Portland TV Stations May Be Getting a Divorce
by Al Diamon
Agreement out of joint: According to a Federal Communications Commission rule, nobody can own more than one television station in the Portland market.
Excuse me for laughing. Because in reality, that regulation is a joke, adhered to only in the technical sense.
What large companies such as the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns, operates or otherwise controls 167 TV stations in 77 markets — including CBS affiliate WGME in Portland — do to circumvent the FCC rule is set up “sidecars,” separate corporations that are effectively controlled by the original entity. These nominally independent businesses are then free to buy additional stations in any market where the parent company already operates.
In Portland, for instance, Sinclair sidecar Cunningham Broadcasting Corp. is in the process of buying Fox affiliate WPFO, with which WGME already shares a joint sales agreement (JSA), whereby the larger station handles advertising sales (and often, through a shared service agreement, many other functions) for the smaller outlet.
In late March, the FCC’s Democratic majority took a step toward potentially ending this cozy arrangement. By a 3-2 margin, the commissioners voted to severely restrict JSAs and to end most of them within two years.
Supporters — the aforementioned Democrats, as well as cable and satellite operators (for the selfish reason that severing these partnerships leaves small, independent stations at their mercy) — argued the old rule has failed to encourage diversity of ownership. Opponents — consisting of much of the broadcasting industry and the commission’s two Republican members — said JSAs have allowed many small stations to stay in business by reducing expenses.
As North East Radio Watch pointed out, the new rules would affect not only the WGME-WPFO marriage, but also that of Portland stations WPXT (a CW affiliate) and WPME (a MyTV affiliate).
Under the new rule, one station would only be able to sell up to 15 percent of the other station’s ad time. That would effectively render most JSAs unprofitable. As a result, big broadcasters like Sinclair are almost certain to challenge those regulations in court, claiming they’re arbitrary — a legal argument with which FCC dissenters have had some success, most recently in a ruling overturning net-neutrality regulations.
It may be several years, if ever, before the change has any impact on Portland’s JSAs. But if the FCC prevails, it’s an open question as to whether the junior partners in these deals can survive as semi-independent entities.
Cheaper digs: Speaking of cozy arrangements, WMTW-TV is moving to Westbrook this fall, into the same space occupied by WPME and WPXT.
The ABC affiliate is closing the highly visible studio it’s had for 15 years in the Time and Temperature Building on Portland’s Monument Square. The reason is money. The Westbrook site can be run for a fraction of what the station is currently paying for prime frontage in Portland.
WMTW also plans to shutter its facility in Auburn, though it has not yet disclosed when that will happen. That move may be problematic. The station tried to relocate all operations to Portland in the 1990s, but backed off when Auburn officials strenuously objected.
Can’t be bothered: I’ve already complained once this political season about crappy coverage of candidates for the Maine Legislature. But two recent examples of non-journalism by Maine newspapers were so god-awful that I feel compelled to bring the topic up again.
On April Fools’ Day, the Kennebec Journal put one over on its readers when it published an announcement of Democrat Monica Castellanos’ candidacy for a state House seat representing Augusta. While it’s true that Castellanos is a former aide to Congressman Mike Michaud, that hardly seems sufficient to merit coverage that other candidates — including the Republican incumbent she’s running against — didn’t receive. The story, credited to “Staff Report,” reads like the press release most of it was lifted from (“she was raised by a young single mother who often struggled to make ends meet”).
Even worse is the April 7 post on the Bangor Daily News’ website announcing the House candidacy of Katrin Teel, a Bangor Republican. At least, I think she’s a Republican. The release, credited to Teel, includes her dog’s name, but doesn’t mention her party affiliation. It does say she advised an unnamed governor on health care, and somebody named Katrin Teel was, until recently, an advisor to GOP Gov. Paul LePage on that issue, so it’s probably a safe assumption (one confirmed by a quick check of the secretary of state’s website).
What’s not safe is for the BDN to allow these sorts of things to show up on its home page, mixed in with real news stories, which they resemble. In effect, it’s a free advertisement for a political candidate.
News of non-news magazines: Lewiston Auburn Magazine is struggling to survive a nasty sex scandal. In March, publisher Joshua Shea was arrested on child-porn charges and fired from the company, leading to the cancellation of the summer issue. Now the remaining owners are negotiating with an unnamed buyer to purchase the publication.
If you’re jonesing for more glossy puff pieces about the Portland peninsula, Maine magazine (itself rife with peninsula puffery) is offering a new quarterly devoted entirely to the Old Port. It’ll be called (cleverly enough) Old Port magazine and will feature just what you’d expect: gushiness about the food, the booze, the entertainment and the ambience on Portland’s waterfront. The first issue drops in June.
Editorial whirl: In March, Bob Mentzinger abruptly departed as managing editor of the Times Record in Brunswick. No word on why, and no replacement has yet been named. But Mentzinger already has a new gig. He’s serving as campaign manager for Democrat Steve Woods’ bid for a state Senate seat representing Yarmouth.
Before going to the Times Record, Mentzinger did press work for the unsuccessful 2012 U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Cynthia Dill. He’d previously handled editorial chores at the Kennebec Journal.
Carol Coultas has resigned after more than five years as editor of Mainebiz, the Portland-based weekly business journal, to become the business editor of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Coultas’ replacement is Peter Van Allen, formerly a reporter for a Philadelphia business paper.
I can’t tell you who said this, but… As someone who quotes anonymous sources frequently, I was duly chastised by a recent lecture delivered at the University of New Hampshire by John Christie, co-founder of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. It was titled “Leaving Journalism’s False God Behind,” and argued for an end to this profession’s reliance on publishing comments without attribution.
Christie said his organization has a firm policy on the matter: “At the Maine Center we have not yet, in four-plus years and nearly 200 investigative stories, used a single unattributed quote in our stories. We have taken advantage of a good many anonymous or off-the-record tips, but if we could not confirm a tip with an on-the-record source or documents, we have not used it.”
He then mentioned a tip the center received on questionable activities at a state environmental agency. Because the source refused to go on the record, the center declined to do the piece. Another paper, with fewer qualms, got the scoop.
I assume this is a reference to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and its questionable relationships with its commissioner’s former clients. A lengthy investigative piece about this ran in the Maine Sunday Telegram last year. If so, it’s difficult to see how the center’s strict standard served the public interest, since, if everyone stuck to those same rules, this information never would have come to light.
Christie makes some important points, but there’s something to be said for flexibility.
Ticked way off: From an article by Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News, published on page A5 in the March 30 Lewiston Sun Journal: “The recent below-average temperatures aren’t likely to make a dent in the local tick population, according to Maine tick experts.”
From an article by staff writer Terry Karkos, published on page C1 of the same issue: “On the plus side, this winter should help reduce the heavy infestation of ticks [state wildlife biologist Chuck] Hulsey said.”
Can’t wait for the Sun Journal’s election predictions.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog and the Current Publishing papers. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.