GAO: FCC flying blind on broadcasters' sharing deals

The Federal Communications Commission is largely flying blind when it comes to its oversight of broadcast companies that share resources, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The office, which acts as Congress’s investigative arm, claimed that the FCC has no way to measure whether or not its regulations and actions on the agreements line up with larger policy goals.

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“FCC would benefit from improved data on and analysis of the extent to which broadcaster agreements affect its media ownership rules and its media policy goals of competition, localism, and diversity,” the GAO said in a report released on Monday.

“However, FCC has not completed a study of and lacks basic data on broadcaster agreements,” it added. “This lack of analysis and information could undermine FCC’s efforts to ensure its media ownership regulations achieve their intended goals.”

Companies say the agreements, which broadcasters use to share news clips, team up for negotiations with cable and satellite companies and share resources for ad deals, are necessary to keep broadcasters afloat, especially in small and rural areas.

Cable and satellite providers, however, claim that the deals can drive up costs, which leads to increases in subscribers’ monthly bills. Additionally, some consumer advocates allege that the agreements cause many local newscasts to be essentially copies of each other and skirt the commission's rules aimed at preventing one company from dominating local media markets.

The FCC largely does not track the agreements, except in some merger cases, which makes it hard to tell whether or not the deals are good for the public, the GAO said.

“Without data and a fact-based analysis of how agreements are used, FCC cannot ensure that its current and future policies on broadcaster agreements serve the public interest,” the office concluded. 

Earlier this year, the commission caused a stir with a new order targeting advertising deals that broadcasters use to cut down their expenses. The FCC’s order limited stations from selling 15 percent or more of another’s advertising time, which companies have said is critical to keeping small and rural stations afloat.

Critics in Congress have berated the FCC for acting on the new rules before finalizing a long-delayed 2010 analysis of its ownership rules. 

Since the vote, a handful of stations have gone dark, which critics pin on the FCC’s action.