On October 26, 2009, the news operations at KGMB, KHNL and KFVE were combined under the banner of Hawaii News Now as part of what amounts to a merger engineered by Raycom Media of Alabama.

Media Council Hawaii challenged the arrangement as a breach of the public trust and a violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that prevent one entity from owning or controlling two of the top four stations in a market.

Raycom, meanwhile, argued that consolidating news operations to cut costs was necessary. They promised to have more news and a better news operation, even as it was shutting down one newsroom and laying off some 70 employees.

But a new national study of the deal between Raycom and MCG Capital, the parent company of HITV, confirms Media Council Hawai‘i’s worst fears. The study concludes that the so-called “Shared Services Agreement” harms the public interest. Evidence suggests that the Shared Services Agreement has had a negative impact on Hawai‘i news quality, diversity, and competition.

“The short answer is that the implementation of the Shared Services Agreement had a profound effect on the local news broadcasts in the market,” said Danilo Yanich, Ph.D., professor and director of the University of Delaware’s Local Television News Media Project.

“The most significant finding is that two stations that were part of the three-station Shared Services Agreement group simply duplicated their newscasts through the mechanism of simulcast. On weekdays at 10 PM, the news broadcasts of KGMB and KHNL were exactly the same (save different commercials). It did not matter which channel the viewer chose.”

Yanich’s study, Local TV & Shared Services Agreements: Examining News Content in Honolulu, was filed in February in the FCC’s 2010 Quadrennial Review docket.

Using established social science methodologies, including content analysis, Yanich and his students undertook a research project to determine what happens to news programming under Shared Services Agreements. Yanich worked independently of Media Council Hawai‘i. However, Yanich said he chose the local media market because it was the only case in the U.S. where there was an official challenge by a community group to the FCC about these agreements. That challenge is still pending in the FCC Media Bureau.

The research project involved a sampling of all stations in Honolulu, including KHON, KITV, KHNL, KGMB and KFVE. Yanich’s team reviewed newscasts on all stations before and after the SSA took effect on October 26, 2009. The study team reviewed and analyzed individual stories that were broadcast across stations. They compared the distribution of story topics, coverage of local stories, and duration of stories before and after implementation of the Shared Services Agreement. They found that the number of stories devoted to public issues dropped significantly after the Shared Services Agreement for stations involved in the agreement. In addition, the median length of stories covering public issues fell from 48 to 37 seconds.

Another indicator of diminishing news quality was the use of less sophisticated reporting techniques after the Shared Services Agreement took effect. For example, the study says the combined stations turned to less expensive presentation modes, such as the use of voice-over by the anchors. By contrast, the study says, use of the more expensive “package presentation mode,” in which the news crew actually goes to the scene of the story to shoot video and investigate, was cut in half by KGMB, KHNL and KFVE. Given the trend toward shorter and less expensive stories, the study concludes that the “hypothetical” benefit that combined the news stations would provide more enterprising news content has not materialized.

Yanich’s findings should come as no surprise to local viewers who’ve sat through simulcast news at these stations. You may be watching KGMB at 6 PM, flip the channel to KHNL, and you’ll see exactly the same newscast. Watch the news on KFVE at 6:30PM, and you’ll see a different personality doing the same newscast you got a half-hour before on the simulcast stations. As Yanich says, the “obvious and unambiguous result is a reduction in the number of separate news voices in the market.”

The problems are exacerbated by the current resource sharing between Hawai‘i News Now and its “partner,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Honolulu’s only newspaper. Honolulu became a one-newspaper town in May 2010, when the Honolulu Star-Bulletin bought and then closed its competitor, the Honolulu Advertiser. This is another ominous step toward consolidation of the media market, with Hawai‘i News Now working hand-in-hand with the monopoly newspaper.

The FCC must put a stop to Shared Service Agreements. Such agreements erode diversity of opinion, and result in the public getting much less news than is available in more competitive markets

Yanich’s study shows that consolidation is nothing more than a scheme to make more money for private companies at the expense of the citizens they supposedly serve. Let’s not forget that television stations use a public resource — the airwaves — and they have an obligation to operate in the public interest. The Shared Services Agreement totally undermines the concept of giving citizens a choice in ideas and information. There is no choice when information is so narrowly controlled.

Stand up for you community, tell the FCC what you think by following this link to register your opinion: http://act2.freepress.net/sign/honolulu.