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.   


Continue Reading Senate Resolution of Disapproval on Multiple Ownership – What Does it Mean?

In a recent decision, the FCC interpreted its radio multiple ownership rules in a case involving changes in an Arbitron market.  The FCC’s rules restrict the number of radio stations that one company can own in a market based on how many stations are in that radio market.  In situations where stations are rated in an Arbitron market, the number of stations is determined by how many stations are in that Arbitron market, as determined by data compiled by the financial analysis firm BIA.  In this case, while the application to acquire the station was pending, BIA came out with its first list of stations that it considered to be in the newly created Arbitron market.  That list showed that, in the new market, the Buyer already owned more stations than allowed by the rules, so acquisition of this additional station was prohibited.  The case stands for the proposition that, while changes in Arbitron markets that allow an acquisition to take place must have been in place for two years to become effective (to prevent owners from gaming the system by making short-term changes), changes that adversely affect the ability of an owner to acquire a station become effective immediately.

According to the decision, at the time that the application in question was filed, the station to be bought was listed by BIA as being in the Manchester, New Hampshire Arbitron market.  The number of stations owned by the Buyer in Manchester was such that the acquisition of the station was permissible at the time the application was filed.  However, Arbitron announced the creation of a new Concord radio market just before the filing of the FCC application for approval of the transfer of control of the radio station.  Soon after the filing of the application, BIA released its list of stations in the new Concord market, and it included a number of the stations owned by Buyer, including the station it was proposing to acquire.  In the new Concord market, the Buyer would have too many stations to permit the acquisition of this station under the restrictions set out in the multiple ownership rules.


Continue Reading Adverse Change in Arbitron Market Blocks Radio Acquisition Under Multiple Ownership Rules

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?

The FCC today adopted Commissioner Martin’s proposal for limited multiple ownership relaxation, adopting a presumption in favor of approving the common ownership of a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the Top 20 television markets (we wrote about that proposal here).  But the grant of such combinations would not be automatic, but instead would be considered on a case-by-case basis, so opposition to any merger could be submitted to the FCC.  Under the rules announced today, newspaper-television combinations would not be entitled to the presumption in favor of grant if they involved one of the Top 4 ranked television stations in a market, or if there would be fewer than 8 independent media voices (full power TV or significant daily newspapers that are not commonly controlled) after the combination.  As for the other multiple ownership rules, from what was said at the meeting, no change at all will be made.  We addressed some of the many multiple ownership issues before the Commission that were apparently either not addressed or will not be changed in our post, here

As the full text of the decision has not been released, details of how the Commission addressed every issue are not available.  From the comments of the Democratic Commissioners who dissented from the decision, changes were being made to the standards adopted today throughout the night and as early as an hour before the meeting was held (see Commissioner Copps’ impassioned statement against the new rules, here, where he details the last minute revisions).  Given the last minute nature of the final order, it may be a while before the full text is released.  However, from statements made today and from the Commission’s press release, some details of the decision are known.  They are summarized below.


Continue Reading FCC Adopts Changes in Newpaper-Broadcast Cross Ownership Rules – No Relief For Broadcasters Under Other Ownership Rules

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

Yesterday’s unique Public Notice outlining Chairman Martin’s proposals for reform of the multiple ownership rules (which we summarized here) is a surprisingly restrained and limited approach to relaxation of the ownership rules – proposing to relax only the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibitions, and only in the Top 20 TV markets.  Moreover, the reform would only allow the combination of a daily newspaper and a single radio or TV station, and the newspaper-TV combination would only be allowed if the TV station is not one of the Top 4 ranked stations in the market.  While the extremely limited nature of the proposed relief has not stopped critics of big media from immediately condemning the proposal (see the joint statement of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, here), much less attention has been paid to those multiple ownership issues that the Chairman’s proposal does not seem to address – including TV duopoly relief in small markets and clarifications to the radio ownership rules requested by a number of broadcasters who sought reconsideration of the changes that arose from the 2003 ownership reforms. 

The Chairman’s Public Notice is itself a new approach to regulation – putting out for public comment (due by December 11) an action of the Commission just before that action is to be taken.  Usually, the Commission proposes a set of rule changes in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and the Notice provides time for interested parties to comment and then reply to each other’s comments.  Once all the written comments are submitted to the Commission, parties and their representative often make informal visits to the FCC to argue about the suggestions that have been made, and eventually, after much consideration, the Commission’s staff writes up a decision which is vetted by the Commissioners and their staff, and voted on by the full FCC.  Usually, these final decisions are shrouded in secrecy – though outlines of the proposals are often the subject of informed gossip and rumor, rarely does anyone see the full set of rules that the Commission is considering until after the decision is made. 


Continue Reading What Chairman Martin’s Multiple Ownership Proposals Omit – No Relief for Radio and TV

In an unusual action, Commissioner Michael Copps last week publicly released a letter he wrote to Chairman Martin ( whose office is just down the hall from Copps’ office on the Eighth Floor of the FCC’s headquarters in Washington) urging the Chairman to initiate a proceeding to determine if the News Corporation’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal is in the public interest.  Copps points to the fact that the company currently owns another daily newspaper published in New York (the New York Post) as well as two full power television stations (WWOR and WNYW) in the market.  While recognizing that the FCC has previously ruled that national newspapers should not be counted for purposes of the FCC’s newspaper- broadcast cross ownership limitations which currently bar local ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers in the same area.  This exception for national papers was principally decided in connection with Gannett’s USA Today, headquartered in the Washington DC area, where Gannett also owns a TV station.  Copps argues that, despite the USA Today precedent, this situation nevertheless demands further review for two reasons: 1) the local concentration of two TV stations and two widely-read local newspapers and 2) the national concentration that will result in two of the five most widely read newspapers in the country being commonly owned with one of the four major television networks, as well as the owner of many other outlets of communication spread throughout the country.

One seemingly unique aspect of the Copps request is that he is asking that the FCC investigate the acquisition of a newspaper, over which the FCC has no direct jurisdiction.  In fact, in the past, TV companies have purchased newspapers that they could not own consistent with the cross-ownership rules, with the understanding that they would divest one of these interests by the time that the next license renewal for the television station came up (or ask for a waiver of the rules at that time).  This would be necessary as the FCC would have jurisdiction over the duopoly through the renewal application.  In recent years, there have been companies which have bought newspapers in their television markets, taking the risk that, by the time the television station renewal was filed, the FCC’s cross-ownership rules would have changed.  And they are now left pursuing waivers in connection with their renewal applications.  In this case, while the FCC would not have jurisdiction over the acquisition of the Journal, they would have jurisdiction over the pending TV renewal applications.


Continue Reading Copps Calls for FCC Proceeding to Consider News Corporation’s Acquisition of Wall Street Journal

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?