Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the next Quadrennial Review of the FCC’s ownership rules was adopted in December and was published today in the Federal Register, starting the 60 day period for public comments. Comments on the NPRM will be due on April 29 with reply comments due on May 29. The FCC is looking at numerous issues, including one issue, the rules setting out the limits on the number of radio stations that one company can own in a market, that has not been reviewed in depth in recent Quadrennial Reviews. On the TV side, the FCC is again looking at local TV ownership (specifically combinations of Top 4 stations in a market and shared services agreements) and also at the dual network rule restricting common ownership of two of the Top 4 TV networks. In addition, the FCC is reviewing additional ideas on how to increase diversity in broadcast ownership. Today, let’s look at the FCC’s questions on the local radio ownership rules.

The review of the radio ownership rules may well be the most fundamental issue facing the Commission in this proceeding, as no real changes have been made in those rules since they were adopted as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. As we wrote here, the marketplace has certainly changed since 1996 – which was at least a decade before Google and Facebook became the local advertising giants that they now are; and before Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and many other web services offered by tech giants became competitors for the audience for music entertainment. And spoken word entertainment competition was also virtually non-existent – “audiobooks” were a niche product and the concept of a “podcast” would have been totally foreign when the current rules were written. So what are some of the questions about the radio ownership rules that are being asked by the FCC?
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With the NAB Convention upon us, and much of the talk being centered on television issues including the repacking of the TV band after the incentive auction, the conversion to the next-generation of TV transmission as allowed by the new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard, and the effects of the FCC’s changes in the local television ownership rules and the reinstatement of the UHF discount in connection with the national ownership cap, it almost seems like radio is an afterthought. The FCC is considering some matters of interest to radio, including how to revitalize the AM band, and it has taken steps to revitalize individual AM stations through the use of FM translators. And the FCC is apparently considering changes in FM through the creation of a new class of C4 stations (see our post here). Yet, in recent ownership orders from the FCC, while TV ownership rules have been dramatically relaxed in the face of new video competition so that local TV owners can more robustly address their challengers, there were no corresponding changes in the radio rules. In the last ownership proceeding (which we summarized here), other than making changes to the embedded market rules (potentially affecting only radio stations in the suburbs of New York and Washington), and allowing ownership joint ownership of radio with TV and newspapers through the abolition of the cross-ownership rules that had limited or prohibited those combinations, radio ownership rules themselves have not been subject to any real changes in ownership limits since those limits were set in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The FCC did make some changes early in this century when it adopted Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) markets as the way in which competition in rated markets is defined, but the numbers of stations that one party can own has not changed since those numbers were established in the 1996 Act – even though Congress gave the FCC the authority to review and revise the rules to insure that they remained in the public interest.

While there have been no changes in the ownership rules for radio, think about the changes that have taken place in the competitive environment since 1996. At that point, streaming was something only a few technologically-forward people even knew existed. Pandora did not launch its streaming service for another decade, and Spotify was even further behind – not launching in the US until 2011. Even those few people who knew that audio streaming existed in 1996 would never have thought that they could listen to a streaming service in their cars. Apple was not offering a streaming music service – in fact it had not even introduced the iPod (introduced in 2001) or the iTunes store (2003) – both now about to become technological relics themselves because of technological changes. Given that there was no iPod, there were obviously no podcasts to bring audio storytelling to the millions who now listen to their favorite programming through the multitude of services that provide podcasts on almost any subject. There was no Alexa to bring Amazon and other music services into the home – in fact Amazon itself had only begun selling books online in 1995. Even Sirius XM (then Sirius and XM as two competing companies) had not initiated their services at the time of the 1996 Act – as XM did not start providing service to consumers for another 5 years (with Sirius launching a year later). And the pace of change for audio technology is not slowing.
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In Washington DC this week, many in the communications world are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Five years ago, we noted the changes that the Act made in the broadcast regulatory world – changes that are still being debated 20 years later. To show how little things change, I thought that I would republish the article that I wrote 5 years ago. There, I talked about some of the changes made in 1996 in the broadcast ownership rules that were still being debated in 2011, and suggested that they might be resolved by the review of the multiple ownership rules that was then about to begin. Of course, that didn’t happen (see our article here about the FCC’s decision to push most of the ownership decisions into the current Quadrennial Review of those rules. So we can again make the same claim – that perhaps some of these issues will be resolved by the current ownership rule review that is supposed to be decided this summer (though that date may well slip – see our predictions for the FCC’s actions on broadcast issues for this year, here).

Our article from 5 years ago also talked about calls then being made by one FCC Commissioner to roll back some of the 1996 reforms lengthening the license term for broadcasters. Those calls seem to have gone unheard so perhaps that one issue may have been resolved – at least for the time being.  It also discussed the proposals for the repurposing of the TV spectrum for wireless uses, which has led to the Incentive Auction that the FCC is about to conduct. 

But other issues remain on the table.  So here is a look back at what I wrote 5 years ago on the 15th anniversary of the Act:

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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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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