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Applause, Derision Follow FCC’s Main Studio Ruling

Opinions are strong on issue

This story has been updated with additional reactions.

Organizations across the broadcast industry are weighing in — favorably in some cases, not so much in others — on the Federal Communications Commission’s move that eliminates the broadcast main studio rule. That rule requires each AM, FM, and television broadcast station to maintain a main studio in or near its community of license.

The National Association of Broadcasters was quick to applaud the move, saying the main studio rule had outlived its usefulness in an era of mobile news gathering and multiple content delivery platforms.

“We’re confident that cost savings realized from ending the main studio rule will be reinvested by broadcasters in better programming and modernized equipment to better serve our local communities,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB executive vice president of Communications.

Praise also came from the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, which said it has been calling for elimination of the rule for the last nine years.

Not only is the main studio requirement simply unnecessary, but it works disproportionately against minority broadcasters, the MMTC said.

Minority broadcasters — or those broadcasting diverse or ethnically-based programming — have often been relegated to serving large markets with inferior, often suburban stations that required their own, separate main studios, the MMTC said. Compare that to nonminority broadcasters, many of whom gained entry into the broadcasting industry decades earlier, and were thus able to serve these markets with a single downtown studio. This so-called “tax on Blackness and Brownness” drove capital away from multicultural entrepreneurs, the MMTC said.

This rule is a textbook example of a market-entry barrier whose deregulation serves the public interest, said Kim Keenan, president and CEO of MMTC.

“In practice, the rule drove capital away from multicultural broadcasters who were unable to operate as efficiently as other broadcasters who could house more stations in a single main studio,” he said.

Others are not so supportive.

Eliminating the main studio rule directly benefits broadcast conglomerates that want to expand their local holdings without maintaining a presence in and engaging directly with the communities they’re supposed to serve, said Free Press, an organization focused on communications issues.

By eliminating the main studio rule, the FCC is effectively telling broadcasters they do not have to stay accountable to the communities they serve, the organization said.

“With today’s vote, Chairman Ajit Pai has given another massive handout to his friends and political allies,” said Dana Flower, policy analyst for Free Press. He specifically referenced the proposed merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media.

“By eliminating this rule, the commission has blasted open a path for conglomerates like Sinclair to move even more resources — including broadcast facilities and staff — away from underserved communities,” Flower said. “The main studio rule was a vital way to preserve broadcast media’s local roots and to hold local stations accountable when they fail to serve the people they’re licensed to cover.”

The change will hit low-income families, rural populations and people of color the hardest, Flower said, since the rule helped connect broadcasters to the local viewers and listeners they’re supposed to serve.

“Taking away this essential protection is a slap in the face to communities who rely on local broadcast for critical news and information that’s responsive to their needs.”

Both Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Reinforce dissented in the main studio decision and expressed concern that allowing a station to close its local main studio would sever the intimate connection between the station and its community.

“That is not a concern to be taken lightly,” said Scott R. Flick, a partner with the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “The close connection between stations and their communities is what has made broadcasting unique among its many competitors,” he said.

But perhaps it’s time to acknowledge what the main studio rule really was, Flick said — a government mandate to maintain a rigid brick-and-mortar presence in an Internet Age. “Its existence hindered stations from evolving and adapting to the rapidly changing business strategies of their many non-broadcast competitors,” he said.

Another group added its voice to the fray, saying that elimination of the main studio rule threatens public safety.

The nonprofit organization Common Frequency said the elimination of the rule poses a grave threat to U.S. resilience after natural disasters. “We are at a point where natural disasters are commonplace with global climate change,” the group said. “In emergency situations, broadcast main studios are the only communications infrastructure that stands between life and death.”

The group asked that the commission postpone the main studio rule vote until residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could give testimony to the commission.

According to Common Frequency, broadcasters who jettisoned a main studio would be unable to transmit to their community of license in the event of severe interruptions to the wireline, cellular or broadband connections, which have reliably experienced service problems during natural disasters including hurricanes, floods, fires and earthquakes.

“Our grievance lies in the commission’s dismissal of this reality,” the group said. “Due to their eagerness to dismantle the nation’s decentralized content origination capacity, the commission is setting up a disaster scenario that could potentially lead to the loss of lives of thousands of U.S. citizens.”