National Association of Broadcasters Warns Congress Tech Giants Could Kill Local Journalism

CEO Gordon H. Smith
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A handful of tech giants who are making billions in ad revenue are poised to kill local television and radio journalism, according to a statement submitted to a congressional antitrust subcommittee Wednesday by the National Association of Broadcasters.

NAB President and CEO Gordon H. Smith wrote a dire warning to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on behalf of the 7,500 local television and radio stations that belong to the organization, saying, "Local journalism is now at risk due to the overwhelming competitive position of a handful of technology companies in today’s digital marketplace." He says, if left unchecked, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple will continue to syphon ad revenues and strain local broadcasters' online connections with members of the public during a time when free access to information is vital.

This comes as scrutiny over the tech giants' influence and power has hit a fever pitch. As part of an ongoing examination of online platforms and market power, the companies' CEOs were grilled by the committee earlier this summer about everything from alleged censorship of conservative viewpoints online to data collection practices to why HBO Max isn't available on Amazon Fire.

The hearing regarding the effects on a free and diverse press was held back in June 2019.

"Not only do stations struggle to attract advertisers, both on-air and online, while competing against digital giants that dwarf them in scale and scope, but those platforms’ control of the technologies that power digital advertising further impede broadcasters from recovering the considerable costs of producing local content in the first place," writes Smith in the NAB letter, which is posted in full below. "The coronavirus pandemic and recession, moreover, have only exacerbated the structural economic problems facing ad-supported media outlets that consumers and communities rely on for local news and important coverage of emergency events."

Google, he notes, is projected to make $8 billion more in ad revenue in 2020 than all of the TV and radio stations in the country combined. Facebook isn't far behind and Amazon is quickly becoming a third powerhouse in what Smith says had been a digital advertising duopoly. The NAB's concerns aren't all about money, though.

"Beyond diverting advertisers — and crucial revenue — away from local broadcast stations throughout the country, the digital platforms also control the technologies that power both content discovery (search) and digital advertising. Whether consumers use search engines, social networks, voice or video platforms, or even broadcasters’ own apps to access news and other content, decisions made unilaterally by a few dominant digital technology giants impede local broadcasters’ ability to connect with their audiences online," writes Smith. "It is no answer to tell broadcasters that, if they feel disadvantaged by the policies and revenue opportunities offered by the dominant platforms, they can decline to publish their content on Google, YouTube or Facebook and forego availability via various apps or devices. Because hundreds of millions of U.S. consumers use Facebook, Google and YouTube, and own smartphones, tablets and smart speakers produced by companies like Apple and Amazon, local stations have no real choice."

In order to stay relevant to both advertisers and audiences, Smith argues, broadcasters have to no choice but be present on every major platform and device — which leaves them with no bargaining power. Smith claims the tech giants placed restrictions on the kinds of content that can be monetized that exclude local news and they have no real reason to negotiate their revenue splits. He also takes issue with the algorithms used by the digital giants to determine what content users see online.

"While the platforms constantly adjust and tweak them, those algorithms have consistently favored national sources over local sources; frequently favored controversial and polarizing content and opinion sources over high-quality journalism; and can often make it difficult for smaller, local publishers to reach audiences at all," he writes, also expressing concern about the uphill battles local outlets face in being discovered in app stores, on OTT video platforms and through smart speakers like Amazon's Alexa.

He notes the NAB has raised these issues with the FCC and DOJ, and praised a bill introduced in April 2019 by subcommittee chair David Cicilline (D-RI) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would allow news outlets to collectively negotiate the terms of online content distribution with the digital platforms. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate in June 2019 by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Writes Smith, "The value of broadcasting and local journalism in an increasingly digital world has never been more obvious; so too, the threat that the digital platforms’ power poses to news publishing and the continued viability of local media outlets has never been greater."