At the FCC’s open meeting last week, the Commission adopted new policies for assessing and computing foreign ownership of broadcast companies – particularly such ownership in public companies. The Commission’s Report and Order on this matter is dense reading, dealing with how companies assess compliance with the rules which limit foreign ownership to 20% of a broadcast licensee and 25% of a holding company unless there is a finding by the FCC that the public interest is not harmed by a greater foreign ownership interest. The rules adopted last week were principally an outgrowth of the petition for declaratory ruling filed by Pandora which sought FCC approval, in connection with its acquisition of a radio station, for foreign ownership of greater than 25%. Pandora did not file such a petition because its foreign ownership exceeded that percentage, but instead because, based on the FCC methodology in use at the time, Pandora could not prove that it was in compliance (see our summary of the Pandora petition here). The new rules adopted last week essentially reverse the presumption to which Pandora had to comply – rather than assuming that there was a compliance issue because a company cannot prove that its foreign ownership was less than 25%, the FCC will now conclude that there is an issue only where a company, based on knowledge either that it has or should have, actually knows that there it has a foreign ownership compliance problem.
The order requires that public companies regularly take steps to assess their owners to determine if there are potential foreign ownership issues. A public company should know who certain shareholders are, either because they are insiders (e.g. officers and directors) or because they are otherwise known to the company (e.g. through proxy fights, shareholder lawsuits or because they are in some way doing business with the company). Other shareholders can be determined through an array of filings made at the SEC – including filings made when a shareholder exceeds holdings of 5% of the stock of a company, and other filings made by companies that manage more than $100 million in assets who are required to report on their stockholdings. In addition, there are other public sources of information about funds and other investment companies that buy the stock of broadcast companies, from prospectuses to Internet news stories. Public broadcast companies need to monitor all of these sources of information to see whether they potentially have a problem with foreign ownership. The FCC did not require that these companies take other measures that had been used in the past or suggested in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in this proceeding (about which we wrote here).