Ion/Urban gets a plug


FCC Media Bureau Chief Monica Desai said a few things that may give broadcasters pause heading into regulatory year 2009, but it must have warmed the hearts of execs at Ion Media and Urban Television when she discussed that transaction’s potential for increasing broadcast ownership diversity.

Ion proposed to share licenses with Urban on its 42 broadcast stations, and the two would operate side-by-side 24/7 split digital program streams. The deal hinges on FCC enforcement of must-carry rights for both co-licensees. Desai mentioned the deal in tones suggesting it was the best idea the Media Bureau has heard since the discovery of frequency modulation, which is great news for Ion and Urban backer Robert Johnson and his RLJ Companies, and just the opposite for the MVPD operators who want to avoid the must-carry precedents it will set if approved.

Desai said the Media Bureau would be continuing to focus on the localism proceeding. Broadcasters find many aspects of that to be onerous, in particular requirements to maintain studios in every city of license and requirements for a staff presence at all times that a station is in operation. The proposals also call for preparing and submitting programming reports so the FCC can gauge the extent of locally-originated programming and the formation of citizen advisory panels.

Desai said the MB would be continuing efforts to promote children’s interests, including making sure the proper amount of children’s educational programming is broadcast on television, including new requirements for digital split stream operations, and continued work with broadcasters, advertisers and food companies to combat childhood obesity.

The cable industry was singled out for special mention. Desai said subscription rates have soared well beyond the pace of inflation, while compensation for companies all other areas of FCC responsibility have decreased. It figures to remain a target for the Bureau in the upcoming year.

In other business, the sitting commissioners approved an analog night light package at the request of Congress on circulation. It will allow as many television stations as possible to keep their analog signals up and running after the DTV deadline with instructions for those citizens left behind.

RBR/TVBR observation: We are in complete agreement with the FCC that broadcasters must focus on localism now more than ever. However, we don’t think the proposals in front of the Commission will do one single thing to make that possible. In fact, they will hinder the efforts of broadcasters who do legitimately wish to super-serve their local market, if only by diverting their attention to meaningless paperwork exercises at best; and at worst, inflicting major economic damage on their operations in the form of needless construction and payroll expenses.

Broadcasters have every reason to make it clear that localism is the strength of the business, and to head off useless new rules and regulations. Our fear is that cost-cutting fever at some of radio’s biggest HQs will both damage broadcasting’s operational model AND bring on a deafening chorus of watchdogs demanding FCC action. And that will indeed be a dismal confluence of events.