Local Television: A Cheap Route Into the 1 Percent

This NYT report on “a torrent of deals” for the purchase of local TV stations by larger companies may not seem as though it deserves urgent attention from supporters of the Occupy movement, but please keep reading.

Who “owns” local TV stations? According to the Times piece, for example, in September, “the Sinclair Broadcast Group bought seven local stations from the Four Points Media Group for $200-million.” So it would seem that something called the Four Points Media Group owned those seven stations. And so, in some legal sense that is above my pay-grade to parse, they no doubt did.

But here’s the interesting wrinkle: Aside from whatever resale or scrap value their physical possessions might command, the stations would be useless were they not licensed to broadcast at particular frequencies. The licenses are issued by the owner of the airwaves, namely, the people of the United States of America, acting through the Federal Communications Commission, a branch of their government. Without the licenses, the stations would be piles of equipment and real estate.

And the cost of the licenses to the stations is:  Zero.


I hate to resort to one-sentence paragraphs, but this fact is so mind-blowingly big, and so little known, that I’m breaking one of my writerly rules.

Now, these free licenses, never revoked, enable the local stations to sell advertising and thus bring in revenue. Among all the advertising they bring in are political ads, revenue from which is a major source of their income and profit. Consider, for example, the midterm elections of 2010. As of one month before election day,

spending for federal candidates had already hit the $223-million mark, $90-million more than the $133-million spent by the same point in the 2006 midterms, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors political advertising. State candidates, meanwhile, have already poured almost $380-million into their television buys, $68-million more than they’d spent at this point in 2006. Those candidate numbers don’t include political ads bought for this campaign by special interest and issue advocacy groups.

What percentage of total campaign expenditures goes for advertising?  It’s hard to get up-to-date figures, but it’s been reported that, in the 1990s, depending on the election, the percentage was in the 20-to-40-percent range for TV and radio combined.

So, for the privilege of operating on government licenses that they receive gratis and never give up, these stations rake in hundreds of millions of dollars so that the public can do its democratic business. True enough, the level of (as we say in the academy) discourse that can be conveyed during 30-second spots is not the acme of enlightenment. But in the current straitened circumstances, it’s something. The cost of those commercials—to the profit of these freeloading stations—contributes substantially to the election costs that make for the overall corruption of politics. This is one hell of a deal for the stations.

Memo to Occupy and its supporters: This is why the public financing of elections, including the provision of free TV time for candidates, is an essential goal if the plutocracy is ever to be pushed back.


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