Scrapping the Main Studio Rule: change on the air?

It’s just coming up to 8am in Rochester, New York, and I’m glad I don’t have to get anywhere by car.

The traffic presenter on Warm 101.3’s Wake Up with Tony morning show is running through a list of all the roads with accidents or slow traffic – which, by the sounds of it, is pretty much all the roads.

Thankfully, as I’m listening online, this doesn’t really affect me. But it affects the people of Rochester, New York, so it’s good to know that Warm 101.3 is there to break the bad news to them.

Some believe that the days of this kind of broadcasting in the US may be numbered, though.

On 24 October, the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to scrap something called the Main Studio Rule, which required broadcasters to have a studio in the area they’re broadcasting to.

Dennis Wharton, Executive Vice President of Communications at the National Association of Broadcasters says the Rule had “outlived its usefulness in an era of mobile news gathering and multiple content delivery platforms.”

But Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat FCC commissioner who voted against the change, thinks it’s bad news for local broadcasting. She Tweeted: “The FCC continues its march to dismantle the localism that has long been an essential part of how broadcasters serve their communities. I dissent.”

It sounds on paper like a total local game-changer. Local TV and radio stations will disappear, replaced by massive new national networks piped directly to the transmitters from New York or LA.

The thing is, I’m not so sure it’s going to be that big a deal.

Scrapping the Main Studio Rule certainly lowers the barrier to entry for anyone looking to turn local stations into national ones. But that barrier was already a lot lower than in parts of the world where it’s already happened.

The Main Studio Rule didn’t actually force anyone to present any of their output from the building. So, in that respect, the rules were already more relaxed than in the UK – where national commercial radio networks have emerged despite the requirement for a certain number of hours every day to be locally-produced.

KCBA TV, the Fox affiliate in Monterey, California, already takes its news from KTVU in San Francisco, 100 miles away. Media giant Sinclair has already been experimenting with producing and presenting the news for one of its stations in Ohio from a completely different state.

And national (or, to be slightly more accurate, multi-city) radio brands do already exist in the US despite the Main Studio Rule.

Cumulus Media’s Nash FM country music brand works in a similar way to the likes of Heart or Capital in the UK. There are more than 30 Nash FM stations across the US, sharing the same breakfast, evening and overnight shows.

Bloomberg has radio stations in four major US cities, all broadcasting the same business news programmes.

So, if the Main Studio Rule wasn’t the thing holding back the development of big national radio brands, it’s hard to see how its abolition will lead to their rampant proliferation.

The big thing that’s kept US radio local is the fact that, in the US, that’s what people seem to want radio to be.

KSCS in Dallas is owned by Cumulus and plays the same country music as its Nash FM stations – but it’s not part of the Nash FM brand.

Nash FM says ‘Nashville’, and Dallas has enough of a country music scene of its own not to look up to Music City in the way that many other parts of the States do. Cumulus knows that you don’t win over Texan country music fans by sounding like Nashville – you do it by sounding like Texas.

And even when a brand works everywhere, that doesn’t mean the output does. There are lots of ESPN-branded sports radio stations, but many have their own local hosts that play to the passions of local sports fans for local teams.

I strongly suspect the United States aren’t quite united enough to be ready to trade in their hometown radio stations for big national brands just yet.

That’s not to say US radio listeners don’t want to listen to anything that isn’t local. The long-established market for syndicated shows means stations can buy in as much national-quality output as they want, and mix in things like local travel and weather as required.

According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, the most popular place to listen to the radio in America is on the road. That explains the demand for local travel – and why you hear it on stations that don’t do news or any other local information.

As for local TV, it’s hard to see a great deal changing in the near future either. Local news is a big selling point for many stations, and the local credentials of reporters and presenters feature heavily in marketing.

Any station that wants to provide that kind of news is always going to need some kind of bricks-and-mortar presence in the area – so there’s not a huge amount in this for them.

Stations that don’t want to do local news can now pipe all their output in from out of state without any physical presence in their area. And stations that aren’t fussed about doing local news properly could use home-based journalists sending their stuff back to producers in another city.

But those kind of stations aren’t the norm. And, despite the abundance of news sources nowadays, many TV stations are actually expanding their local news offering. Ten years ago, the early-morning news on WNBC in New York started at 5am. Now they’re on air from 4.

The scrapping of the Main Studio Rule certainly has the potential to change things – and, with the National Broadcasting Association and the likes of Sinclair having lobbied for it, it’s safe to say that some media owners will be taking advantage of the move in some way.

But there are plenty of cultural and commercial reasons that are likely to keep US TV and radio looking and sounding local, at least for now.

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