In September, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit released a 2-1 decision overturning the FCC’s 2017 decision modifying many of its ownership rules (see our summary of the Court decision here, and our review of the 2017 decision here).  The Court’s decision not only upset the plans of many media companies for acquisitions based on the changes adopted in the 2017 decision, but also dashed the hope of many radio companies for timely changes in the radio ownership rules that are under consideration by the FCC in its next Quadrennial Review of its ownership rules (see our summary of the issues in the current Quadrennial Review here).  Last week, both the FCC and a number of industry groups who were parties to the Third Circuit case filed Petitions asking that all of the sitting judges on the Third Circuit vote to rehear the decision of the three-judge panel.

The panel’s decision did not find that any of the rule changes adopted by the Commission (including the abolition of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibition) were not justified by changes in the media marketplace.  Instead, the panel voided the FCC’s decision because it did not believe that the FCC had enough historical data on minority and female ownership to be able to judge the affects of any ownership changes on diversity of ownership in the media industry.  The FCC Petition for Rehearing centered on an argument that the Commission had plenty of data to support its conclusions – and that Courts have never required government agencies to have perfect information in making any decision.  Instead, agencies are only required to have sufficient factual data to justify their conclusions.  The FCC argued that, where the information that is sought by the panel might simply not exist and where the panel’s insistence on the information has held up the FCC’s attempts to modernize its media ownership rules for a decade and a half as the same judges keep rejecting FCC attempts to justify its ownership decisions, the full Court should step in and conduct a rehearing.  The industry parties emphasized how the decision was overbroad – overturning all aspects of the FCC’s decision – even parts that had not been challenged by the petitioning parties.  The industry participants also pointed to the fact that real hardships were being imposed on media companies as the FCC had not been able make changes in its ownership rules to reflect the changes in the industry that had occurred in what may have been the most dynamic 15 years in the history of the mass media.  With these requests for rehearing on file, what is next?
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The FCC announced on Friday that it will be hosting a symposium on the state of the broadcast industry on November 21.  On that day, there will be a panel in the morning on the state of the radio industry and one in the afternoon on television.  The Public Notice released Friday lists a diverse group of panelists, but says little beyond the fact that the forum will be occurring.  What could be behind the Commission’s decision to host this session?

The FCC is working on its Quadrennial Review of its ownership rules (see our articles here and here).  There were many who expected that review to be completed either late this year or early next, with relaxation of the radio ownership rules thought to be one of the possible outcomes.  Of course, quick action may have been derailed by the decision of the Third Circuit Court of the Appeals to vacate and remand the Commission’s 2017 ownership order.  The court’s decision unwinds the FCC’s 2017 order which included abolition of the broadcast newspaper cross-ownership rule and the rule that limited one owner from owning two TV stations in the same market unless there were 8 independent television operators in that market – see our article here on the 2017 decision and our article here on the Third Circuit’s decision.  The basis of the Third Circuit decision was that the FCC did not have sufficient information to assess the impact of its rule changes on minority ownership and other potential new entrants into broadcast ownership.  If the FCC did not have enough information to justify the 2017 decisions, many believe any further changes in its rules are on hold until the FCC can either satisfy the court’s desire for more information on minority ownership or until there is a successful appeal of that decision.  Even though FCC changes to its ownership rules may be in abeyance, the November 21 forum can shed light on the current state of the industry and why changes in ownership rules may be justified.
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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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The Office of Management and Budget, acting pursuant to the Paperwork Reduction Act, has just approved the FCC’s broadcast incubator program, about which we wrote here.   That approval makes the program effective.  The program permits an established broadcaster to provide assistance to a new broadcaster (generally, a qualified small business) to enter the radio broadcast industry.  If, over a 3-year period, the assistance provided by the existing broadcaster (usually either financial assistance or management training) is deemed a success, the established broadcaster can receive a credit allowing it to purchase a station in excess of the radio ownership limits allowed for broadcasters in a market of similar size to the one in which the incubation occurred.  It is interesting that this rule became effective just as the US Court of Appeals heard oral argument on the question of whether that program does enough to encourage new entrants into broadcast ownership to meet court-imposed obligations to address these issues.

The oral argument is on the appeal of the FCC’s 2017 ownership decision which, among other things, did away with the prohibition on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership and the rule that required that there be 8 independently owned TV stations in a market before one owner could own two stations in that market.  The appeal, as we wrote here, essentially argues that the FCC has not done enough to promote minorities and other new entrants to get into broadcast ownership.  Reports are that the judges asked the FCC many questions at yesterday’s argument as to whether the FCC had enough data to conclude that the changes that were made in 2017 were in the public interest and would not unduly burden new entrants who want to get into media ownership.
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In a very short order, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit denied the request filed by certain public interest groups that had asked that the Court stop the new FCC ownership rules from taking effect and suggesting that a special master be appointed to oversee the FCC’s ownership review process. We wrote

As we wrote last week, Prometheus Radio Project and the Media Mobilizing Project have filed an appeal of the FCC’s November decision to eliminate the newspaper-broadcast and radio-television cross-ownership rules and to relax the local TV ownership rules (see our summary here).  These groups have now filed a request – an Emergency Petition

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