foreign ownership of US broadcast stations

The FCC this week released a Public Notice soliciting comments on the request of Univision, which owns US radio and TV stations, to have foreign ownership that exceeds 50%. As we wrote here, the FCC previously permitted foreign ownership of up to 49% of the company. With a restructuring of its investors, the

In a decision released yesterday, the FCC issued a “remedial declaratory ruling” finding the change in control of stock in a company that owned broadcast stations did not offend the public interest, and that the approval of foreign ownership in the company that controlled broadcast stations above 25% (but capped at 49%) that was

The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling approving the acquisition of an FM radio station in upstate New York by a company that is 100% controlled by two individuals, neither of whom is a US citizen. One is a UK citizen, the second a citizen of Poland. These individuals have lived in the US

The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling approving the acquisition by a company owned by two Mexican citizens of 100% of the ownership interest of a company that owns two radio stations in California and Arizona. Currently, the company owned by the Mexican citizens had only a 25% interest in the parent company of the

The FCC this week announced the filing of two applications seeking broadcast acquisitions by non-US based companies. In one available here, a company controlled by Mexican citizens would go from 25% to 100% ownership and control of a company that owns 2 FM stations in California and Arizona. In another, available here, an

Last year, the FCC made some modifications in its assessment of foreign ownership of companies with broadcast interests, relaxing some of their compliance rules to take account of the realities of the current public stock trading marketplace – realities that, using the FCC’s old policies, made determinations of the level of foreign ownership in any

The FCC yesterday released its first decision approving 100% foreign ownership of a group of US broadcast stations. This comes after significant relaxation of the FCC’s interpretation of the foreign ownership limits which, less than 4 years ago, had been interpreted to effectively prohibit foreign ownership of more than 25% of a company controlling

A new President and a new Chair of the FCC have already demonstrated that change is in the air in Washington. Already we’ve seen Chairman Pai lead the FCC to abolish the requirement that broadcasters maintain letters from the public about station operations in their public file (which will take effect once the Paperwork Reduction Act analysis is finalized), revoke the Media Bureau guidance that had limited Shared Services Agreements in connection with the sales of television stations, and rescind for further consideration FCC decisions about the reporting of those with attributable interests in noncommercial broadcast stations and the admonitions given to TV stations for violations of the obligation for reporting the issues discussed in, and sponsors of, political ads (see our article here). Also on the table for consideration next week are orders that have already been released for public review on expanding the use of FM translators for AM stations and proposing rules for the roll-out of the new ATSC 3.0 standard for television. Plus, the television incentive auction moves toward its conclusion in the repacking of the television spectrum to clear space for new wireless users. Plenty of action in just over 3 weeks.

But there are many other broadcast issues that are unresolved to one degree or another – and potentially new issues ready to be discussed by the FCC this year. We usually dust off the crystal ball and make predictions about the legal issues that will impact the business of broadcasters earlier in the year, but we have waited this year to get a taste for the changes in store from the new administration. So we’ll try to look at the issues that are on the table in Washington that could affect broadcasters, and make some general assessments on the likelihood that they will be addressed this year. While we try to look ahead to identify the issues that are on the agenda of the FCC, there are always surprises as the regulators come up with issues that we did not anticipate. With this being the first year of a new administration that promises a different approach to regulation generally, what lies ahead is particularly hard to predict.
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In a decision released yesterday, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling permitting certain identified foreign companies and individuals to own up to 40% of the voting interests in Univision, and allowed aggregate foreign ownership of up to 49% of the equity of the company. This decision noted that it was based not on the new rules for analyzing foreign ownership in broadcast stations approved by the Commission in late September (see our summary here), as those rules were not yet effective as they were only published in the Federal Register last month and certain aspects still needed to undergo analysis under the Paperwork Reduction Act. Instead, the request for the ruling in this case was analyzed under the 2013 Declaratory Ruling on ownership (see our summary here), the same ad hoc analysis used to review and approve Pandora’s acquisition of a radio station in 2015. While technically, the new rules did not apply to this proceeding, it is clear that the analysis of this decision would not be much different, as the Commission specifically refers to the new rules as setting what is reasonable in its ad hoc analysis of the circumstances of this case. Thus, this decision provides a good basis for determining what issues any potential foreign investor in a US broadcast station would face, particularly when investing in a public US company.

Even though the FCC looked to the new rules for guidance, the final conditions look much like those imposed on Pandora. Univision is required to seek specific approval for any acquisition of stock by any foreign shareholder not specifically approved in this order if that investor seeks to acquire an interest (either voting or equity) of greater than 5% of the company. The company must actively monitor its shareholders to assure that no specific foreign shareholder exceeds that 5% threshold and that foreign ownership does not exceed the aggregate 49% limit. The company cannot simply rely on the address of its shareholders in making a determination as to whether or not they are foreign, but instead must use reasonable efforts as defined in the October order (and set out in our summary) to establish the citizenship and ownership of its investors. The company also must insure that its organizational documents provide that, if any foreign owner causes the station to violate one of the restrictions imposed by the Declaratory Ruling, the company can redeem the stock of the owner. The company must also have provisions providing for the right to restrict foreign ownership and the right to require disclosure of citizenship information. The decision also notes that Executive Branch agencies had reviewed the proposal and did not find any potential security issues.
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At the FCC’s open meeting last week, the Commission adopted new policies for assessing and computing foreign ownership of broadcast companies – particularly such ownership in public companies. The Commission’s Report and Order on this matter is dense reading, dealing with how companies assess compliance with the rules which limit foreign ownership to 20% of a broadcast licensee and 25% of a holding company unless there is a finding by the FCC that the public interest is not harmed by a greater foreign ownership interest. The rules adopted last week were principally an outgrowth of the petition for declaratory ruling filed by Pandora which sought FCC approval, in connection with its acquisition of a radio station, for foreign ownership of greater than 25%. Pandora did not file such a petition because its foreign ownership exceeded that percentage, but instead because, based on the FCC methodology in use at the time, Pandora could not prove that it was in compliance (see our summary of the Pandora petition here). The new rules adopted last week essentially reverse the presumption to which Pandora had to comply – rather than assuming that there was a compliance issue because a company cannot prove that its foreign ownership was less than 25%, the FCC will now conclude that there is an issue only where a company, based on knowledge either that it has or should have, actually knows that there it has a foreign ownership compliance problem.

The order requires that public companies regularly take steps to assess their owners to determine if there are potential foreign ownership issues. A public company should know who certain shareholders are, either because they are insiders (e.g. officers and directors) or because they are otherwise known to the company (e.g. through proxy fights, shareholder lawsuits or because they are in some way doing business with the company). Other shareholders can be determined through an array of filings made at the SEC – including filings made when a shareholder exceeds holdings of 5% of the stock of a company, and other filings made by companies that manage more than $100 million in assets who are required to report on their stockholdings. In addition, there are other public sources of information about funds and other investment companies that buy the stock of broadcast companies, from prospectuses to Internet news stories. Public broadcast companies need to monitor all of these sources of information to see whether they potentially have a problem with foreign ownership. The FCC did not require that these companies take other measures that had been used in the past or suggested in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in this proceeding (about which we wrote here).
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