With Barack Obama’s historic victory just sinking in, all over Washington (and no doubt elsewhere in the country), the speculation begins as to what the new administration will mean to various sectors of the economy (though, in truth, that speculation has been going on for months).  What will his administration mean for broadcasters?  Will the Obama administration mean more regulation?  Will the fairness doctrine make a return?  What other issues will highlight his agenda?  Or will the administration be a transformational one – looking at issues far beyond traditional regulatory matters to a broader communications policy that will look to make the communications sector one that will help to drive the economy?  Some guesses, and some hopes, follow.

First, it should be emphasized that, in most administrations, the President has very little to do with the shaping of FCC policy beyond his appointment of the Commissioners who run the agency.  As we have seen with the current FCC, the appointment of the FCC Chairman can be the defining moment in establishing a President’s communications policy.  The appointment of Kevin Martin has certainly shaped FCC policy toward broadcasters in a way that would never have been expected in a Republican administration, with regulatory requirements and proposals that one could not have imagined 4 years ago from the Bush White House.  To see issues like localism, program content requirements and LPFM become such a large part of the FCC agenda can be directly attributed to the personality and agenda of the Chairman, rather than to the President.  But, perhaps, an Obama administration will be different.


Continue Reading The Promise of an Obama Administration for Broadcast and Communications Regulation

We recently wrote about the Federal Communications Commission’s actions in their Diversity docket, designed to promote new entrants into the ranks of broadcast station owners. In addition to the rules adopted in the proceeding, the FCC is seeking comment on a number of other ideas – some to restrict the definition of the Designated Entities that are eligible to take advantage of these rules, others to expand the universe of media outlets available to potential broadcast owners – including proposals to expand the FM band onto TV channels 5 and 6, and proposals to allow certain AM stations, which were to be returned to the FCC after their owners received construction permits for expanded band stations, to retain those stations or transfer them to Designated Entities. The proposals, on which public comment is being sought, are summarized below.

Definition of Designated Entity. The first issue raised by the Commission deals with whether the class of applicants entitled to Designated Entity status and entitled to take advantage of the Commission’s diversity initiatives should be restricted. One proposal is to restrict the Designated Entity status to companies controlled by racial minorities. The Commission expressed skepticism about that proposal, noting that the courts had throw out several versions of the FCC’s EEO rules, finding that there was insufficient justification offered by the FCC to constitutionally justify raced-based preferences. The Commission asked that proponents of such preferences provide a “compelling” showing of needed, as necessary for a constitutional justification for governmental race-based discrimination.


Continue Reading FCC’s Acts to Increase Diversity in Media Ownership – Part 2, The Proposals for Future Actions – Channel 6 for FM, AM Expanded Band, Definition of Designated Entity, Must Carry for Class A TV and Others

Last week, the FCC approved the long-pending application for the transfer of control of Clear Channel Broadcasting from its public shareholder to several private equity funds. Even though the application had been pending at the FCC for over a year, the Commission’s decision was notable for the paucity of issues that were discussed. The decision approves the transfer, conditioned on certain divestitures by the Company and by the equity funds that will control the new company, including divestitures previously ordered by the Commission in connection with the investment of one of these funds in Univision Broadcasting but not yet completed, and rejects three petitions that, from the Commission’s description, did not involve fundamental issues about the nature of the overall transaction, but were instead devoted to certain limited issues, in two cases involving actions in a single market. The divestiture conditions were approved seemingly as a matter of course, and do not provide any new insights into the law concerning the FCC’s attribution rules (unlike the recent decision approving the transfer of control of Ion Television, about which we wrote here, which contained an extensive detailed discussion of what it takes to make an ownership interest “nonattributable” for purposes of the FCC multiple ownership rules). Given the lack of controversy in the Commission’s order, what is perhaps most noteworthy about the decision are the concurring statements of the two Democratic Commissioners, which may provide some indication of the concerns of the Commission should we have a Democratic-controlled Commission following this year’s Presidential election.

Of course, as we’ve described in our posts about the FCC’s Localism Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (here), and the new rules regarding Enhanced Disclosure requirements for television broadcasters (here), the Commission has already begun to act in a far more regulatory manner than any other Commission in the past 20 years. Yet the issues raised by the Democrats in this decision are in areas not yet considered by the Commission. Commissioner Copps expresses his concern about the role of private equity in broadcast ownership, and whether such ownership is in the public interest. In numerous proceedings and in response to the presentation made at the FCC’s January meeting by the Media Bureau, Copps has suggested that private equity should be investigated, both to determine whether the Commission is fully aware of all ownership ties of the companies involved, and also (as emphasized in this case) for the potential economic impact on the operations of the broadcast stations caused by the new debt involved in the acquisition. Here, Commissioner Copps questions whether the announcement of a potential downgrade of the bonds of the Company if these deals occur should have been of more concern to the Commission. Private equity should be aware that, in a future FCC, an investigation of the economics of their operations should be expected.


Continue Reading Does the FCC’s Approval of the Clear Channel Transfer of Control Provide a Window Into the Future?

With a possible decision looming on December 18 on the Chairman’s proposal to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules (see our summary here and here), the FCC this week granted two applications involving the sales of the Tribune Company and of the Clear Channel television stations, where the decisions focused on the application of the multiple ownership rules – and where the Commission granted multiple waivers of various aspects of those rules – some on a permanent basis and many only temporarily.  And, in the process, both of the Commission’s Democratic Commissioners complained about the apparent prejudgment of the cross-ownership rules and one complained about the role of private equity in broadcast ownership.  Both decisions are also interesting in their treatment of complicated ownership structures and, at least under this administration, evidence the Commission’s desire to stay out of second guessing these structures. 

In the Clear Channel decision, the Commission reviewed the proposed ownership of the new licensee by an affiliate of Providence Equity Partners.  As there were no objections to the proposed sale, the FCC approval process was somewhat easier than it might have been – though the Commission did seem to be somewhat troubled by the fact that Providence was already a shareholder with an interest attributable under the multiple ownership rules in Univision Communications, which had stations in a number of markets in which the Clear Channel television stations operate.  The Commission approved the sale, giving Providence 6 months to come into compliance with the ownership rules – and conditioning the initial closing of the Clear Channel sale on Providence meeting divestiture requirements that it had promised to observe in connection with the Univision acquisition, and had not yet complied with (in fact the Commission recently asked for comments on a proposal by Providence to come into compliance in the Univision case by simply converting their interest in Freedom Communications, which has interests in Univision markets, into a nonvoting interest which would not be attributable under Commission rules)


Continue Reading Ownership Waivers All Around – FCC Approves Sales of Tribune and Clear Channel TV

The FCC has released the agenda for its Open Meeting to be held on Tuesday, November 27.  The agenda is full of issues of importance to broadcasters, and several items may resolve issues that may be troubling – including issues relating to low power FM stations (LPFM) and resolving a long outstanding proceeding concerning the possibility of mandatory public interest obligations for TV stations.  The Commission also has on tap initiatives to encourage the entry of minorities and other new entrants into the broadcast business – even though comments on the Commission’s proposals on this matter were received just a month ago.

First, the Commission is to release an Order on Low Power FM.  We have written about some of the issues that could be decided previously – including issues of whether or not to allow the assignment and transfer of such stations (here) and whether to give these stations preferences over translators and even improvements in full power stations (here and here).

On the TV side, the Commission seems ready to issue an order on the public interest obligations of television operators.  We wrote about the proposals – made as part of the Commission’s DTV proceedings (though to be applicable to all TV stations), here.  Proposed rules included the standardization of quarterly issues programs lists, making station’s public fies available on the Internet, and quantifying other public interest obligations. 


Continue Reading FCC Meeting to Consider LPFM Reform, Public Interest Requirements for TV Stations, and Minority Ownership Proposals

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.


Continue Reading Push to Complete Multiple Ownership Overhaul By the End of the Year

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.


Continue Reading One Sign That Broadcasters Are About to Become Political Footballs – Obama Suggests Shorter Broadcast License Terms and Less Consolidation

Over a year ago, the FCC released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on amendments to the FCC’s multiple ownership rules.  Issues from newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, to local TV and radio ownership limits are all being considered.  Our summary of the issues raised in the NPRM is available here.  The FCC has been holding field hearings throughout the country on its proposals, gathering public comment on the proposals – the most recent having been held in Chicago last night.  Only one more field hearing to go and the Commission will have conducted the six hearings that it promised.  Many, including me, had felt that the timing was such that no decision in this proceeding could be reached until 2008 and, as that is an election year, the decision could quite well be put off until after the election to avoid making it a political issue.  However, there are now signs that some at the FCC are gearing up to try to reach a decision late this year or early next – presumably far enough away from the election for any controversy to quiet before the election.  With this push, others are expressing concern about a rush to judgment on the issues, and may well seek to delay it further.

Evidence of the FCC’s increasing attention to the multiple ownership issues include the recent Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, asking questions about minority ownership and making proposals on how that ownership can be encouraged (proposals we summarized here).  The FCC has also asked for comment on several studies that it commissioned to look at the effects of ownership consolidation in the broadcast media (the public notice asking for comments is here, and the studies can be found here).  Comments on the Further Notice and the ownership studies are due on October 1, with replies due on October 15.  Some have suggested that this time table is unnecessarily accelerated, especially as certain peer review documents on the ownership studies were just recently released.


Continue Reading A New Push to Address Multiple Ownership?

In a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC last week asked for public comment on a series of initiatives to promote the ownership of broadcast stations by minorities and other Socially Disadvantaged Businesses ("SDBs").  These proposals, which include the potential for the sale without requiring any divestitures of clusters of radio stations which exceed the multiple ownership rules now in effect, and the potential for investors to invest in stations controlled by SDBs, even if such investment would otherwise violate the existing multiple ownership rules.  The Further Notice was issued in response to a petition filed over a year ago by the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, which asked for a withdrawal of the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Multiple Ownership Rules (which we summarized here) because that Notice did not address the promotion of minority ownership of broadcast stations.  MMTC claimed that the Third Circuit’s remand of the 2003 Multiple Ownership decision mandated that consideration.  Comments on the Further Notice, which will be resolved as part of the current multiple ownership proceeding, are due on October 1, and replies on October 15

The Notice raises a number of suggestions for regulatory changes to foster the ownership of broadcast stations by minority owners and other SDBs.  In addition to allowing the transfer of grandfathered radio clusters that no longer comply with the multiple ownership rules, these include specific proposals that would accomplish the following:

  • Allowing investment by exiting broadcasters and others with attributable media interests into companies controlled by minorities without the investment being counted against the ownership holdings of the investing company
  • Allowing minority groups to purchase unbuilt construction permits, and get sufficient time to construct those stations, even if the construction permit is otherwise to expire as it has been outstanding and unbuilt for over three years
  • Granting some non-minority owned companies waivers to exceed the multiple ownership limits if they sell stations to SDBs (including a proposal to create tradable credits for creating minority-owned stations)
  • Allowing for the waiver of the alien ownership limits if the investment by foreign companies would assist a minority-owned company in getting into the broadcast business.
  • Revival of the policies permitting minority distress sales (where a broadcaster against whom there were issues pending which could lead to a revocation of a license could sell their station to a minority group and avoid the revocation proceeding) and minority tax credits  (where a broadcaster who sells to a minority group could defer gains on sale if the money was reinvested into any broadcast company in the future)


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Multiple Ownership Exceptions to Foster Minority Ownership