A strange thing happens when you turn on the news in Hawaii. Tune into the 10pm local newscast on KGMB, the Aloha State’s CBS affiliate, then switch to its supposed NBC competitor, KHNL. Then go back and forth again. You will see the same stories, the same footage, the same broadcasts from beginning to end. Every weekday, for three hours, the two stations simulcast the news. A third station, KFVE, is also not much of a rival, airing 11 hours of news each week that is produced by the same Honolulu newsroom as KHNL and KGMB. Three of the five stations that deliver daily TV news in Hawaii have been joined into a single news operation.
The three-way partnership represents one of the more striking examples of a rapidly growing phenomenon in local TV news: joint-services agreements. These deals allow different stations in the same market to pool resources. Nationwide, at least 126 joint-services agreements are in effect, covering 99 of the 210 television markets in the country, according to a University of Delaware study. The number has climbed rapidly; a similar study in 2011, just two years earlier, found only 83 markets affected.
What is the problem? In some cases, there is none. The deals vary widely from agreement to agreement, and often include only marketing or sales teams, which seems harmless enough. But many include sharing news operations. A subcategory of joint-services agreements—currently 55 of the known 126—are called shared-services agreements, and they always involve the sharing of newsgathering resources. The resources shared can vary from news scripts and story packages, to reporters and the merger of entire newsrooms—so that communities end up with fewer local voices, less information overall, and only the illusion of choice. News outlets, meanwhile, can end up with more power than the spirit of Federal Communications Commission rules on media consolidation would seem to warrant.
For decades, the tendency in the television industry has been toward consolidation—fewer and fewer owners with more and more power over what we get as news. Congress and the FCC have long tried to temper this trend by regulating ownership and market limits. In calculating the limits, though, the FCC has chosen not to include most joint-services agreements: Only marketing and sales agreements covering more than 15 percent of a station’s advertising time are attributed toward the limits, while the crucial news-oriented deals, shared-services agreements, are exempted entirely. Critics see this as a big loophole: While the FCC limits consolidation, it turns a blind eye to a trend that has very similar effects.
In Hawaii, back in 2009, an advocacy group calling itself Media Council Hawaii argued to the FCC that the consolidation of operations between the three Honolulu news operations, in effect, violated rules limiting a single company’s holdings in a single market. FCC rules prohibit one company from owning more than one station in the same market, with a small number of exceptions, such as if the two stations’ service areas do not overlap (none of these exceptions applied in Hawaii). The FCC examined the case, and staff members report having serious misgivings about the deal.
But ultimately, the commission decided that it could not reject a shared-services agreement for violating ownership limits because no broadcast license had changed hands. Its 2011 ruling on the matter stated that “further action on our part is warranted with respect to this and analogous cases” to determine if such deals are “consistent with the public interest.” But it has not followed up with any such action.
“One of the questions that I’ve always had is, where is the FCC in all of this?” says Bob Papper, the chair of the journalism department at Hofstra University and an expert on local television news. Papper said he supports joint-services agreements in some cases, but that others, such as the Hawaii deal, appear to plainly violate the intent of ownership limits. “If the regulator isn’t regulating, then I’m not sure where we are,” he said.
Dumbing down the dialogue?