There's two sides to every story . . .
From much of the trade press coverage of the ION/Urban “share-time” proposal, it would appear to be an odds-on mortal lock for approval. Considerable attention has been devoted to the generally supportive consolidated comments and reply comments of 13 “civil rights organizations”, a group which included the NAACP, Rainbow PUSH, NABOB, Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, National Urban League and others. Additionally, Common Cause and Media Access Project joined in some equally supportive comments, and most recently Media Bureau Chief Monica Desai waxed eloquent about the proposal at an open Commission meeting. (According to Radio Business Reports, Desai spoke of “the deal in tones suggesting it was the best idea the Media Bureau has heard since the discovery of frequency modulation.”)
With all those stars aligning just so, it’s hard to see where the downside to the proposal may be.
FHH’s client, the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA), filed comments noting that this “share-time” approach is not the ticket to achieving greater minority and small-business access to media; rather, the ION/Urban approach would merely establish Urban as a new “gatekeeper” with whom minority programmers would have to deal to gain access. (And let’s not forget that 49% of Urban would be owned by ION.) While not a “minority” organization, the CBA does represent grass-roots efforts of local, low-power television broadcasters across the country, a large percentage of which count minorities among their owners.
Interestingly, the ION/Urban proposal was opposed by a number of entities with a decidedly “minority” bent. The Africa Channel, Gospel Music Channel, and SiTV (a Latino cable network) filed a joint petition arguing that the ION/Urban deal is a gimmick to get around must-carry restrictions. If it succeeds, they observed, it will be the smaller minority programmers who will suffer, as cable capacity will be used up by subdivided full power stations and become unavailable to smaller minority programmers. They said that the proposal for “amoeba-like” subdividing of a TV channel is nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the limits of the must-carry rules.
They also noted that: the Urban/Johnson programming proposal is vague (a point which even the supporting parties were forced to acknowledge), while existing minority programmers have existing schedules that are real; and the traditional FCC “share-time” concept involves two separate stations subdividing the hours of the day, not one station subdividing its spectrum.
Meanwhile, Entravision – the prominent Spanish-language media company – chimed in with comments asserting that the proposal is an attempt to circumvent must-carry rules and give big business another foot in the door to cable carriage. Entravision pointed out that today’s must-carry system, as a practical matter, is for the benefit of only small stations because almost all large stations choose retransmission consent. (Entravision appears to fear that if NCTA brings another challenge to the entire must-carry scheme based on the ION/Urban proposal, NCTA may win, and small independent full power stations will be the losers. For that matter, so will Class A and LPTV stations with must-carry, although Entravision doesn’t mention them specifically.)
NCTA also opposed the proposal, but that was to be expected.
So the much-touted minority support for the proposal is less than universal. It will be interesting to see how the deal – which reportedly has been heavily promoted by outgoing Chairman Kevin Martin – fares in the early days of the Obama administration.