As one of only two African-American TV station licensees in the country, I recently wrote the Federal Communications Commission voicing strong support for the advancement of minority ownership and diversity. I saw the pending Tribune-Sinclair merger as presenting a historic opportunity for the FCC and Justice Department to advance minority ownership within the context of the divestiture requirements the government would require for regulatory approval.
The government generally and the FCC specifically has acknowledged the need to enhance minority ownership for 40 years. Congress also has recognized the poor state of minority ownership. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 contains language aimed at increasing female and minority ownership of broadcast licenses (and other important communications media) and requires the FCC to limit and remove “market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses,” and to do so by “favoring diversity of media voices.” As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the necessity for that diversity to be reflected in business becomes even more important. Congress and the public both have an obligation to help the Department of Justice understand the importance of minority ownership in broadcast television in a diversifying landscape. Diversity of thought, culture and ideas must be equally represented, and giving more minorities access and opportunity to ownership will foster the right environment to do just that.
So, imagine my deep concern when I heard the Justice Department was wavering in their decision to allow station divestitures to my African-American owned companies when the transaction included joint sales agreements, shared service agreements and loan guarantee agreements. Such arrangements were routine before the FCC until it hastily implemented television Joint Sale Agreement attribution rules in 2014, under the previous administration’s chairman, Tom Wheeler. However, those rules were reversed and eliminated Nov. 20, 2017, so the Department of Justice should implement the necessary steps to further diversity
For example, broadcast ownership has permitted Howard Stirk Holdings to create an incubator for African-American students studying journalism by providing scholarships for their tuition, while giving them experience in the field outside of the classroom. If we were not broadcast owners, I’m not certain that any of that would have been possible.
It also gives us the opportunity to cover the stories that others aren’t covering. We tell the stories of everyday people who are often overlooked. We must continue doing this work with our live town halls across our regional affiliates, where we discuss family, community and other critical cultural issues. Our townhalls provide a unique platform for the long form discussion of key issues to the Black and larger communities of our nation. We have covered in-depth the water crisis in Flint, the Charleston church terrorist attack, the Las Vegas terrorist attack, the Manchester terrorist attack and the moral challenges facing America, among the many we produce yearly. We need more of these forums, not less. This coverage is critically important to African-American communities, especially as media voices that they so identify with are rapidly diminishing.
In 2013, when we were able to acquire the first two stations, in Saginaw (Flint), Mich., and Florence (Myrtle Beach), S.C., we used JSAs, SSAs and loan guarantees by Sinclair. If I had not had the opportunity to enter into those arrangements, as an African-American, I would not have been able to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a TV station owner. The arrangements allowed me to obtain access to capital that would have otherwise been unavailable to me, and access to capital and financing are the single biggest obstacles to new entrant and minority ownership. JSAs and SSAs provided the means over that obstacle, and accordingly advanced diversity, opened opportunity and generally served the larger public interest. There must be diversity in thought and opinion that encompasses how disparate our society is.
Moreover, these arrangements are not a token deal. Similar agreements have been common in the television industry, as the FCC recognized when it removed its JSA Attribution rule last month. I guess the difference is that typically all the players are white. Nevertheless, the Justice Department should not make it more difficult for minority broadcasters to participate as owners in the broadcast industry by denying them the same opportunities to utilize JSAs and SSAs as vehicles for ownership. In the interest of diversity and fairness, the Justice Department should apply the same rules and standards to all potential owners. That is, and always will be, the American way.
In its November 2017 order, the FCC concluded that television JSAs did not confer on the brokering station a sufficient degree of influence or control over the core operating functions of the brokered station to warrant attribution. Moreover, it noted that the record on television JSAs contained ample evidence of the public interest benefits they provide, and even if the FCC in 2013 had correctly determined that television JSAs involving more than 15 percent of the brokered station’s weekly advertising time confer sufficient influence to warrant attribution, it nevertheless concluded that the potential benefits of television JSAs outweighed the public interest in attributing such JSAs. Bottom line, JSAs and SSAs work and help the broadcast industry provide a wider variety of content and service to the public. They also aid minority ownership. Too bad the Justice Department is blind to this fact and unwilling to allow minorities to benefit from station divestitures as part of the Tribune-Sinclair merger.
Mr. Williams is manager/sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. Watch our Right Side Forum every Saturday Live on Newschannel 8 TV 28 in D.C., 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and repeated at 6:30 p.m., EST.
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