McDowell: FCC Must Resist Limiting JSAs

Commissioner Says He Is Among Those Dissatisfied with Agency's Diversity Efforts during MMTC Speech

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell Wednesday took aim at a proposal to extend the FCC's attribution rules to some TV joint sales agreements, saying they increase diversity; called on the commission to conclude diversity studies that have yet to see the light of day, and suggested the newspaper-TV crossownership restrictions limit diversity in the name of preserving it.

That is according to a copy of a speech to the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council conference in Washington in which he counts himself among those unsatisfied with the FCC's diversity efforts of late.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski's proposed media ownership rule changes include loosening, but not scrapping the newspaper-TV crossownership rules, and a proposal to make some JSAs count toward local market ownership caps, as they do for radio.

McDowell said the FCC "must resist calls for limiting, and therefore discouraging, the use of joint sales, shared service, and local news service agreements." He said he has been told by "many broadcasters" that shared arrangements have both directly and indirectly helped women and minority-owned stations to "enter markets and improve programming."

McDowell called on the FCC to complete court-ordered diversity studies -- a Groundhog Day-like moment since it echoed a call he has made repeatedly at the MMTC venue. That will allow the FCC to proceed with the six -- of 13 -- diversity initiatives McDowell helped adopt in 2007 but were remanded back to the commission for better justification.

"[A]s a matter of good government, the Commission must initiate and conclude the diversity studies, which are required by law," he said. "I sense that the Third Circuit would greatly appreciate us doing that!" He emphasized that the FCC's actions must satisfy the strict scrutiny test for race- or gender-based initiatives," but that it was time to get that done. "Simply put, the Commission cannot delay these actions any longer," he said.

And in the meantime, he said, the FCC should pursue some race-neutral diversity efforts including launching incubator programs and better connecting women and minorities with financing via workshops and mentoring.

But unlike some diversity advocates, McDowell does not feel that the FCC must delay loosening ownership rules. "A growing body of evidence indicates that this obsolete rule is actually producing the opposite result of its intended effect by exacerbating the demise of diverse voices that provide local news and information," he said. "It makes no sense to me that, in cities such as Chicago where several daily newspapers serving local ethnic communities proliferate, the ban prevents minorities and women from distributing content across all platforms -- all in the name of diversity." He called it a defenseless policy out of touch with the marketplace.

The FCC has yet to vote on the media ownership rule changes. It is not under a lot of pressure to do so from broadcasters since simply loosening the cross-ownership rules is pretty much a half a loaf at best, served up with the castor oil of JSA limits. And on the other side, the FCC is getting a lot of pushback from minority groups arguing it should not vote the item -- and loosen the regs any -- without collecting better info on diversity.