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. 


Continue Reading FCC Issues Multiple Ownership Notice of Inquiry – Formally Begins Quadrennial Review With Lots of Questions To Assess the Impact of Media Consolidation

The FCC has released the agenda for its Workshop on the multiple ownership rules (about which we wrote here).  The workshop will span three mornings (November 2-4), and will include live testimony from a different panel each morning.  The first panel will include the academic perspective on ownership rules, the second the view from "public interest organizations", and the third from industry representatives, though the participants on that panel are, at this point, the most unsettled.  The Commission also requests written comments from the public, which can be filed through November 20.  As we wrote when this topic first came up last month, these workshops are the first step in the FCC’s consideration of the multiple ownership rules – a review that it is required to conduct once every 4 years – with 2010 being the year in which such review is required. 

The Commission sets out a series of questions that it would like to have addressed.  These questions include:

  • The FCC is required by statute to consider the rules governing local radio ownership, local television ownership, radio-TV cross-ownership, broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership and the dual network rule.  The Commission asks if it should consider other rules in the context of this proceeding.
  • In assessing ownership rules, should the Commission treat each rule in isolation, or should it look at all media together and attempt to craft more general rules addressing media consolidation as a whole in relevant markets?
  • Should rules that are adopted be "bright line" rules, that limit entities to specific numbers of stations, or should the Commission make a case by case determination of whether a combination is in the public interest, subject to some general principles?
  • Should the Commission address the traditional concepts of competition, diversity and localism to this proceeding, or come up with new ways of looking at these concepts, or different concepts to assess ownership goals?
  •  How should the FCC analyze competition, localism and diversity in today’s marketplace?  What are the relevant markets for analysis?  What metrics should be used?
  • What studies or analysis should the FCC use to inform its decisions on these topics.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Agenda for First Workshop on Revisions to its Multiple Ownership Rules – Localism and Economic Competition Issues Included

The press was abuzz yesterday with the news that Julius Genachowski is apparently the pick of the Obama Administration for the position of FCC Chairman.  Mr. Genachowski was at the FCC during the Reed Hundt Administration, and has since worked in the private sector in the telecommunications industry, including work with Barry Diller and running a DC-based venture capital fund.  From the positive reactions that the appointment has received from all quarters, the choice would seem to be a great one.  But, in looking at some of the reactions, you have to question whether everyone has to be reading what they want to see into the new Commission.  For instance, while the NAB has praised the choice of Genachowski (stating  that he "has a keen intellect, a passion for public service, and a deep understanding of the important role that free and local broadcasting plays in American life"), so too did media-reform organization Free Press ("This moment calls for bold and immediate steps to spur competition, foster innovation and breathe new life into our communications sector. With his unique blend of business and governmental experience, Genachowski promises to provide the strong leadership we need.")  What will this appointment really mean for broadcasters?

In short – who knows?  When Kevin Martin was appointed Chairman of the FCC, few would have imagined that a former communications attorney, a person deeply involved in the Bush campaign, and a former staffer of FCC Commissioner Harold Furtchgott-Roth (perhaps the most free market Commissioner ever) would have supported sustained, wide-reaching inquiries into the underbrush of FCC regulation – e.g. localism, embedded advertising, indecency.  So we can’t really know what a Chairman will do until he does it.  The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both suggest that the new chairman will be focused on Internet issues, and may be less interested in indecency – but who knows?


Continue Reading Julius Genachowski as New FCC Chair – What Will It Mean to Broadcasting’s Future?

In recent months, the broadcast industry has experienced one of the most active periods of regulatory activity in recent memory. Since November, the FCC has adopted enhanced disclosure obligations concerning the public interest programming of television broadcasters and requirements for an on-line public inspection file; rejected most calls for increased deregulation of broadcast ownership (allowing only the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in the largest markets); established specific prohibitions against advertising practices that involved “no Spanish, no urban dictates”; placed mandatory disclosure obligations on television broadcasters in connection with promotion of the DTV transition; proposed rules that could favor low power FM stations over improvements in full-power broadcast services and existing FM translator licensees; and proposed sweeping regulation of broadcasters which could potentially require specific amounts of nonentertainment programming by all stations, restrict the flexibility of broadcasters’ location of their main studios, require 24-7 live staffing for all stations that operate on that basis, and perhaps even evaluate the music selection process of radio operators. Rumored to be in the offing are proposals to regulate embedded advertising, to adopt enhanced rules on sponsorship identification in connection with video news releases and payola-like practices, and perhaps even expand EEO reporting requirements (as the FCC recently asked for public comment on the employee-classification information for its long-suspended requirements for the filing of FCC Form 395 – the Annual Employment Report in which stations categorize all their employees by their employment duties, race and gender). And Congress has not been idle, with proposals introduced for the adoption of a performance royalty on over-the-air radio for the use of sound recordings, hearings about potential restrictions on prescription drug advertising, and a proposal to roll back the limited ownership reform adopted by the Commission in December.

With all this activity in a six month period under a Republican administration with a Republican majority on the FCC, during a time of great turmoil in the broadcast industry itself, as television prepares for the digital transition and broadcast revenue growth is slow or nonexistent (based on a variety of factors including general economic conditions and competition from the plethora of new media choices), many broadcasters are wondering what’s going on? And some fear even more changes could come about in any new administration that may come to Washington after the November elections, no matter what the result of that election. The one candidate with the most experience in the regulation of broadcasting, Senator McCain who has chaired the Senate Commerce Committee which regulates the broadcast industry, has by no means been a captive of the broadcast industry – leading efforts to enhance the use of LPFM and at one point pushing a spectrum tax proposal for television broadcasters for the use of the digital spectrum.


Continue Reading Broadcasters and the Regulatory Pendulum – Swinging Toward More Regulation

Just prior to the filing of comments in the FCC’s Localism proceeding on April 28, one FCC Commissioner has spoken out, condemning these proposals as being unnecessary in a world of vast media competition, and likely unconstitutional.  According to press reports, Commissioner Robert McDowell last week argued that the rules were unnecessary and counterproductive in a world of media plenty.  The Commissioner pointed to all of the competition from digital and traditional media and asked why the Commission should impose on broadcasters rules abolished 20 years ago – rules which will put them at a competitive disadvantage in the new media world.  These are sentiments that we have repeatedly echoed here.

Today, as comments were being submitted to the Commission, a letter from 23 Senators was sent to the Commission making many of the same arguments.  The letter suggests that the Commission was imposing unreasonable costs on broadcasters when these broadcasters have an economic incentive to serve the public or risk the loss of their audience and the resulting loss of advertising and income.  In other words, they are arguing that the Commission had it right 20 years ago when it decided that marketplace competition would insure that broadcasters served the public interest.  This letter is a companion to the letter sent to the FCC the week before last by members of the House of Representatives, about which we wrote here.


Continue Reading As Comments are Filed in Localism Proceeding, Commissioner Speaks Out

In the early 1980s, the FCC deregulated many of the very detailed programing rules that governed broadcasters,  based on the theory that the marketplace would assure that broadcasters provided programming of interest to their local community.  The FCC looked at the marketplace, and decided that broadcasters either had to program to the needs of their community, or risk the loss of their audience to competitors.  Now, the FCC is proposing to bring back many of these rules with a vengeance (see our post on the FCC’s current efforts) – imposing rules even more detailed than those that were abolished over a quarter century ago.  A look at this week’s news raises the question of why now – when there are more media choices than ever (and when, particularly in the radio industry, revenues with which to meet such requirements are shrinking) – the FCC cannot rely on the marketplace to assure service to the public.  When marketplace forces require that broadcasters use their most important asset – their localism – to compete against all the new competition, the FCC is now looking to require that broadcasters meet their public interest obligations in a very specific, cookie cutter, government-mandated fashion.  Some of the announcements made this week highlight the extent of the competition that broadcasters now face.

On the most basic level, there are simply far more stations than there ever were.  According to an FCC Report published in 1980, there were 4559 commercial AM stations, 3155 commercial FM stations, and 1038 noncommercial FM stations.  While the number of AM stations had not increased substantially by the end of 2007 (4776), the number of commercial FM stations has doubled to 6309, and the number of noncommercial FMs has increased even more substantially, to 2892.  TV shows a similar increase in service – from 746 commercial and 267 noncommercial stations in 1980 to 1379 commercial stations and 380 noncommercial stations.  In addition, thousand of LPTV stations have been created, and over 800 LPFM stations – services that didn’t even exist in 1980.  Clearly, the over-the-air competition is far greater than when the FCC initiated its deregulation efforts.


Continue Reading I-Pod Radio, Internet in Cars and More Broadcast Stations Than Ever – Why Can’t the Marketplace Decide?