Obscure change in federal regulations may have big impact on local TV news in Iowa, and make the news more pro-Trump

Photo via Ryan Merritt via Flickr.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communication Commission voted to eliminate a 77-year-old rule intended to ensure TV and radio stations serve the needs of their local communities. The vote on the so-called “Main Studio Rule” followed party lines, with all three Republican commissioners voting in favor of killing it, and both Democrats voting to preserve it.

The rule required every broadcast station keep its main studio in or near the community where its antennae are located. According to an official FCC explanation, this requirement “facilitate[d] interaction between a station and its community. Such involvement with the community helps to ensure that each broadcast station fulfills the basic FCC requirement that it air programming that responds to the needs and interests of the community.”

Both Sinclair Broadcasting, the country’s largest owner of local TV stations, and Ajit Pai, the former telecommunication industry attorney appointed FCC chairman by President Trump, had been pushing the commission to eliminate the rule. Sinclair currently owns or operates 173 stations, including KGAN (CBS 2) and KXFA (Fox 28) in Cedar Rapids. Sinclair has said that eliminating the requirement to maintain local production facilities will save the company a substantial amount of money.

Eliminating the Main Studio Rule is only the latest example of the current FCC altering regulations in a way that benefits Sinclair. Pai has been consistent in advocating the rollback of regulations in a way that benefits the corporations the FCC has jurisdiction over, but it’s also worth noting that what’s good for Sinclair is good for Trump.

Sinclair is owned by a politically conservative family that strongly supports Trump, and unlike other media companies Sinclair requires its stations to broadcast political content generated by its corporate headquarters as part of their news shows. That content has always been of an extremely conservative bent, but since January, it has also echoed Trump White House talking points.

The most recent addition to the “must runs” Sinclair imposes on local stations is a commentary segment by Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign spokesperson who also worked for Trump’s inaugural committee and in the press office of the Trump White House. Stations, including the two in Cedar Rapids, are required to carry Epshteyn’s pro-Trump commentaries nine times a week.

With the Main Studio Rule eliminated, most industry observers expect Sinclair to further reduce locally-produced news content, by centralizing news production. As The Street reports, Sinclair has already eliminated newsrooms wherever it could, requiring stations located near each other to merge news divisions and lay off staff. CBS 2 and Fox 28 share a newsroom.

In Iowa, Sinclair owns stations in Sioux City and Ottumwa, in addition to its stations in Cedar Rapids. The company can now consolidate the news operations for those stations, or just produce all the content for all of its stations at one central location.

Sinclair is currently attempting to buy to the 42 local TV stations owned by Tribune Media, which includes stations in Des Moines and Davenport. The combined Sinclair and Tribune stations would reach approximately 72 percent of American households.

Sinclair’s purchase of the Tribune stations will require FCC approval.

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