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Law Firm Officially Asks FCC to Kill Main Studio Rule

Garvey Schubert Barer thinks the time is now

Do away with the main studio rule entirely.

That’s the call from law firm Garvey Schubert Barer, which represents a number of U.S. radio and TV broadcast stations.

The rule has been part of the fabric of U.S. broadcasting for more than half a century, and calls to end it are not new. But GSB apparently senses that the time is right, given deregulatory winds in Washington and recent comments by FCC commissioners and others about the issue. The firm has filed a formal petition asking the commission to start a rulemaking to do away with the rule.

At present, Rule § 73.1125 requires most AM, FM and TV broadcast stations to maintain a main studio within their community of license; within the principal community contour of any broadcast station licensed to that community; or within 25 miles from the center of its community of license.

“Adoption of this proposal will not reduce or remove broadcasters’ ‘bedrock obligation’ to serve the needs and interests of their local communities,” the firm told the FCC in the petition.

“Instead, it is meant to recognize the technological and economic realities of today’s broadcast marketplace — that stations can serve their communities while realizing substantial and necessary cost savings by maintaining fewer offices and smaller staff; that most listeners and viewers contact their local stations by telephone, mail, email or online; and that the commission has already eliminated the underlying program origination requirement and, more recently, has provided that licensees must make their public file available entirely online, thereby further undermining any rationale for maintaining a physical main studio location.”

The petition comes from the law firm’s Media, Telecom and Technology Group, which includes familiar telecom attorney names Brad C. Deutsch, John Crigler, Judy Endejan, Arthur H. Harding, Erwin G. Krasnow and Melodie A. Virtue.

They noted that for more than half a century, the commission has required radio and television stations to maintain a main studio within or near their communities of license.

Until 1987, stations also had to originate a certain minimum percentage of non-network programming from the main studio, the “program origination requirement.” The rule has been tweaked since then including in 1998 to enlarge the area within which a broadcast station’s main studio could be located.

KCLD/KNSI in St. Cloud, Minn. (iStockphoto/csfotoimages)

The lawyers noted that the main studio rule was long tied to the requirement that stations maintain public inspection files at their studios, but that’s no longer the case now that online public files are required.

GSB argues that repeal of the main studio rule would allow broadcasters to “realize efficiencies while maintaining local service obligations.” They call the rule “anachronistic” and say it remains a source of substantial cost for licensees. “Technology and consolidation have progressed to the point where a broadcaster can deliver responsive local programming without the economic drain of maintaining a main studio within an arbitrary geographic area,” they wrote. Competitive marketplace forces, they said, will ensure that stations continue to be “accessible and responsive to their audiences.”

Also, consumers now prefer to communicate with stations by phone, mail and online. “The modern reality of, and overwhelming preference for, remote communication will allow stations to continue to be responsive to local interests and concerns — and to do so without the added regulatory cost of maintaining a main studio.”

In short, they believe the rule is “burdensome and inefficient” and no longer serves a valid public interest objective. They say the FCC has eliminated most, if not all, of the other primary justifications for it, and that the license renewal process would continue to invite public input and comment regardless.

Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has been critical of the rule, hinting as long ago as last September about action on it.

The FCC itself raised the possibility in its 2015 AM revitalization notice, part of which asked general questions about the ongoing purpose of the main studio rules.

In a recent interview with Radio World, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai didn’t commit to taking on the main studio rule but said “We want to make sure that our rules reflect the needs and the structure of the current marketplace. We’ll take a look at that issue with particular care.”