FCC Makes Few Changes to Media Ownership Rules

Ted Johnson

The FCC is making only slight modifications to its set of media ownership rules, maintaining restrictions on common ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same market, as well as other regulations.

The lack of change prompted criticism from Republican commissioners and industry lobbyists, who have been pressing the FCC to relax restrictions in the face of changes in the marketplace.

But a majority of the commissioners supported the latest rules.

“Ideally, our media landscape should be diverse because our population is diverse, and retaining the existing media ownership rules is one way in which the Commission can help to promote such diversity,” the FCC said in the order. “The record in this proceeding leads us to conclude that retaining the existing rules is the best way to promote our policy goals in local markets at this time.”

The National Assn. of Broadcasters accused the FCC of making “a particularly lackluster and ultimately arbitrary and capricious effort” to review media ownership rules, as it is required to do every four years. NAB had filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking materials that the commission relied upon in coming up with its latest order.

“Looking through the attached record, it is impossible to conclude that Commission staff made any serious attempt to examine the issues presented from a fresh perspective,” Rick Kaplan, NAB general counsel, wrote in a letter to the FCC.

The FCC had fallen far behind in its review of media ownership rules, as this latest order adopts reviews from 2010 and 2014.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a proposed set of rules in late June, and noted that although the TV station-newspaper cross ownership rule remains in place, exceptions would be made “for failed or failing entities.” The FCC already has granted waivers in some markets.

The rules also reinstate restrictions on joint sales agreements. Originally passed in 2014, the restrictions were meant to prevent stations from getting around ownership caps via agreements with competing stations in the same market. But an appellate court struck down the restrictions in May, concluding that the commission first had to complete its media ownership review before passing the new regulation.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said that the latest media ownership rules ignore trends in the business. He dismissed the idea that a newspaper could get an exception, arguing that “by the time that a newspaper has failed or is failing, it might be too late to save and/or might not be an attractive investment opportunity for a broadcaster.”

“Our goal should be to maintain newspapers as healthy and vibrant institutions. We shouldn’t deprive them of the investment they need to thrive until they are at death’s doorstep and then hope that someone will swoop in at the last minute to save them,” he wrote.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called for more “proactive” steps to examine diversity of ownership.

“To satisfy judicial scrutiny and demonstrate the Commission’s commitment to ownership diversity that is so desperately wanting, we need a robust record of data that paints a comprehensive picture of today’s media landscape,” she wrote. “Today, this simply does not exist.”

She noted that the FCC was in the midst of an incentive auction which could reduce the number of TV stations on the air.

“Relaxing the Commission’s media ownership rules at this time, will neither increase the number of diverse stations nor will it create additional local voices,” she said.

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