A Hot Summer For Stations In Washington

by , Jun 25, 2012, 5:20 PM
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The swirl of activity in Washington this summer with potentially massive effects on the local station business has been remarkable. So far, the stations are batting .500 with a key at-bat coming.

The blitz has been wide-ranging, touching on the stations’ two major revenue sources (advertising) and (carriage payments) and involving all three branches of government.

The Supreme Court signaled its intention to continue allowing corporations (and others) to spend liberally in political races on Monday, affirming its Citizens United case in a ruling going against the Montana Supreme Court. Montana isn’t likely to generate much in political ad dollars from Obama or Romney this fall, but corporations can now invest heavily in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race, where Democrat Jon Tester is seeking a second term there.

Having been decided in 2010, the impact of Citizens United is still being sorted out. Still, some, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, believe there is enough evidence of pollution to overturn or limit it now.

Writing for the minority – the Montana case was decided by a 5-4 vote in favor of upholding Citizens United – Justice Breyer said that “considerable experience” since the landmark decision “casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”

Now, that he’s offered his vitriol, the campaign spending by all kinds of entities can continue.

(The tide in favor of unleashing more political spending also has gained momentum with a ruling in a California federal appeals court that could allow public TV and radio stations to accept political ads, the AP reported. This, too, could wind up in the Supreme Court, where there’s no reason to believe there will be anything but a green light.)

Stations were less successful in Congress as they have sought to block an FCC edict forcing them to place detailed information – including particular spot prices -- about political ad spending online. Last week, Bloomberg reported the House Appropriations Committee halted moves to reverse the FCC ruling as it put together the agency’s budget.

The committee tossed the ball to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review how the rule might affect stations. Stations hope the GAO comes back with a report about how the financial impact of electronifying records will be crushing to them.

For now, stations could try to lobby committee members in the Republican majority to restart opposition. Of course, if Democrats win control in November, any negative take from the GAO isn’t likely to get in the way of the rule’s implementation.

The problem for stations is Democrats and Republicans -- no matter their opinion -- view the issue as one about transparency in political spending. For stations, the future of the republic isn't much in the main here, it's that advertisers can find out what stations have sold ad time for and then use that for negotiating strategy.

Finally, the National Association of Broadcasters and other pro-station lobbyists might need to find some corporations to toss big money to Sen. Jim DeMint -- fast. The South Carolina Republican has introduced legislation that would eliminate the emerging revenue stream stations are collecting from cable, satellite and telco TV operators known as retransmission consent fees.

Broadcasting & Cable reports DeMint is moving to hold a hearing on the issue in late July. That could have DeMint and many other senators, representing states where stations have gone dark because of carriage disputes, ripping into station executives and asking some touchy questions.

DeMint's bill isn’t likely to pass in this Congress, but B&C notes DeMint could ascend to the chairmanship of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with a GOP majority come January.

Any action limiting retrans dollars has the potential to hurt stations more than Citizens United could continue to help them.

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