The Department of Justice has recently thrown its support behind an FCC plan to impose new restrictions on Shared Services Agreements (SSA), also called Joint Services Agreements (JSA), between multiple stations in a given broadcast market. Such agreements have become increasingly common, where budgets have tightened and resources have dwindled.
Under these arrangements, stations agree to share resources, like helicopters or news crews. Each of these SSA’s appears to play out differently. In one hypothetical, a single station might cover an important press conference and then share the tape with the other news organizations. Other agreements, like those referenced in a great New York Times piece on SSA‘s by Brian Stelter from 2012 suggest that competing news organizations might even split up and jointly cover events throughout the course of a given news day.
From the New York Times:
SAN ANGELO, Tex. — Call a reporter at the CBS television station here, and it might be an anchor for the NBC station who calls back. Or it might be the news director who runs both stations’ news operations.
The stations here compete for viewers, but they cooperate in gathering the news — maintaining technically separate ownership, but sharing office space, news video and even the scripts written for their nightly news anchors. That is why viewers see the same segments on car accidents, the same interviews with local politicians, the same high school sports highlights.
The Times piece cites a University of Delaware study finding such agreements extant in 83 television markets. The opposition to these agreements comes from those who feel that such agreements undermine the competition that should exist in a news market where stations aggressively compete to do a better job of unearthing important public news.
Public interest groups have criticized the cutbacks at local newsrooms because they reduce the number of editorial voices in a given market. They assert that because TV stations hold licenses to the public airwaves, they have a responsibility to serve local communities. “The same cookie-cutter content above a different graphic doesn’t cut it,” said Craig Aaron, the head of Free Press, a nonprofit media reform group that has gathered case studies of sharing by stations.
Notwithstanding that concern, the FCC is apparently worried that these SSA’s may be subverting the federal rules on station ownership, which currently prohibit ownership of two stations unless the market has at least eight stations held by different owners.
The U.S. Justice Department has recently expressed its support for a new FCC proposal that would require that “any station owner that sells 15% or more of the advertising time in another owner’s station through a JSA would have to count that station toward its tally of properties in that market.” Evidently the proposal would also require existing non-compliant SSA’s and JSA’s to be terminated after two years. According to thestreet.com, public comment will be solicited.