radio television cross ownership

Yesterday, a panel of judges from the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided by a 2 to 1 vote to overturn the FCC’s 2017 decision that made significant changes to its ownership rules (see the decision here).  The Court sent the case back to the FCC for further consideration.  The 2017 decision (see our article here) was the one which ended the ban on the cross ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers in the same market and the limits on radio-television cross-ownership.  The 2017 decision also allowed television broadcasters to own two TV stations in markets with fewer than 8 independent owners and made other changes to the radio and TV ownership rules.  Yesterday’s decision also put on hold the FCC’s incubator program meant to assist new owners to acquire radio stations (see our summary of the incubator program here).  All of this was done without any analysis whatsoever as to whether marketplace changes justified the changes to the ownership rules or of the impact that the undoing these rule changes would have on broadcasters and other media companies – including on radio companies hoping for changes in the radio ownership rules in current proceeding to review those rules (see our articles here and here).

What led the Court to overturn the decision if it was not the Court’s disagreement with the FCC’s determination that change in the ownership rules was needed?  This Court, in fact these same three judges, has overturned the FCC three times in the last 15 years, stymieing ownership changes because the Court concluded that the FCC had not sufficiently taken into account the impact that rule changes would have on diversity in the ranks of broadcast owners.  Here, again, the Court determined that the FCC did not have sufficient information on the impact of the rule changes on ownership diversity to conclude that the rule changes were in the public interest – and thus sent the case back to the FCC to obtain that information before making any ownership rule changes.  What led the Court to that conclusion, and what can be done about this decision?
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Prometheus Radio Project and Media Mobilizing Project, public interest groups who have been opponents of relaxation in the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules, have filed the first Petition for Review of the FCC’s Order on Reconsideration of the Quadrennial Review of those rules. In November, the FCC by a 3 to 2 vote eliminated the rule

The FCC late yesterday released full texts of the decisions adopted last week to revise the broadcast ownership rules and approve the next generation television standard (ATSC 3.0). We summarized last week’s decisions, based on the press releases released after the meetings, in our article here. The full text of the ownership decision, available

At its meeting yesterday, as expected, the FCC approved significant changes to its broadcast ownership rules and also approved the roll out of ATSC 3.0 – the next generation television transmission standard. While any change in ownership rules is always a contentious issue, and thus the 3-2 strict party-line vote approving the ownership changes might not have been surprising, the television technology change adopted yesterday proved to be controversial as well, also being approved by a 3-2 vote.

As of the writing of this article on Friday morning, the final texts of these decisions have not been released, so the details of these actions are not available. We will write further about the decisions next week when we have had a chance to digest the final orders. But summaries of both decisions, and the texts of the Commissioner’s statements on the issues, were released late yesterday.
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According to the testimony given yesterday by FCC Chairman Pai at an oversight hearing before the House of Representatives Communications and Technology Subcommittee, the FCC is likely to release today a draft of its order on reconsideration of last year’s FCC decision on its Quadrennial Review of its broadcast ownership rules (the rules restricting the

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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The FCC’s rules limiting the common ownership of radio and television stations, and of television stations and daily newspapers, are triggered by the Grade A contours of the television station encompassing the city of license of the radio station, or the city in which the newspaper is published.  Since June, there has been one problem with the application of that rule (Section 73.3555) – television stations in the digital world no longer have Grade A contours.  When adopting service contours for digital television, the FCC specified a Noise Limited Service Contour ("NLSC") as essentially the equivalent of the Grade B contour of an analog television signal – the contour at which the majority of people can receive the signal a majority of the time.  The FCC also specified a principal city contour – the signal level that needed to be placed over a station’s city of license.  But the FCC never bothered to specify the Grade A contour, despite the fact that the cross-ownership rules were premised on that contour.  In a case decided last week involving the financial restructuring of a radio company, the FCC’s Media Bureau staff decided that they would use the NLSC as a proxy for the Grade A contour until such time as the full Commission otherwise directed.

This decision actually makes common ownership of television stations and either newspapers or radio stations somewhat more difficult, as the noise limited contour, approximating the old analog Grade B contour, actually extends further than where the Grade A contour would have reached (when a digital station replicated its analog service area).  Thus, using this standard, the owners of a television station could be precluded from having attributable interests in radio stations or daily papers in more communities than would have been the case in the analog world.  As the FCC is now embarking on its review of the multiple ownership rules (as we have written before), the FCC may well revisit this issue in the course of that review.


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