foreign ownership of US broadcast stations

September 29 will be a big day for broadcasters and other media companies when the FCC holds its next open meeting. In the tentative agenda for that meeting released on Thursday, the FCC identified several issues that deal with the media including two big items on video issues – the decision as to what to do about the Commission’s proposals to open the cable set top box to competing systems, and a new proposal designed to promote sources of independent programming for video distributors. In addition to these two items, the FCC also says that it will resolve the proposals to make the FCC’s foreign ownership rules for broadcasting more like those applicable to non-broadcast companies, easing some of the procedural restrictions that made it difficult for non-US investors to become owners of US broadcast stations.

The set top box debate is perhaps the debate that has garnered the most publicity, with the Commission proposing to allow more companies to offer a means to access cable and satellite TV programming – perhaps enabling the use of new apps to access and inventory that programming. Content owners and program distributors have worried about security issues with opening programming to access on a myriad of devices, and have also been concerned that the loosening of these restrictions could interfere with contractual rights limiting access to certain programs to certain devices and distribution channels. The FCC Chairman yesterday released this fact sheet about the proposal setting out some specifics of the proposal that will seemingly be voted on at the late September meeting, and the Chairman published this op-ed article in the LA Times explaining what he is trying to do. The matter is sure to remain controversial right through the late-September meeting, and perhaps after the decision as well.
Continue Reading September FCC Meeting To Be a Big One for Media Companies – Set Top Boxes, Foreign Ownership of Broadcast Stations and Promotion of Independent Programming

Recently, we wrote about two cases seeking declaratory rulings from the FCC that non-US ownership of companies owning broadcast stations should be permitted even though that ownership would exceed the 25% standard that had been, until that last few years, the limit on such ownership. Last week, the FCC announced the filing of another such

In the last two days, the FCC has asked for public comment on two proposals for foreign ownership of US broadcast stations where that ownership would exceed 25% of the company – a limit that has for decades been seen as the upper end of ownership by foreign nationals.  While the FCC three years ago said that they would consider such ownership on a case by case basis (see our article here), up until this week, the FCC had considered only one case under this new flexible policy – and that was the case of Pandora, where the FCC took over a year to approve their acquisition of a broadcast station – and Pandora didn’t even think that their foreign ownership exceeded the 25% threshold, but they could not prove it because of the difficulty of assessing the citizenship of public companies (see our article here on the filing of the Pandora petition).  Now, the FCC seeks comments on two cases, one where an Australian husband and wife team seek to acquire 100% ownership of companies owning 29 radio and TV stations in Alaska, Arkansas and Texas.  The second involves Univision, which asks for FCC approval for foreign ownership of up to 49% of its stock, as it plans a public offering which would also involve the conversion to stock of warrants held by a Mexican company that already has a stake in the company.

While the FCC last year asked for comments on adopting new processing rules for these kinds of requests – especially those involving public companies – no order has come out of the FCC on that proceeding yet (see our summary here).  Last month, the FCC did adopt some new procedures for the streamlining of the consideration of foreign ownership requests for all services regulated by the FCC, not just broadcasting, but that proceeding did not deal with the substantive issues surrounding foreign ownership, but instead with the process by which the FCC interacts with other government agencies in assessing the national security concerns with foreign ownership of communications properties.  With this background, does the release of these two requests for comment signal any movement from the FCC on foreign ownership issues?
Continue Reading Foreign Ownership of US Broadcast Stations Suddenly the Rage? – FCC Seeks Comments on Two Proposals for Alien Ownership to Exceed 25%, Including One for 100% Australian Ownership

It’s that time of the year when we need to dust off the crystal ball and make predictions about the legal issues that will impact the business of broadcasters in 2016.  While we try to look ahead to identify the issues that are on the agenda of the FCC and other government agencies, there are always surprises as the regulators come up with issues that we did not anticipate. With this being an election year, issues may arise as regulators look to make a political point, or as Commissioners look to establish a legacy before the end of their terms in office.  And you can count on there being issues that arise that were unanticipated at the beginning of the year.

But, we’ll nevertheless give it a try – trying to guess the issues that we will likely be covering this year.  We’ll start today with issues likely to be considered by the FCC, and we’ll write later about issues that may arise on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the maze of government agencies and courts who deal with broadcast issues.  In addition, watch these pages for our calendar of regulatory deadlines for broadcasters in the next few days.

So here are some issues that are on the table at the FCC.  While the TV incentive auction may well suck up much of the attention, especially in the first half of the year, there are many other issues to consider.  We’ll start below with issues affecting all stations, and then move on to TV and radio issues in separate sections below. 
Continue Reading What Washington Has in Store for Broadcasters in 2016 – Looking at the Legal Issues that the FCC Will Be Considering in the New Year

In Friday’s Federal Register, the FCC published a summary of the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to revise its policies regarding the ownership of broadcast stations by non-US citizens setting the date for comments on its proposal of December 21, with Reply Comments being due by January 20.  The FCC two years ago issued a Declaratory Ruling confirming that it would allow broadcasters to have foreign ownership (in a licensee’s parent company) of greater than 25%, overturning what was widely viewed as the Commission’s prior reluctance to approve that degree of foreign ownership of broadcast stations (see our article here for a summary of the FCC’s 2013 action).  But that decision left many unanswered questions, as the Commission decided to proceed on a case-by-case basis in reviewing any requests for approval under the new rules.  When it took almost two years for Pandora to get approval for its acquisition of a broadcast station, almost a year in processing a request under the 2013 ruling (see our article here on the filing of the Pandora petition), when Pandora did not even think that it exceeded the 25% foreign-ownership threshold but it could not prove its compliance based on the FCC’s 40 year old rules setting out the procedures used to assess the foreign ownership of broadcast stations, it was clear that some changes had to be made.  So, in approving the Pandora deal in May, the FCC said that it would conduct a further review of its rules regarding foreign ownership, a commitment that it moves to fulfill by the issuance of this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The NPRM suggests that the FCC will use for broadcasting, with some modifications, the procedures that it uses in assessing foreign ownership of non-broadcast FCC licensees.  While there are many details and nuances in its proposals, the FCC will still need a Petition for Declaratory Ruling to approve foreign ownership above 25% of a parent company of a broadcast licensee (foreign ownership of the licensee itself is flatly prohibited if it exceeds 20%). But it now proposes to adopt the non-broadcast presumptions that, when the FCC approves a foreign owner of more than 5% of a corporation, that approved owner can go up to 49% ownership without further FCC approval.  Similarly, if a foreign owner is approved in a control position, that owner would be able go to 100% without further approval.  But, on a practical level, perhaps more important was the FCC proposals about the mechanics of tracking foreign ownership.
Continue Reading FCC Sets Comment Dates on Proposal to Relax Restrictions on Foreign Ownership in Companies Holding US Broadcast Station Licenses – What Is the FCC Proposing?

Each year, at about this time, we pull out the crystal ball and make predictions of the issues affecting broadcasters that will likely bubble up to the top of the FCC’s agenda in the coming year.  While we try each year to throw in a mention of the issues that come to our mind, there are always surprises, and new issues that we did not anticipate. Sometimes policy decisions will come from individual cases, and sometimes they will be driven by a particular FCC Commissioner who finds a specific issue that is of specific interest to him or her.  But here is our try at listing at least some of the issues that broadcasters should expect from Washington in the coming year.  With so many issues on the table, we’ll divide the issues into two parts – talking about FCC issues today, and issues from Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the maze of government agencies and courts who deal with broadcast issues.  In addition, watch these pages for our calendar of regulatory deadlines for broadcasters in the next few days.

So here are some issues that are on the table at the FCC – starting first with issues affecting all stations, then on to TV and radio issues in separate sections below. 

General Broadcast Issues

There are numerous issues before the FCC that affect both radio and television broadcasters, some of which have been pending for many years and are ripe for resolution, while others are raised in proceedings that are just beginning. These include:

Multiple Ownership Rules Review: In April, the FCC finally addressed its long outstanding Quadrennial Review of the broadcast multiple ownership rules – essentially by punting most of them into the next Quadrennial Review, which probably won’t be resolved until 2016.  Issues deferred include any revisions to the local ownership limits for radio or TV (such as loosening the ownership caps for TV stations in smaller markets, which the FCC tentatively suggested that they would not do), any revision to the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule (which the FCC tentatively suggested that they would consider – perhaps so that this rule can be changed before the newspaper becomes extinct), and questions about the attribution of TV Shared Services Agreements (which the FCC is already scrutinizing under an Interim Policy adopted by the Media Bureau).
Continue Reading What Washington Has in Store for Broadcasters in 2015 – Part 1, What’s Up at the FCC

In November, the FCC changed its policy regarding the foreign ownership of broadcast stations.  In its decision, about which we wrote here, it agreed to entertain applications seeking “alien ownership” exceeding the 25% limit for foreign ownership of broadcast stations that had previously been in place.  In the modern communications era, with its diversity of media outlets, the Commission determined that the risk of increased foreign ownership was outweighed by the potential for new entrants into the broadcast industry, backed by new sources of capital from outside of the United States.  The FCC did not adopt any blanket rules for permitting higher levels of alien ownership, but instead agreed to consider specific requests for a declaratory ruling on a case-by-case basis to show that foreign ownership of a broadcast station in excess of 25% was not contrary to the public interest.  Despite the invitation to file such requests, as far as we know, none have been filed – until now, and that comes from what is perhaps an unexpected source – Pandora, which is best known as an Internet radio operator.

As we wrote several months ago, Pandora has sought to acquire an FM radio station that operates in the Rapid City, South Dakota radio market.  Its application to acquire the station was opposed by ASCAP, who feared that Pandora would use its status as a broadcaster to ask for broadcaster rates negotiated by the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC) for the public performance of ASCAP music.  ASCAP based its opposition principally on the contention that Pandora had not proved that less than 25% of its stock was beneficially owned or controlled by foreign entities.  Despite Pandora being a company founded in the US by US citizens, headquartered and operating almost exclusively in the US, and traded on the US stock exchanges, ASCAP contended that Pandora had not established that its ownership of a broadcast station would not violate the alien ownership rules.  How could they make such an argument?
Continue Reading Pandora Files First Petition for Declaratory Ruling Under FCC’s Liberalized Foreign Ownership Rules for Broadcast Stations

Last week, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling concluding that its long-standing policies on foreign ownership of broadcast stations were misunderstood – “clarifying” its policy to make clear that, if alien ownership exceeds 25% of the holding company of a licensee, it may in fact be permissible.  The Commission decided to adopt a case-by-case approach to determine if any proposed alien ownership in excess of 25% is in the public interest.  It is unclear why the FCC made a point to say that this was just a clarification of a policy that has been viewed as a strict prohibition on alien ownership of broadcast properties where the indirect ownership was in excess of 25%.  In the past, the FCC broadcast prohibition was viewed as all but absolute, even though the governing statute allows for the 25% threshold to be exceeded unless the FCC determined that such excess foreign ownership was not in the public interest and ownership in excess of 25% has been allowed (under the same statutory provision) for nonbroadcast services.  Nevertheless, last week’s decision made clear that foreign ownership levels in broadcast holding companies beyond the 25% threshold were possible, but much else was left unclear in the decision.

As stated in the ruling, the foreign ownership limitations were adopted because of concerns that foreign owners who controlled the instruments of communication in a time of emergency could be a security threat.  Moreover, in broadcasting, there was the fear that such foreign owners could disseminate propaganda to the citizens of the US.  While times have changed and the risk of the dissemination of propaganda by broadcasting seems quaint when there are so many other ways to disseminate what might be called propaganda to the public, the FCC still regards this as a concern that needs to be evaluated in every case.  At the FCC meeting where the order was adopted, and in the ruling itself, it was made very clear that, in the event of any application that proposes foreign ownership in excess of 25%, the Executive Branch of government (including Homeland Security) would have to approve the foreign ownership, concluding that it does not pose any threat to the United States.  For foreign companies that want to invest in broadcasting, this is not the only question that remains unanswered.
Continue Reading FCC Allows More Than 25% Foreign Ownership of Broadcast Stations – Instructions for Investors are to Be Developed

Last week brought a number of Washington developments that we’ll write about in more detail soon, including the FCC’s decision to relax the limitations on foreign ownership of broadcast stations.  But there were also a number of other actions that bear mention – including the decision released late Friday to extend the deadline for the filing of Biennial Ownership reports that are to be filed by all commercial broadcasters – including AM, FM, TV. LPTV and Class A TV station owners.  These more complicated versions of FCC Form 323 are filed every other year to assess diversity in the ownership of broadcast stations.  These reports were originally to be filed on November 1, but the filing date was extended to December 2 earlier this year (see our article here), due to the recognized complexity of the completion and electronic filing of these forms.  Now, after the FCC shutdown deprived broadcasters of several weeks’ preparation time in which the electronic forms were available for use, the deadline has been extended to December 20.  The FCC Public Notice warns filers to try to submit their reports before the deadline to avoid potential slowdowns in the electronic system due to an expected heavy volume of users as the deadline approaches.

In fact, the effect that heavy demands on FCC’s electronic filing system was made evident by the FCC’s last-minute decision to extend by one day the last day for filing LPFM applications.  That extended deadline passed on Friday, after being extended from the originally announced extended deadline (due to the government shutdown) of Thursday, because glitches in the FCC’s electronic filing system delayed last-minute filings before that Thursday deadline.  There has not yet been any announcement of the number of LPFM applications filed in the window, but many think that the number will rival if not exceed the thousands of applications filed in the 2003 FM translator window – applications that the FCC is still processing over 10 years after their filing.
Continue Reading Odds and Ends: Extension of Biennial Ownership Report Deadline, $110,000 Penalty for Indecency, Deadline for UHF Discount Comments, and Closing of the LPFM Window

At its November 14 meeting, the FCC is tentatively scheduled to consider the relaxation of its limits on the ownership of broadcast stations by foreign entities or citizens.  Under the current “alien ownership” limitations, US citizens or entities must own 80% of a broadcast licensee, or 75% of a licensee’s parent company.  In the broadcast world, the 25% alien ownership limit must be analyzed both as to equity and voting interests.  In the modern financial world, where companies are often owned by many diverse investors (or funds with widely diverse ownership), these rules can be very burdensome in assuring compliance and managing the potential investment in US broadcast operations by foreign sources of capital. 

Under the governing statute, Section 310(b)(4) of the Communications Act, the FCC can’t allow a licensee in any service that it regulates to be more than 20% foreign owned.  But the statute allows a parent company of a licensee to be 25% foreign owned, and even allows that parent company to exceed that “limit” unless the FCC finds that the public interest would be compromised by foreign ownership greater than 25%.  Thus, the rules are actually written to presume that the “limit” can be exceeded, unless the FCC sees a problem.  The principal concern that would raise a question under the law would be one of national security – the government does not want crucial communications infrastructure, or the means of dissemination of information to the public, to be controlled or unduly influenced, by foreign interests in the event of some emergency.   As we wrote just 6 months ago, in non-broadcast services, the FCC has routinely allowed foreign ownership to exceed the 25% threshold, and recently made it easier for companies to demonstrate their compliance with the rules.  This clearly shows that national security issues can be addressed in other ways.  How about in the broadcast services?
Continue Reading FCC to Consider Allowing Increased Foreign Ownership of Broadcast Stations at Its November Meeting