local radio ownership restrictions

The FCC announced on Friday that it will be hosting a symposium on the state of the broadcast industry on November 21.  On that day, there will be a panel in the morning on the state of the radio industry and one in the afternoon on television.  The Public Notice released Friday lists a diverse group of panelists, but says little beyond the fact that the forum will be occurring.  What could be behind the Commission’s decision to host this session?

The FCC is working on its Quadrennial Review of its ownership rules (see our articles here and here).  There were many who expected that review to be completed either late this year or early next, with relaxation of the radio ownership rules thought to be one of the possible outcomes.  Of course, quick action may have been derailed by the decision of the Third Circuit Court of the Appeals to vacate and remand the Commission’s 2017 ownership order.  The court’s decision unwinds the FCC’s 2017 order which included abolition of the broadcast newspaper cross-ownership rule and the rule that limited one owner from owning two TV stations in the same market unless there were 8 independent television operators in that market – see our article here on the 2017 decision and our article here on the Third Circuit’s decision.  The basis of the Third Circuit decision was that the FCC did not have sufficient information to assess the impact of its rule changes on minority ownership and other potential new entrants into broadcast ownership.  If the FCC did not have enough information to justify the 2017 decisions, many believe any further changes in its rules are on hold until the FCC can either satisfy the court’s desire for more information on minority ownership or until there is a successful appeal of that decision.  Even though FCC changes to its ownership rules may be in abeyance, the November 21 forum can shed light on the current state of the industry and why changes in ownership rules may be justified.
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At its meeting last week, the FCC adopted a Report and Order creating an incubator program to incentivize existing broadcasters to assist new entrants to get into broadcast ownership. The FCC in its order last year relaxing TV local ownership rules and abolishing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule had agreed to adopt an incubator program (see our articles here and here). In fact, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is reviewing the FCC’s ownership order, stayed the processing of that appeal to await the rules on the incubator program (see our article here), as the Court has previously indicated that considerations of how changes in the ownership rules affect new entrants is part of its analysis of the justification for such changes. What rules did the FCC adopt?

The FCC will encourage an existing broadcaster who successfully incubates a new entrant into broadcasting by giving them a “presumptive waiver” of the ownership rules. To understand what this means requires looking at several questions including (1) what services does the existing broadcaster have to provide to qualify for the credit; (2) which new entrants qualify for incubation; (3) what is a successful incubation; and (4) what does the presumptive waiver provide to the broadcaster providing the incubation services. Let’s look at each of these questions.
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With the NAB Convention upon us, and much of the talk being centered on television issues including the repacking of the TV band after the incentive auction, the conversion to the next-generation of TV transmission as allowed by the new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard, and the effects of the FCC’s changes in the local television ownership rules and the reinstatement of the UHF discount in connection with the national ownership cap, it almost seems like radio is an afterthought. The FCC is considering some matters of interest to radio, including how to revitalize the AM band, and it has taken steps to revitalize individual AM stations through the use of FM translators. And the FCC is apparently considering changes in FM through the creation of a new class of C4 stations (see our post here). Yet, in recent ownership orders from the FCC, while TV ownership rules have been dramatically relaxed in the face of new video competition so that local TV owners can more robustly address their challengers, there were no corresponding changes in the radio rules. In the last ownership proceeding (which we summarized here), other than making changes to the embedded market rules (potentially affecting only radio stations in the suburbs of New York and Washington), and allowing ownership joint ownership of radio with TV and newspapers through the abolition of the cross-ownership rules that had limited or prohibited those combinations, radio ownership rules themselves have not been subject to any real changes in ownership limits since those limits were set in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The FCC did make some changes early in this century when it adopted Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) markets as the way in which competition in rated markets is defined, but the numbers of stations that one party can own has not changed since those numbers were established in the 1996 Act – even though Congress gave the FCC the authority to review and revise the rules to insure that they remained in the public interest.

While there have been no changes in the ownership rules for radio, think about the changes that have taken place in the competitive environment since 1996. At that point, streaming was something only a few technologically-forward people even knew existed. Pandora did not launch its streaming service for another decade, and Spotify was even further behind – not launching in the US until 2011. Even those few people who knew that audio streaming existed in 1996 would never have thought that they could listen to a streaming service in their cars. Apple was not offering a streaming music service – in fact it had not even introduced the iPod (introduced in 2001) or the iTunes store (2003) – both now about to become technological relics themselves because of technological changes. Given that there was no iPod, there were obviously no podcasts to bring audio storytelling to the millions who now listen to their favorite programming through the multitude of services that provide podcasts on almost any subject. There was no Alexa to bring Amazon and other music services into the home – in fact Amazon itself had only begun selling books online in 1995. Even Sirius XM (then Sirius and XM as two competing companies) had not initiated their services at the time of the 1996 Act – as XM did not start providing service to consumers for another 5 years (with Sirius launching a year later). And the pace of change for audio technology is not slowing.
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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this week released a “fact sheet” setting out a summary of the draft order now circulating among the FCC Commissioners for review and possible approval. This order, if adopted, would resolve the Quadrennial Review of the FCC’s ownership rules. As we wrote here, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently pushed the FCC to quickly resolve this proceeding. The FCC had punted two years ago when it decided that it could not resolve its 2010 Quadrennial Review of the ownership rules and pushed consideration of most of the issues forward to this Quadrennial Review, preliminarily suggesting that few rule changes were necessary. The Chairman’s fact sheet seems to suggest that, in fact, few are being proposed.

  • With one exception, despite the proliferation of new media outlets that compete for the revenue and audience of over-the-air radio and television, the proposed changes set out in the fact sheet seem to make the ownership rules more restrictive – not less restrictive. In other words, traditional media is not given any significantly greater leeway to combine operations to compete with its digital competitors. The one exception is a very modest proposal to allow case-by-case waivers of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule (which some commentators, including us, have suggested may outlive the newspaper), but only where it can be shown that there are economically failing media entities looking to combine. The order addresses basic FCC ownership rules as follows:
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The FCC yesterday released a Notice of Inquiry, formally beginning its Quadrennial Review of the Multiple Ownership Rules.  While the FCC informally began the process of the Congressionally-mandated review of the ownership rules last November through a series of informational panels and workshops, the Notice of Inquiry ("NOI") provides the first formal opportunity for the public to comment on the ownership rules.  The FCC will take the comments that it receives in response to the NOI, and formulate some more specific proposals on how it plans to change the current rules (if at all), which will then be released for additional comments in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  The NOI is a broad-ranging document that gives little indication of the FCC’s final direction in this proceeding – though it does go into detail as to how the media marketplace has changed in recent years, citing declining advertising revenues, and more media outlets providing competition to broadcasters for both audience and advertising revenues.   The NOI posed dozens of detailed questions asking how the Commission should assess the various aspects of the ownership rules, and what impact the changes in the media marketplace should have on its consideration of rule changes.

The FCC is concerned with all aspects of its media ownership rules.  Thus, it sets out that it will explore the following rules:

  • The Local Television Ownership cap, which limits owners to two stations in markets where there are at least 8 competing television owners and operators, and which forbids combinations of the top 4 stations in any market.  Television operators, particularly in smaller markets, have been urging the Commission to allow more consolidation in those markets so that stations can provide better service to their communities.  They argue that the current limits preclude small market consolidation, which is most needed in these markets where the costs of operation are not significantly lower than in large markets, but where revenue opportunities are far more limited.
  • The Local radio ownership caps, that currently limit owners to 8 stations in the largest markets, no more than 5 of which can be in any single service (i.e. AM or FM).  Some radio owners contend that these limits no longer make sense given the competition for audio listening from so many sources (including satellite and Internet radio, who can provide unlimited formats in any market).  Other issues include whether AM and FM still need to be treated separately, and even whether AM should be counted to the same degree as FM in a multiple ownership analysis.
  • The Newspaper-Broadcast cross-ownership rule, that forbids cross-ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers without a waiver – which, as the result of changes in the cross-ownership rules in 2007, will be granted on a more liberal basis, but only in the top 20 markets.  Given the economic state of the newspaper industry, many seek the repeal of this rule in its entirety. As we have written before, will the newspaper cross-ownership rule outlive the newspaper?
  • The Radio-Television cross-ownership rule, which limits the number of radio and television stations that can be owned by a single party in a single market
  • The Dual Network Rule, that prohibits the common ownership of any of the top 4 television networks.

Each of these rules is up for review, and numerous questions have been asked, and issues identified, for consideration in this proceeding. 


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