Multiple Ownership Rules

In 2009, the FCC adopted a uniform deadline for all commercial broadcast licensees to file an FCC Form 323 Biennial Ownership Report.  The due date for that report was supposed to be November 1 of that year, but was postponed until July of 2010 when problems popped up with the new forms.  The next Biennial Ownership reporting date was scheduled to be November 1 of this year (two years after the originally scheduled date for the first report to use the new form) – but the FCC today issued a Public Notice postponing the filing deadline for one month, to December 1.  This delay was justified so as to give broadcasters, especially those with many media interests held in different companies, more time to complete what can be a cumbersome process of filling out all of the reports and exhibits that need to be submitted.  Reports need to be filed by December 1, but all information still needs to be reported as of October 1 of this year – a standard reporting date that will remain constant each year to give the FCC a snapshot of the composition of ownership in the broadcast world.

The revised ownership report filing processwas adopted so that the FCC could get an accurate report on the ownership of broadcast properties by minorities and women, a goal that has taken on added significance in light of the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Prometheus Radio Project v FCC, rejecting the FCC’s efforts to diversify ownership in the media through the use of a system giving preferences to qualified entities, i.e. small businesses.  As we wrote last month, the Court found that the FCC’s goal was to promote minority and female ownership, which was not fostered by its concentration on small businesses.  One of the issues on which the Court faulted the FCC was the lack of information about the current broadcast ownership interests of minorities and women, so that the FCC could do a "Adarand study" as to whether there are effects of past discrimination reflected in the current ownership of broadcast stations that need to be remedied by affirmative action efforts based on race or gender.  These new ownership reports are designed to help to provide that information.Continue Reading FCC Extends Filing Date to December 1 for 2011 Form 323 Biennial Ownership Report – New Significance After Prometheus Court Decision

When one broadcast licensee company buys another, or when there is a restructuring of a company with broadcast ownership holdings that are grandfathered under current ownership rules, there often arises a need to divest stations so that the buyer (or the new controlling parties after a restructuring) complies with the multiple ownership rules after the completion of the transaction.  Often, selling the non-compliant stations quickly so as to not unduly delay the closing of the purchase or the restructuring is difficult, as it takes time to locate a buyer for the "extra" stations and to negotiate a fair sales price.  In fact, a forced divestiture can artificially depress the sales price for the non-compliant stations that need to be spun off, as potential purchasers of the stations know that any delay of the principal transaction will impose costs on the buyer and seller in that deal.  Thus, the parties in the principal transactions often look for ways to avoid a forced sale at a depressed price.  One method is the use of a divestiture trust – letting a trustee run the stations to be divested until a suitable purchaser can be found at a reasonable price.  The FCC has permitted such trusts, but in a case decided last week, it demonstrated that there were limits on their use by denying applications that the Commission deemed interests in too many stations in one area in the hands of one company.  This case should provide guidance on the limits of the use of divestiture trusts for those who may consider them in future broadcast transactions.

The case involved radio stations in two smaller markets in Washington state, Yakima and the Tri-Cities. There, new Northwest Broadcasting had held full complements of stations, at or close to the ownership limits in each market.  New Northwest went into bankruptcy, and a receiver was appointed to run the stations.  The receiver reached a deal to sell the stations to Townsquare Media, which already held clusters of stations in these markets, also at or near the ownership limits in the markets.  Townsquare proposed to cherrypick from the New Northwest cluster a few prime stations, and then to assign the remainder (and a few stations that Townsquare had itself owned) to a divestiture trust, with instructions to sell off these stations to an independent buyer.  While the FCC decision does not explicitly set forth the terms of the trust, it appears that the beneficial interest in the sales price of the stations to be divested (and presumably any operating profit until the stations were sold) would be for the benefit of Townsquare.  In looking at this proposed transaction, the FCC’s Media Bureau determined that the proposal to use this trust would concentrate a beneficial  interest in too many radio stations in the hands of one company.  Thus, the applications were dismissed.Continue Reading FCC Sets Limits on Use of Divestiture Trusts When Station Purchase Would Put Buyer in Violation of Multiple Ownership Rules

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has once again questioned the FCC’s determinations on broadcast ownership issues. In a decision just published, Prometheus Radio Project v FCC, the Court reviewed the FCC’s 2007 actions relaxing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules and adopting policies to increase diversity in broadcast ownership.  These FCC decisions had followed a prior decision of the Third Circuit determining that the FCC’s 2003 Ownership Order, relaxing many FCC ownership rules, was not adequately justified.  The FCC’s subsequent actions on cross ownership were set out in its 2007 order, relaxed the newspaper broadcast cross ownership rules in larger markets through a policy based on certain presumptions that, when met, justified the common ownership of newspapers and radio and television stations in larger markets (and, in some cases, in smaller markets too)( see our summary of this order here and here).  The diversity order, released in 2008 (summarized here and here), adopted a number of rules and policies meant to encourage diversity in media ownership.  In this new decision, the Court found that both the decision as to the newspaper cross ownership rules and the one dealing with diversity policies were wanting, and sent these matters back to the FCC for further consideration. At the same time, the Court upheld the FCC’s decisions not to change the local television ownership rules (allowing common ownership of 2 TV stations only when there are at least 8 independently owned stations in a market, and where the combined stations are not both among the Top 4 in their markets) and to retain the sub-caps for radio ownership (the rules that allow one entity to own up to 8 stations in a single market, as long as there are no more than 5 in any single service, i.e. AM or FM).

The discussion of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules was entirely procedural.  While certain public interest groups had argued that the 2007 revision to the cross ownership rules allowed too many broadcast-newspaper combinations, a number of media companies argued that it allowed too few.  The Court didn’t address either contention, instead focusing on the process by which the FCC adopted the rules.  When the Court addressed the 2003 rule changes, it sent that decision back to the Commission questioning the basis for the "diversity index" that the FCC had adopted to measure when transactions resulted in too much concentration in a market, and specifically instructed the FCC to give the public notice and an opportunity to comment on the specifics of any new proposal that was adopted.  The Court felt that there were too many obvious flaws in the diversity index which could have been discovered if the public had been given a chance to review its details before it was adopted.  In asking for comments following the Court’s remand, the recent decision concluded that the FCC had given the public only a cursory description of the issues that it would consider on remand with respect to the cross-ownership issue when the FCC issued its request for public comment.  The substance of the Commission’s policies which were adopted, setting out presumptions in favor of cross-ownership in larger markets and against it in smaller markets, was not suggested in the request for public comment, but instead was first floated in a newspaper Op-Ed by then FCC Chair Kevin Martin.  While the FCC asked for comment on that proposal, parties were given less than a month to file comments, and a draft decision embodying the proposal was already circulating at the FCC before the comment period had even ended. This process prompted much outcry at the contentious FCC meeting at which these rules were adopted (see our summary here).  The Court looked at this process, and determined that the public had not been given an adequate opportunity to address the specifics of the FCC proposal, and had given the appearance of having pre-judged the outcome of the case.  Thus, this week’s decision sent the FCC’s 2007 order back to the FCC to seek more public comment, and to develop rules based on those comments. Continue Reading Court Tells FCC to Give More Consideration to Newspaper-Broadcast Cross Ownership Rules and to Policies to Promote Broadcast Ownership By Minorities

Is the release of the long-awaited Future of Media Report at hand?  Since January 2010, the FCC has been studying the Future of Media, a study conducted by a Special Advisor to the FCC Chairman who was appointed in November 2009.  The study was to provide important research and analysis of how broadcasting and other

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.Continue Reading On the 15th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, The Effect on Broadcasters is Still Debated

FCC Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker recently delivered a speech in Washington, DC, where she addressed calls for the government to take action to assist the traditional media deal with the economic issues brought about by the new media.  From time to time, there have been calls for the government to assist the traditional media, either through some sort of direct subsidies, or through regulatory changes that could assist in their news coverage to make these entities competitive in the new media world.  While the Commissioner’s speech did not detail those efforts, calls have, for the most part, not suggested direct government subsidies to support traditional news media sources.  Instead, more indirect efforts have been suggested to insure that these media sources continue to serve their communities.  Calls have been made to change tax laws to allow newspapers to operate as nonprofit entities (while still soliciting advertising).  In a draft FTC option paper, there was a suggestion of taxing commercial media to provide more support to noncommercial public broadcasting entities.  Other proposals have been more direct – simply mandating more news and public affairs programming from broadcasters (with little or no discussion of the source of the revenues for such mandates).  In her speech, the Commissioner noted that some suggestions may be forthcoming from the FCC’s own Future of Media report due at the end of the year (see our summary of the issues that they are exploring here), but she seemed to rule out these types of proposals, instead suggesting that the Commission could assist companies meet the new media challenge by loosening FCC restrictions on ownership.

The Commissioner suggested that no government action to bail out the media is necessary to preserve service to the public – citing the many examples of how that service is provided through new media sites that serve all sorts of communities and community groups – providing timely and detailed information on specific topics, often on a neighborhood level.  We have made that same point on these pages – the new media is already filling any void that may exist in local media coverage.  Some of these sites are produced by old media companies – as TV stations, newspapers and others develop microsites targeted to very local needs and interests.  Other sites are totally independent – developed by local interest groups or new media entrepreneurs.  So how can the Commission help these sites to develop?Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Baker Suggests No Government Support for Media, But Possible Relaxation of Broadcast Ownership Rules

The FCC’s Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on Multiple Ownership has been published in the Federal Register, setting July 12, 2010 as the deadline for comments, with July 26 as the deadline for reply filings.   We previously outlined many of the questions asked in the wide-ranging Notice of Inquiry. The questions deal with the entire spectrum of media ownership issues, from asking questions about how the new media landscape changes the considerations given to media ownership restrictions, to inquiries into the way in which the consumer gets needed news and information programming from broadcast outlets, and the impact of consolidation on that information.  Filing comments in this proceeding before the deadline will help to shape the discussion that will occur. The FCC claims to be intent on finishing its review of the ownership during this calender year but, as the comments in this proceeding must be distilled into more specific proposals to be reflected in a subsequent  Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which must itself be subject to public comment, this would seem a very ambitious task given that there will be less than 6 months remaining after the comments are replies on the NOI are submitted. Nevertheless, the short 30 day comment period on the NOI seems designed to speed review – so time is short for interested parties to draft and submit meaningful comments on the fundamental and wide-ranging questions that are being asked..

Further highlighting the difficulty in completing the ownership review this year, is the FCC’s Public Notice that was just released – announcing that it is seeking bids for nine different studies to review various issues relevant to the media ownership proceeding. According to the Public Notice, studies will look at many of the issues on which the Commission has sought comment in the NOI, including studies of how consumers receive local news and information, the effect that media consolidation affects the diversity of programming and the degree of civic engagement in a community, and even requesting a study to design a model to be used to measure the degree of media consolidation in a market.  the Commission also asked for suggestions as to other studies that it could conduct relevant to this proceeding.  Comments on other potential areas of study are due by July 7.Continue Reading Comments Due July 12 on Multiple Ownership Notice of Inquiry – And FCC Solicits Bids for Proposed Media Ownership Studies

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

In a very cryptic announcement, the Chairs of the House and Senate commerce committees, and the Chairs of the subcommittees dealing specifically with communications matters, have announced that they are beginning the process of rewriting the Communications Act of 1934, the Act which governs regulation of broadcasters as well as telecommunications, satellite and mobile communications entities.  The announcement, from Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Senator John F. Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, and Rep. Rick Boucher, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, merely states that they will "will invite stakeholders to participate in a series of bipartisan, issue-focused meetings beginning in June" to address the issues that would be involved in such a rewrite.  The announcement then says that more details will be forthcoming.

What does this mean for broadcasters?  At this point, until more details are released, the issues to be addressed are anyone’s guess.  Much has been made in recent years of the changing nature of the media and communications industry, particularly in light of the development of the Internet.  In a recent decision, the Courts have said that the FCC is limited in its ability to regulate the provision of Internet services, and the initial impetus for this rewrite proposal may well come from that decision.  But these processes, once begun, often take on a life of their own, with new proposals covering issues not necessarily anticipated at the outset of the proceeding arising as the process goes on.  While there are minor amendments to the Act almost every year, the last comprehensive rewrite of the Act took place in 1996.  There, while much of the debate focused on telecommunications issues (which will likely be the case here as well, as there are far more dollars at stake than in the broadcast world), broadcast ownership reform emerged at the last minute – abolishing numerical caps on television ownership and all caps on radio ownership nationally, and raising the local limits on radio ownership from the 4 stations (2 AMs and 2 FMs) previously allowed to be owned in one market by any party, to the current cap allowing ownership of as many as 8 radio stations in the largest markets.Continue Reading Congress to Rewrite the Communications Act – What Could It Mean For Broadcasters?

In recent years, as competition in the video marketplace has become more intense, in a number of broadcast television markets, competing stations have teamed up to combine certain of their operations to achieve economies while still allowing for some degree of independence of programming.  Under these "shared services agreements", one station will provide back-office support and often advertising sales for another station in the market.  Where the station providing the support programs less than 15% of the programming hours of the station being supported, the contractual arrangement is not "attributable under the FCC’s multiple ownership rules.  Thus, these services can be provided in circumstances where the supported station could not be owned by the station that is providing the services.  Nevertheless, a number of these arrangements have been under attack from public interest groups, and recent Commission actions indicate that the FCC may well be reviewing its position on these sorts of agreements.

A few weeks ago, in approving an application which provided for a shared service agreement between two television stations in the same market (over the objection of a competitor), the FCC noted that it was approving the deal as consistent with its rules as they are currently enforced, but warned that the arrangements would be reviewed as part of the FCC’s review of its multiple ownership rules – a review which is to take place this year.  This week, the FCC agreed to treat a case in Hawaii, which has generated much controversy and press coverage, as a "permit but disclose" proceeding, meaning that parties are not confined to the usual process of arguing their cases through written submissions served on all parties (or meetings at which all parties are present).  Instead, interested parties can now meet with FCC decision-making staff (including FCC commissioners) on their own, as long as they file an "ex parte" notice in the record summarizing the presentations that they made.  This process is usually used only for high-profile decisions with potential far-reaching impact or where new policy is potentially to be made. Continue Reading More Indications of FCC Review of TV Shared Services Agreements