Media Giants Are Devouring Local TV

Most Americans get their news from local TV — but thanks to a new wave of media mergers, there is less and less news to find.

A new report from Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner reveals how broadcasters’ sneaky tactics — and the Federal Communications Commission’s neglect — have led to a wave of mergers that affect most of the nation.

“TV consolidation is out of control, and communities are paying the price,” said Turner. “Companies are swallowing up stations at an alarming rate, often through deals that violate the law.”

Sinclair Broadcast Group, Gannett, Media General, Nexstar and the Tribune Company are setting up shell companies to dodge federal limits on how much media one company can control. The FCC has turned a blind eye as communities have suffered the impact of these shady deals. In many markets, one company controls up to four TV stations — and even the local paper.

The result is a gutting of local news. Companies are shuttering entire newsrooms, laying off journalists and broadcasting the exact same stories on multiple channels. This means fewer journalists covering local government, and fewer diverse perspectives on the issues that matter to people.

Recent data show that 71 percent of Americans watch local TV news. So even if you aren’t watching your local newscast, this programming still has a huge influence on the political agenda of your community. That’s why politicians and their supporters spent nearly $3 billion to flood local TV stations with political ads in the 2012 election.

Instead of investing those record profits into their news operations, companies like Sinclair are going on a buying spree, gobbling up their competition and expanding their influence. Indeed, this surge of consolidation is taking place in small and medium-sized markets where the companies will have an even larger footprint. In the first eight months of 2013, 211 full-power TV stations changed hands, the highest level in more than a decade.

Sinclair is a prime example of what’s at stake. The company has long used its local stations to push its own political agenda. It forced its stations to air the anti-John Kerry documentary Stolen Honor two weeks before Election Day in 2004 and made news anchors read a pro-Romney script on the eve of the 2012 election.

During the next election, Sinclair will wield even more influence. In the past two years alone, the company has closed or announced deals that will nearly double the number of stations it owns, allowing it to reach nearly 39 percent of the U.S. population.

The Free Press report comes as Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s nominee to chair the FCC, is on the verge of entering office. Turner offers recommendations for Wheeler to take to restore trust in his agency.

“If Tom Wheeler wants to be an honest regulator, he should end the dishonest practice of covert consolidation,” Turner said. “By closing these loopholes, Mr. Wheeler and the FCC can give truly independent owners a chance to compete fairly to better serve their communities.”

Read the report.

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And read the Wall Street Journal’s big story on our report.

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