local radio ownership rules

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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On February 8, 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  While the Act had significant impact throughout the communications industry, the impact on broadcasters was profound, and is still being debated.  The Act made changes for broadcasters in several major areas:

  • Lengthened license renewals to 8 years for both radio and TV, and eliminated the "comparative renewal"
  • For radio, eliminated all national caps on the number of radio stations in which one party could have an attributable interest and increased to 8 stations the number one party could own in the largest radio markets
  • For television, raised national ownership caps to having stations that reached no more than 35% of the national audience, with no limits on the number of stations that could be owned as long as their reach was under that cap.
  • Allocated spectrum that resulted in the DTV transition

Obviously, the DTV spectrum began the profound changes in the way television is broadcast, and led to the current debate as to whether over-the-air television should be further cut back in order to promote wireless broadband (see our recent post on the FCC’s current proceeding on this issue).  While the other changes have now been in effect for 15 years, the debate over these provisions continue.  Some argue that the renewal and ownership modifications have created too much consolidation in the broadcast media and lessened the broadcaster’s commitment to serving the public interest.  Others argue that, in the current media world, these changes don’t go far enough. Broadcasters are under attack from many directions, as new competitors fight for local audiences (often with minimally regulated multi-channel platforms, such as those delivered over the Internet) and others attack broadcasters principal financial support – their advertising revenue. Even local advertising dollars, traditionally fought over by broadcasters and newspapers (with some competition from billboards, direct mail and local cable), is now under assault from services such as Groupon and Living Social, and from other new media competitors of all sorts.  With the debated continuing on these issues in the current day, it might be worth a few looking back at the 1996 changes for broadcasters, and their impact on the current broadcast policy debate.


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