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Originally published March 3, 2014 at 4:30 PM | Page modified March 3, 2014 at 4:46 PM

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Editorial: Better oversight of TV station consolidation needed from the FCC

A Department of Justice filing reinforces the concerns of advocates that the FCC must do a better job of protecting the public’s airwaves and stop further media consolidation.

Seattle Times Editorial

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FINALLY, the Federal Communications Commission is poised to crack down on television-station owners who use shady business tactics to sidestep federal rules. Lax oversight has allowed a handful of media giants to grab control of hundreds of television stations nationwide.

Chairman Tom Wheeler plans to ask the commission this month to tighten restrictions on Joint Sales Agreements (JSA), The Wall Street Journal and industry news organizations have reported. This is a good move. JSAs allow one station to sell advertising for another station for a cut of the profits. This kills competition.

He must go even further.

In a Feb. 20 filing with the FCC, the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division warns that JSAs and other forms of shared service agreements broadcasters use to operate more than one station in some cities should be considered “common ownership." They are a violation of FCC rules that limit broadcasters to one full-power television station per market.

Federal attorneys advised the FCC to better scrutinize every deal that comes before its five-member panel. The regulators should force companies to report when they operate multiple stations jointly in the same market, as they already do for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Failure to account for the effects of such arrangements can create opportunities to circumvent FCC ownership limits and the goals those limits are intended to advance,” Justice Department officials wrote.

Concentrated ownership saves money for some, but it’s bad for democracy.

The watchdog group Free Press reports just four companies — Gannett, Tribune, Nexstar Broadcasting and Sinclair Broadcast Group — are on track to own more than 340 stations nationwide.

Within the last year in Seattle, Sinclair purchased KOMO 4 and laid off employees. Gannett bought KING shortly after. These formerly local institutions are becoming small cogs in ever-growing media machines.

As elections near, expect many channels to be inundated with political attack ads. Stations might profit, but viewers will lose.

Consolidation shrinks newsrooms and deprives viewers of in-depth journalism that speaks truth to power. The FCC has failed miserably to protect the integrity of the public’s airwaves through promoting competition, local ownership and diverse viewpoints.

Chairman Wheeler must stop this downward spiral.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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