Rep. Richard Neal has cast some key votes in the area of media and telecommunications policy that have proved extremely detrimental to his constituents.
In 1996, Rep. Neal voted to enact the Telecommunications Act of 1996 a bill that was the first significant overhaul of telecommunications law in more than sixty years, amending the Communications Act of 1934. The bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, represented a major change in American telecommunication law, since it was the first time that the Internet was included in broadcasting and spectrum allotment. One of the most controversial titles was Title 3 (“Cable Services”), which allowed for media cross-ownership. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the goal of the law was to “let anyone enter any communications business — to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” The legislation’s primary goal was deregulation of the converging broadcasting and telecommunications markets. However, the law’s regulatory policies have been questioned, including the effects of dualistic re-regulation of the communications market.
The Telecom Act was touted by its backers as legislation that would lower prices for consumers, increase competition in the marketplace and create thousands of new jobs. But according to a 2005 report by Common Cause, just the opposite has occurred. To quote from the report’s executive summary “Instead, the public got more media concentration, less diversity, and higher prices. Over 10 years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But cable rates have surged by about 50 percent, and local phone rates went up more than 20 percent. Industries supporting the new legislation predicted it would add 1.5 million jobs and boost the economy by $2 trillion. By 2003, however, telecommunications’ companies’ market value had fallen by about $2 trillion, and they had shed half a million jobs.”
For residents of Berkshire County, who have suffered at the hands of cable television provider Charter Spectrum in their ability to access Massachusetts television stations, the 1996 law restricted local cable franchising authorities from making certain demands of cable companies. Having helped created the current media landscape where his constituents are disenfranchised, Rep. Neal sent a tweet from his Twitter account on April 30, 2018 which read “Last week @SenMarkey & I met with @FCC to continue to discuss the lack of local news & programming in some areas of WMass. Residents have been cut off from news pertinent to where they live. It is unacceptable. Along with @SenWarren, we are committed to fighting for a speedy change.” Sadly, those words ring hollow for Berkshire County viewers stuck in the Albany, NY media market.
Then in 2003, when the House debated the Fiscal 2004 Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations bill, which also funds the FCC, Rep. Neal voted against and helped kill an amendment on media ownership that sought to prohibit the use of funds to grant a radio or television broadcast station license if the owner also operates or controls a daily newspaper in the same region. It would also block the use of funds, in most cases, to grant a license that would result in a party controlling two television stations in the same market. Rep. Neal’s vote against the Hinchey amendment was a blow against ever-increasing media consolidation where large corporations are owning more and more of our news media while cutting reporters and journalists as they focus only on bottom line profits.
Rep. Neal’s opposition to the Hinchey amendment has helped lead to the current situation in the Springfield broadcast television market. On June 18, 2014, the Meredith Corporation (owner of WFSB in Hartford) announced that it would acquire WGGB creating a duopoly with low-powered CBS affiliate WSHM-LD. Although FCC broadcast ownership rules normally forbid same-market ownership of two of the four highest-rated television stations (based on monthly total-day ratings), which often constitute stations affiliated with the four major broadcast networks (the Springfield market has only three full-power television stations, too few to allow a duopoly in any normal circumstance), the deal is permissible under FCC rules which allow common ownership of full-power and low-power television stations (the respective class designations of WGGB and WSHM) in all markets. The sale was completed on October 31, 2014.
On September 8, 2015, Media General announced that it would acquire Meredith for $2.4 billion, with the combined group to be renamed Meredith Media General once the sale was finalized. Because Media General already owns WWLP, and the Springfield-Holyoke market does not have enough full-power television stations to legally allow a duopoly in any event (WGGB and WWLP are the only full-power licenses assigned to the market), the companies would have been required to sell either WGGB or WWLP to comply with FCC ownership rules as well as recent changes to those rules regarding same-market television stations that restrict sharing agreements had the sale gone through. WSHM-LD was the only one of the three stations affected by the merger that could legally be acquired by Meredith Media General, as FCC rules permit common ownership of full-power and low-power stations regardless of the number of stations within a single market.However, on January 27, 2016, Nexstar Broadcasting Group announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Media General, resulting in the termination of Meredith’s acquisition by Media General.
In 2006, Rep. Neal voted for the Advanced Telecommunications and Opportunities Reform Act which enabled the Federal Communications Commission to supersede local authority in the award of franchises for delivering video, broadband, voice and other Internet services to the public. Approximately 30,000 local agencies now make these decisions. This bill made it easier for the nation’s largest telephone companies to begin competing against existing cable and satellite franchise holders. While supporters said more competition would result in lower monthly bills and better service, opponents said the bill would strip away consumer protections as well as local requirements of equal service to all neighborhoods. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton R-TX, who was then chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, would have allowed video operators to obtain a single national franchise from the FCC instead of negotiating with each municipality in the areas they wanted to serve. Rep.Neal was one of only two members of the Massachusetts delegation to vote yes because many Democrats and public interest groups complained that Barton’s legislation would give phone and cable companies too much power over the Internet and would bring benefits of competition primarily to lucrative urban and suburban markets, leaving much of rural America and lower-income neighborhoods behind.
Siding with the legislative agenda of the nation’s largest telecom entities has paid off for Rep. Neal in the form of lavish campaign contributions to his campaign committee. Since 1998, Rep. Neal has taken $163,000 in donations from six major telecom giants and one of their trade associations (see graphic below).