in methodology or presentation per page as well as many major methodological errors that impact the paper overall.

How bad is this paper? It is so bad that you would expect it to appear in the “April Fools” edition of Econometrica. It is so bad that I would expect its author, Theresa J Ottina, to be banned for life from meetings of the American Economic Association. It is so bad that every professor of economics and statistical analysis should download it and give it to their class as a final exam question to see if the class can spot all the errors as a kind of economics “Where’s Waldo” of mistakes, gaffes, and deceits. It is such a botched attempt at a lie by statistical analysis that I have half a mind to file a complaint with the FCC requesting they sanction NAB and Ms. Ottina for violating the FCC’s requirement that submissions reflect an honest effort to provide true information (a certification NAB made in its filing).

What makes it so bad? And why does the NAB submit such a piece of obvious crap?

See below . . . .

Read More »

Posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments (Comments closed)
  • Connect With Us

    Follow Wetmachine on Twitter!

Username
Password

If you do not have an account: Register