The Third Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday issued an opinion faulting the FCC for not completing any required review of its broadcast ownership rules since the 2006 review was completed in 2007. These reviews of its ownership rules, now done as “Quadrennial Reviews” every four years, but previously required to be done biennially, have been the subject of much judicial review and delay in the past 9 years. Because of the delays in finalizing a review and addressing issues previously raised by the Court, yesterday’s decision ordered the FCC to meet with certain parties who brought the appeal to finalize a timetable for FCC review of the rules designed to promote minority ownership of broadcast stations. At the same time, the Court threw out the FCC’s 2014 decision determining that television Joint Sales Agreements were attributable interests (see our article here), which had essentially banned these agreements in most markets as the attribution of an interest in one station to the owner of another station in the same market would constitute a combination of stations not permitted under the local TV duopoly rules. The discussion in the decision also raised questions as to whether the FCC could justify the continued existence of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rules given the radically changed state of the newspaper industry since these rules were adopted over 40 years ago.
While much has been made of the decision overturning the attribution of television Joint Sales Agreements, that part of the decision was actually a narrow one, and one which leaves the FCC in a position where it could reinstitute the attribution requirement when it completes its current review of the ownership rules. The Court looked at the 2014 decision determining that JSAs should be attributable, and concentrated on the dissenting opinion of Commissioner Pai. The Commissioner argued that the FCC’s decision making the interests attributable ignored record evidence that such combinations were in the public interest. The dissenting opinion said that some combinations were necessary, particularly in smaller television markets, to permit the profitable operations of weaker stations in these markets, and that the agreements otherwise contributed to the public interest by allowing stations that could not afford news and other beneficial programming to air such programming. The Commission dismissed those arguments, contending that they were really addressing questions as to whether more small market TV duopolies should be permitted. But, as the FCC did not address whether small market TV duopolies might be in the public interest, but instead deferred that decision until the next Quadrennial Review, the Court found (as Commissioner Pai had argued) that the FCC decision could not be justified. The FCC could not ban JSAs as not being in the public interest until they considered the arguments as to whether small market duopolies, which could permit many of the JSAs to continue even if attributable, were in the public interest.
Continue Reading Appeals Court Tells FCC to Finalize Multiple Ownership Review, Throws Out TV JSA Attribution, and Questions Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership Ban