Late Friday, the FCC issued an Order reinstating the FCC’s 2016 ownership rules, recognizing that the changes made in those rules in 2017 (see our post here) were no longer effective because the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had thrown out the 2017 decision. See our post here on the Third Circuit decision and our article here on the court’s denial of rehearing en banc.  While the FCC may still try to appeal the Third Circuit decision to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit’s mandate has issued, meaning that its order is effective even if a Supreme Court appeal is filed.

Among the rule changes that have been rendered a nullity are the abolition of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule (once again reinforcing what we have written several times, that the rule may well outlive the daily newspaper) and the radio-television cross-ownership rule, the local TV ownership rule that had allowed combinations of two TV stations in the same market even if there were not 8 independent voices in the market after the combination, and changes to the FCC’s processing policy with respect to radio embedded markets.  These changes required the FCC to also issue two Public Notices dealing with these changes.
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At its meeting yesterday, as expected, the FCC approved significant changes to its broadcast ownership rules and also approved the roll out of ATSC 3.0 – the next generation television transmission standard. While any change in ownership rules is always a contentious issue, and thus the 3-2 strict party-line vote approving the ownership changes might not have been surprising, the television technology change adopted yesterday proved to be controversial as well, also being approved by a 3-2 vote.

As of the writing of this article on Friday morning, the final texts of these decisions have not been released, so the details of these actions are not available. We will write further about the decisions next week when we have had a chance to digest the final orders. But summaries of both decisions, and the texts of the Commissioner’s statements on the issues, were released late yesterday.
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The FCC today announced that it is extending, by one week, the time in which to file comments on the Petitions for Reconsideration of the FCC’s decision on media ownership rules. The challenges, about which we wrote here, deal with issues including the local television ownership limits, the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, the attribution

Tomorrow, the Petitions for Reconsideration of the FCC’s multiple ownership decision is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register (see the pre-publication draft here). This will start the clock on comments on those petitions. If publication occurs as scheduled, comments will be due on Tuesday, January 17 and replies on Friday, January 27 (update: the actual  Federal Register publication states that Replies are due January 24, but we believe that is probably an error, as the FCC rules require 10 days for a reply – watch for a further update). As we wrote here in connection with the comment dates on Petitions for Reconsideration of the abolition of the UHF discount, and here when we commented on the potential impact of the Presidential election of broadcast law, this may be one of the first opportunities where we will be able to assess the meaning of the changes in the membership of the FCC. We will see to what extent the new administration will be willing to roll back the decisions made by the FCC under its old leadership.

The Petitions for Reconsideration raise several issues, both for radio and TV. Questions are raised as to whether the local TV ownership restrictions continue to make sense in today’s economic world – particularly those limiting the co-ownership of any two of the Top 4 stations in a market, and limiting any co-ownership to markets where there will be 8 independently owned and programmed stations.  Attribution of stations that are subject to a Joint Sales Agreement is also questioned. Finally, questions are raised as to whether the FCC is justified in imposing new filing requirements for documents relating to joint operations between TV stations, seemingly looking to collect information in order to impose in the future some sort of restriction on any sort of shared services agreement.
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While several parties went to Court to challenge the FCC’s decision ending the UHF discount, one broadcaster decided instead to ask for reconsideration. That petition for reconsideration has now been published in the Federal Register, giving interested parties until December 27 to comment, and other parties until January 6 to reply to any comments that are filed. This reconsideration petition may give a new Republican-led FCC its first opportunity to revisit the FCC’s multiple ownership rules which have been the subject of several petitions for reconsideration, as we suggested might happen in our review (here) of the impact on communications law of the election of Donald Trump as the new President.

The UHF discount counted only half the audience reached by UHF stations in assessing an owner’s compliance with the 39% national cap on audience. The FCC ended that discount in September (see our summary here), finding that in a digital world, UHF channels were no longer inferior to VHF ones. Given that most TV stations are operating on the UHF band after the digital conversion, the FCC determined that the discount was not justified in the current television marketplace. A number of TV groups argued with that determination, contending that, in today’s media market, there was no reason to impose what was in effect a tightening of the national ownership cap. The elimination of the discount capped acquisitions by several TV groups, and actually put a few over the 39% limit. In addition, broadcasters have argued that the discount was in effect when Congress adopted the 39% cap, so any change would need to be authorized by Congress. While other parties have filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals, it is likely that the Court will defer to the FCC and allow it to reconsider the abolition of the UHF discount (which the two Republican Commissioners opposed when it was adopted).
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The FCC’s Order released at the end of August deciding the issues in its Quadrennial Review of its ownership rules is over 100 pages long. The full document, with the dissents from the Republican Commissioners, required regulatory impact statements and similar routine attachments totals 199 pages. The Order addresses many issues. For TV, it declines to change the local ownership rules, readopts the decision to make Joint Sales Agreements into attributable interests (thus effectively banning them in many markets, though making some tweaks to the grandfathering of existing JSAs), and adopts new rules for reporting shared services agreements. The Order retains the newspaper-broadcast and radio-television cross-ownership rules. It takes limited new steps to encourage minority ownership (principally re-adopting the rule that allowed small businesses to acquire and extend expiring construction permits for new stations and to buy certain distressed properties, see our article about that old rule here), but does not adopt any racial or gender preferences for broadcast ownership. It also ends consideration of using TV channels 5 and 6 for the migration of AM radio and other new audio services including those targeted to new entrants into broadcast ownership (see one of our articles about that proposal here). And it rejects most proposals to change the radio ownership rules. Today, with the NAB Radio Show just two days away, we will look closer at the radio rules, and will cover many of these other aspects of the decision in coming days.

Perhaps the biggest “ask” for changes in the rules came from numerous radio groups that requested changes in the “subcaps” that apply to radio ownership. For instance, in the largest radio markets, one owner can hold up to 8 stations, but only 5 can be in any one service (AM or FM). Some parties had hoped to be able to own more FM stations in a market, particularly given the growing levels of competition in the audio marketplace from satellite and online radio. Some AM owners looked to hold more than the current maximum number of AMs in a market as a way to provide economies of scale that might help to preserve and strengthen the struggling AM radio industry. The Commission rejected such changes.
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While the trade press has been full of reports that the FCC has voted on an order addressing the issues raised in its Quadrennial Review of its multiple ownership rules, and that the decision largely left those rules unchanged (including the broad ban on the cross-ownership of daily newspapers and broadcast stations), no final decision on the review has yet been released. However, we did see on Friday that, in the FCC’s list of matters pending before the Commission for approval “on circulation” (i.e. to be voted on without being considered at an FCC open meeting) the ownership item was removed from the list of pending items, seemingly confirming that the decision has in fact been voted on and is thus no longer circulating for approval. If the press reports are to be believed, there has been no major change in the rules despite much last minute hope for some relaxation of the newspaper cross-interest rule. The rules are thus likely to be those indicated by the Chairman in his blog post in late June, which we summarized here. Even if the most significant rules (e.g. local ownership rules for radio and TV – the “duopoly” rules, and the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules) remain unchanged, that does not mean that the broadcast community should ignore the upcoming decision, as there are bound to be other issues addressed in the order that may be of significance.

In connection with the newspaper cross-ownership rules, while the press reports indicate that the rules will remain in place, there are reports that there will be some sort of waiver allowed, seemingly where economics justify the combination. If this is akin to the “failing station” waiver used to justify the ownership of 2 TV stations in markets where such ownership would normally not be allowed, some have wondered, given the economic state of the newspaper industry, if such a waiver would ever be used as it will be a rare case where a last-minute broadcast combination will rescue a failing newspaper. But we will need to see what the details are of the waiver standard to be applied.
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