Federal regulators have voted to eliminate a long-standing rule covering radio and television stations in a move that could ultimately reshape America's media landscape.
The regulation, which was first adopted almost 80 years ago, requires broadcasters to have a physical studio in or near the areas where they have a license to transmit TV or radio signals. Known as the "main studio rule," the regulation ensured that residents of a community could have a say in their local broadcast station's operations.
Tuesday's vote by the Federal Communications Commission lifts that requirement. With the rise of social media, the agency said, consumers now have other ways to get in touch with their local broadcasters.
"Additionally, technology allows broadcast stations to produce local news even without a nearby studio," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
But that same technological capability could prompt large media titans to take over small, local TV and radio stations, turning them into megaphones blasting content developed for a national audience rather than a local one, according to critics.
"At a time when broadcast conglomerates like Sinclair are gobbling up more stations," the consumer advocacy group Free Press said in a regulatory filing on the matter in July, "the Commission's proposal would allow these conglomerates to move even more resources away from struggling communities and further centralize broadcasting facilities and staff in wealthier metropolitan areas."
Sinclair, the right-wing broadcaster, is currently trying to buy up Tribune Media in a $3.9-billion deal. (Tribune is the former parent company of The Los Angeles Times.) The consolidation of the media industry has become a political flashpoint amid wider concerns about fake news and the polarization of news consumption. Even some conservatives have opposed the merger on the grounds that it could limit the number of voices on the airwaves.
"Anyone who understands how these big media companies operate can see the danger," Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative media company that asked the FCC to reject the Sinclair deal, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. "By owning local stations, the New York-based media networks could dictate local news coverage. With the planned elimination of the local studio rule, they will have a green light to do so."
Supporters of the FCC decision to eliminate the main studio rule, including the National Assn. of Broadcasters, argue that the main studio rule imposes unreasonable costs on station owners and that the savings from no longer operating a physical studio could be funneled into creating more local TV and radio programming.
"[The] record shows that costs associated with main studio rule have stopped broadcasters from launching new stations in small towns," tweeted Matthew Berry, Pai's chief of staff.