broadcast consolidation

In Washington DC this week, many in the communications world are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Five years ago, we noted the changes that the Act made in the broadcast regulatory world – changes that are still being debated 20 years later. To show how little things change, I thought that I would republish the article that I wrote 5 years ago. There, I talked about some of the changes made in 1996 in the broadcast ownership rules that were still being debated in 2011, and suggested that they might be resolved by the review of the multiple ownership rules that was then about to begin. Of course, that didn’t happen (see our article here about the FCC’s decision to push most of the ownership decisions into the current Quadrennial Review of those rules. So we can again make the same claim – that perhaps some of these issues will be resolved by the current ownership rule review that is supposed to be decided this summer (though that date may well slip – see our predictions for the FCC’s actions on broadcast issues for this year, here).

Our article from 5 years ago also talked about calls then being made by one FCC Commissioner to roll back some of the 1996 reforms lengthening the license term for broadcasters. Those calls seem to have gone unheard so perhaps that one issue may have been resolved – at least for the time being.  It also discussed the proposals for the repurposing of the TV spectrum for wireless uses, which has led to the Incentive Auction that the FCC is about to conduct. 

But other issues remain on the table.  So here is a look back at what I wrote 5 years ago on the 15th anniversary of the Act:

On February 8, 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  While the Act had significant impact throughout the communications industry, the impact on broadcasters was profound, and is still being debated.  The Act made changes for broadcasters in several major areas:

  • Lengthened license renewals to 8 years for both radio and TV, and eliminated the “comparative renewal”
  • For radio, eliminated all national caps on the number of radio stations in which one party could have an attributable interest and increased to 8 stations the number one party could own in the largest radio markets
  • For television, raised national ownership caps to having stations that reached no more than 35% of the national audience, with no limits on the number of stations that could be owned as long as their reach was under that cap.
  • Allocated spectrum that resulted in the DTV transition

Obviously, the DTV spectrum began the profound changes in the way television is broadcast, and led to the current debate as to whether over-the-air television should be further cut back in order to promote wireless broadband (see our recent post on the FCC’s current proceeding on this issue).  While the other changes have now been in effect for 15 years, the debate over these provisions continue.  Some argue that the renewal and ownership modifications have created too much consolidation in the broadcast media and lessened the broadcaster’s commitment to serving the public interest.  Others argue that, in the current media world, these changes don’t go far enough. Broadcasters are under attack from many directions, as new competitors fight for local audiences (often with minimally regulated multi-channel platforms, such as those delivered over the Internet) and others attack broadcasters principal financial support – their advertising revenue. Even local advertising dollars, traditionally fought over by broadcasters and newspapers (with some competition from billboards, direct mail and local cable), is now under assault from services such as Groupon and Living Social, and from other new media competitors of all sorts.  With the debated continuing on these issues in the current day, it might be worth a few looking back at the 1996 changes for broadcasters, and their impact on the current broadcast policy debate.
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The FCC yesterday released a Notice of Inquiry, formally beginning its Quadrennial Review of the Multiple Ownership Rules.  While the FCC informally began the process of the Congressionally-mandated review of the ownership rules last November through a series of informational panels and workshops, the Notice of Inquiry ("NOI") provides the first formal opportunity for the public to comment on the ownership rules.  The FCC will take the comments that it receives in response to the NOI, and formulate some more specific proposals on how it plans to change the current rules (if at all), which will then be released for additional comments in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  The NOI is a broad-ranging document that gives little indication of the FCC’s final direction in this proceeding – though it does go into detail as to how the media marketplace has changed in recent years, citing declining advertising revenues, and more media outlets providing competition to broadcasters for both audience and advertising revenues.   The NOI posed dozens of detailed questions asking how the Commission should assess the various aspects of the ownership rules, and what impact the changes in the media marketplace should have on its consideration of rule changes.

The FCC is concerned with all aspects of its media ownership rules.  Thus, it sets out that it will explore the following rules:

  • The Local Television Ownership cap, which limits owners to two stations in markets where there are at least 8 competing television owners and operators, and which forbids combinations of the top 4 stations in any market.  Television operators, particularly in smaller markets, have been urging the Commission to allow more consolidation in those markets so that stations can provide better service to their communities.  They argue that the current limits preclude small market consolidation, which is most needed in these markets where the costs of operation are not significantly lower than in large markets, but where revenue opportunities are far more limited.
  • The Local radio ownership caps, that currently limit owners to 8 stations in the largest markets, no more than 5 of which can be in any single service (i.e. AM or FM).  Some radio owners contend that these limits no longer make sense given the competition for audio listening from so many sources (including satellite and Internet radio, who can provide unlimited formats in any market).  Other issues include whether AM and FM still need to be treated separately, and even whether AM should be counted to the same degree as FM in a multiple ownership analysis.
  • The Newspaper-Broadcast cross-ownership rule, that forbids cross-ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers without a waiver – which, as the result of changes in the cross-ownership rules in 2007, will be granted on a more liberal basis, but only in the top 20 markets.  Given the economic state of the newspaper industry, many seek the repeal of this rule in its entirety. As we have written before, will the newspaper cross-ownership rule outlive the newspaper?
  • The Radio-Television cross-ownership rule, which limits the number of radio and television stations that can be owned by a single party in a single market
  • The Dual Network Rule, that prohibits the common ownership of any of the top 4 television networks.

Each of these rules is up for review, and numerous questions have been asked, and issues identified, for consideration in this proceeding. 


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The FCC has released the agenda for its Workshop on the multiple ownership rules (about which we wrote here).  The workshop will span three mornings (November 2-4), and will include live testimony from a different panel each morning.  The first panel will include the academic perspective on ownership rules, the second the view from "public interest organizations", and the third from industry representatives, though the participants on that panel are, at this point, the most unsettled.  The Commission also requests written comments from the public, which can be filed through November 20.  As we wrote when this topic first came up last month, these workshops are the first step in the FCC’s consideration of the multiple ownership rules – a review that it is required to conduct once every 4 years – with 2010 being the year in which such review is required. 

The Commission sets out a series of questions that it would like to have addressed.  These questions include:

  • The FCC is required by statute to consider the rules governing local radio ownership, local television ownership, radio-TV cross-ownership, broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership and the dual network rule.  The Commission asks if it should consider other rules in the context of this proceeding.
  • In assessing ownership rules, should the Commission treat each rule in isolation, or should it look at all media together and attempt to craft more general rules addressing media consolidation as a whole in relevant markets?
  • Should rules that are adopted be "bright line" rules, that limit entities to specific numbers of stations, or should the Commission make a case by case determination of whether a combination is in the public interest, subject to some general principles?
  • Should the Commission address the traditional concepts of competition, diversity and localism to this proceeding, or come up with new ways of looking at these concepts, or different concepts to assess ownership goals?
  •  How should the FCC analyze competition, localism and diversity in today’s marketplace?  What are the relevant markets for analysis?  What metrics should be used?
  • What studies or analysis should the FCC use to inform its decisions on these topics.


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Last week, the US Senate passed a resolution of disapproval, which seeks to overturn the FCC’s December decision relaxing the multiple ownership rules to allow newspapers and television stations to come under common ownership in the nation’s largest markets (see our summary of the FCC decision here).  This vote, by itself, does not overturn that decision.  Like any other legislation, it must also be adopted by the House of Representatives, and not vetoed by the President, to become law.  In 2003, the last time that the FCC attempted to relax its ownership rules, the Senate approved a similar resolution, but the House never followed suit (perhaps because the decision was stayed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals before the House could act).  In this case, we will have to see whether the House acts (no dates for its consideration have yet been scheduled).  Even if the House does approve the resolution, White House officials have indicated that the President will veto the bill, meaning that, unless there is a 2/3 majority of each house of Congress ready to override the veto, this effort will also fail.

The reactions to this bill passing the Senate have been varied.  The two FCC Democratic Commissioners, who both opposed any relaxation of the ownership rules, each issued statements praising the Senate action (see Commissioner Copps statement here and that of Commissioner Adelstein here).  The NAB, on the other hand, opposed the action, arguing that the relaxation was minimal, that it was necessary given "seismic changes in the media landscape over the last three decades" (presumably referring to including the economic and competitive pressures faced by the broadcast and newspaper industries in the current media environment), and that it ought not be undone by Congressional actions.   


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According to an article yesterday in Broadcasting and Cable Online, and another article in the New York Times today, Chairman Martin of the FCC is looking to complete the multiple ownership proceeding (which we summarized here) by the middle of December.  According to the Times article, the Chairman is looking for relaxation of the current newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rules – the prohibition on the ownership of a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same market.  What the Chairman has in mind for the rules regarding local radio and television ownership is less clear.  But, no matter what is planned, forces are already mustering to attempt to delay the Commission action.

Contemplating a December action is certainly aggressive.  The Commission had promised to complete the two sets of public hearings – one on the ownership rules and a second on the localism provided by broadcasters – before reaching conclusions in this case.  Each set of hearings still has a final hearing to be held.  The Commission has yet to officially announce the date and location of either of these final hearings – though press reports have indicated that the Commission may look to hold one at the end of the month on the West Coast, and the final hearing in Washington, DC in early November.  In addition, the Commission has just received the final set of comments on the proposals to foster minority ownership, which the Third Circuit had indicated was to be part of the analysis in this proceeding when it stayed the effect of most of the Commission’s 2003 multiple ownership decision and remanded that decision to the FCC for further consideration.  With the comments on minority ownership just having been filed, and comments on the Commission’s own studies on the effect of consolidation not not due until next week (see details), and replies due early next month, does the Commission really have time to consider the issues raised in these comments in this proceeding and reach a December decision, or will some issues need to be delayed for independent consideration?  Seldom has the FCC finished any proceeding within a month and a half of the end of the public comment period – much less an important and controversial one like multiple ownership.


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At last Thursday’s Public Hearing on multiple ownership in Chicago, about which we wrote here, a statement was read by a spokesman for Presidential candidate Barack Obama.  According to press reports, the statement expressed the candidate’s positions favoring shorter license renewal terms for broadcasters so that they would be subject to more public scrutiny, as well as criticizing the FCC for allowing broadcast consolidation.  These thoughts essentially echo the comments of FCC Commissioner Copps, especially on the subject of license renewal terms, whose views we wrote about here.  While many press reports have asked if this statement by Senator Obama foreshadows the broadcast ownership debate becoming part of the presidential campaign issues, we worry that it may signal a far broader attack on broadcasters during the upcoming political year.  The statement by Senator Obama is but one of a host of indications that broadcasters may face a rash of legislative issues that are now on the political drawing boards.

Broadcasters make easy targets for politicians as everyone is an expert on radio and television – after all, virtually everyone watches TV or listens to the radio and thus fancies themselves knowledgeable of what is good and bad for the public.  But those in Congress (and on the FCC) have the ability to do something about it.  And, with an election year upon us, they have the added incentive to act, given that any action is bound to generate at least some publicity and, for some, this may be their last opportunity to enact legislation that they feel important.  We’ve already written about the renewed emphasis, just last week, on passing legislation to overturn the Second Circuit’s decision throwing out the FCC’s fines on "fleeting expletives" and making the unanticipated use of one of those "dirty words" subject again to FCC indecency fines.  Clearly, no Congressman wants to be seen as being in favor of indecency (look at the rise in the indecency fines to $325,000 per occurrence which was voted through Congress just before the last election), and First Amendment issues are much more nuanced and difficult to explain to the voter, so watch this legislation.


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