Last week, the FCC approved the long-pending application for the transfer of control of Clear Channel Broadcasting from its public shareholder to several private equity funds. Even though the application had been pending at the FCC for over a year, the Commission’s decision was notable for the paucity of issues that were discussed. The decision approves the transfer, conditioned on certain divestitures by the Company and by the equity funds that will control the new company, including divestitures previously ordered by the Commission in connection with the investment of one of these funds in Univision Broadcasting but not yet completed, and rejects three petitions that, from the Commission’s description, did not involve fundamental issues about the nature of the overall transaction, but were instead devoted to certain limited issues, in two cases involving actions in a single market. The divestiture conditions were approved seemingly as a matter of course, and do not provide any new insights into the law concerning the FCC’s attribution rules (unlike the recent decision approving the transfer of control of Ion Television, about which we wrote here, which contained an extensive detailed discussion of what it takes to make an ownership interest “nonattributable” for purposes of the FCC multiple ownership rules). Given the lack of controversy in the Commission’s order, what is perhaps most noteworthy about the decision are the concurring statements of the two Democratic Commissioners, which may provide some indication of the concerns of the Commission should we have a Democratic-controlled Commission following this year’s Presidential election.

Of course, as we’ve described in our posts about the FCC’s Localism Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (here), and the new rules regarding Enhanced Disclosure requirements for television broadcasters (here), the Commission has already begun to act in a far more regulatory manner than any other Commission in the past 20 years. Yet the issues raised by the Democrats in this decision are in areas not yet considered by the Commission. Commissioner Copps expresses his concern about the role of private equity in broadcast ownership, and whether such ownership is in the public interest. In numerous proceedings and in response to the presentation made at the FCC’s January meeting by the Media Bureau, Copps has suggested that private equity should be investigated, both to determine whether the Commission is fully aware of all ownership ties of the companies involved, and also (as emphasized in this case) for the potential economic impact on the operations of the broadcast stations caused by the new debt involved in the acquisition. Here, Commissioner Copps questions whether the announcement of a potential downgrade of the bonds of the Company if these deals occur should have been of more concern to the Commission. Private equity should be aware that, in a future FCC, an investigation of the economics of their operations should be expected.

Continue Reading Does the FCC’s Approval of the Clear Channel Transfer of Control Provide a Window Into the Future?

With a possible decision looming on December 18 on the Chairman’s proposal to loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules (see our summary here and here), the FCC this week granted two applications involving the sales of the Tribune Company and of the Clear Channel television stations, where the decisions focused on the application of the multiple ownership rules – and where the Commission granted multiple waivers of various aspects of those rules – some on a permanent basis and many only temporarily.  And, in the process, both of the Commission’s Democratic Commissioners complained about the apparent prejudgment of the cross-ownership rules and one complained about the role of private equity in broadcast ownership.  Both decisions are also interesting in their treatment of complicated ownership structures and, at least under this administration, evidence the Commission’s desire to stay out of second guessing these structures. 

In the Clear Channel decision, the Commission reviewed the proposed ownership of the new licensee by an affiliate of Providence Equity Partners.  As there were no objections to the proposed sale, the FCC approval process was somewhat easier than it might have been – though the Commission did seem to be somewhat troubled by the fact that Providence was already a shareholder with an interest attributable under the multiple ownership rules in Univision Communications, which had stations in a number of markets in which the Clear Channel television stations operate.  The Commission approved the sale, giving Providence 6 months to come into compliance with the ownership rules – and conditioning the initial closing of the Clear Channel sale on Providence meeting divestiture requirements that it had promised to observe in connection with the Univision acquisition, and had not yet complied with (in fact the Commission recently asked for comments on a proposal by Providence to come into compliance in the Univision case by simply converting their interest in Freedom Communications, which has interests in Univision markets, into a nonvoting interest which would not be attributable under Commission rules)

Continue Reading Ownership Waivers All Around – FCC Approves Sales of Tribune and Clear Channel TV

In March, we wrote about the concurring opinion of Commissioner Copps in connection with the sale of Univision Communications, where the Commissioner asked whether it was in the public interest to allow the sale of broadcast companies to private equity firms.  That theme has now been picked up by Congress, as Congressman John Dingell, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Ed Markey, Chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee, jointly sent a letter to the FCC asking for answers to a series of questions about the impact of private equity ownership of media and telecommunications facilities.  The letter, here, cites the Univision case, the acquisition of Clear Channel and the sale of a number of Radio One radio stations to private equity firms, and suggests that these firms may be more interested in cutting expenses and maximizing profits to the detriment of the public interest.  The letter asks a number of questions about whether the FCC has adequate information about such ownership to assess its impact on the public interest.

The questions posed by the letter include the following:

  • Whether the FCC currently tracks ownership of media properties by private equity companies.
  • Whether the FCC has assessed the impact of private equity ownership on localism and, if it has not, should it
  • Whether the FCC has adequate information to assess the impact of media ownership by these companies on multiple ownership considerations
  • Whether the Commission’s Equity-Debt Plus rules need to be revised to take account of private equity ownership
  • If the ownership of these entities is sufficiently public and transparent for the Commission to review that ownership.

The letter was addressed to Chairman Martin, and he was given until July 20 in which to respond.

Continue Reading Congress Asks FCC to Answer Questions about Private Equity Ownership of Media Properties