At its December meeting, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to review the national ownership cap for over-the-air television, which limits one owner from having attributable interests in television stations reaching more than 39% of the national audience. That Notice was published in the Federal Register on Friday, setting February 26 as the date for initial comments, and March 27 as the date for reply comments. When the FCC last year reinstated the UHF discount (see our article here), one of its justifications for the reinstatement was that the elimination of the discount could not be done without a full review of the national ownership rules – as the elimination of the discount could affect the video marketplace, and any potential adverse effects should be studied before abolishing the UHF discount (the discount counts each UHF station as reaching only one-half the audience of a VHF station). When the FCC reinstated the discount, the Commission promised to initiate this rulemaking proceeding.

The NPRM basically asks two fundamental questions – does the FCC have the authority to amend the cap, and if does, should it use that authority to make changes now? The initial question is based on the fact that the 39% limit is written into statute by Congress. Obviously, this is a fundamental question, and the usual political party divide over the interpretation of ownership rules is not fully in evidence here. Republican Commissioner O’Rielly indicated in his statement supporting the initiation of the proceeding that he believes the FCC does not have the power to change the cap – only Congress can do that, as Congress set the cap and did not provide explicit authority for the FCC to review or amend it. The two Democratic Commissioners also questioned that authority – so one of these three Commissioners would have to change their initial understanding of the law for any change to become effective, or Congress would have to step in.
Continue Reading Comment Dates Set on National TV Ownership Caps – Can and Should the FCC Amend the 39% Audience Cap?

Last week, just before Thanksgiving, the FCC released the tentative agenda for its December meeting. From that agenda, it appears that the meeting will be an important one for broadcasters and other media companies. Already, the press has spent incredible amounts of time focusing on one item, referred to as “Restoring Internet Freedom” by the FCC, and “net neutrality” by many other observers. The FCC’s draft of the Order that they will be considering at their December meeting is available here.

The one pure broadcast item on the agenda is the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, looking to determine if the FCC should amend the cap limiting one TV station owner to stations reaching no more than 39% of the national audience. The FCC asks a series of questions in its draft notice of proposed rulemaking, available here, including whether it has the power to change the cap, or if the power is exclusively that of Congress. The FCC promised to initiate this proceeding when it reinstated the UHF discount (see our articles here and here). In that proceeding, the FCC determined that the UHF discount should not have been abolished without a thorough examination of the national ownership cap – an examination that will be undertaken in this new proceeding if the NPRM is adopted at the December meeting.
Continue Reading December FCC Meeting to be an Important One for Broadcasters and Other Media Companies

Yesterday, the FCC issued a Public Notice declaring the proposed acquisition of the Tribune television stations by Sinclair Broadcast Group a “permit-but-disclose” proceeding. This is not an unusual occurrence in a large broadcast combination where policy issues may be considered. This simply allows the parties to the transaction, and any other party who files

Yesterday, in a very short one page decision, the US Court of Appeals rejected the requests filed by public interest groups to stay the effect of the FCC’s decision to reinstate the UHF discount (see our article here about some of the issues involved in this stay request, and our article here about the reinstatement of the UHF discount by the current FCC). For the foreseeable future, this decision will free many broadcast television groups to acquire more television stations as UHF stations (which most TV stations now are) count for only half their audience reach in assessing compliance with the 39% limit on the national audience share that any TV owner can have. While, contrary to some press reports, this does not signal the Court’s final approval of the FCC’s decision to reinstate the discount, it does suggest the direction which the Court is likely to take in its assessment of this Commission decision.

In rejecting the stay, the Court merely says that the public interest groups did not meet the high standards necessary for a stay. As we wrote in our article the week before last, and have written before in other contexts where stays of administrative decisions have been sought (see e.g. our article here), there is a high burden for any petitioner to meet before a stay is ordered. Basically, the court looks at questions including whether the petitioner has shown that it is likely to ultimately prevail in the final decision in the case, whether there are irreparable damages that will occur from not issuing the stay and how the equities of the situation weigh in deciding whether a stay should be imposed. Presumably, the Court here either decided that the public interest groups had not shown that they were likely to prevail in the ultimate appeal of the FCC’s decision, or that they had not shown that there would be irreparable harm from not imposing the stay.
Continue Reading Court Rejects Stay on FCC’s Reinstatement of UHF Discount – Does it Mean TV Ownership Consolidation is in the Clear?

When the FCC last month reinstated the UHF discount (see our article here), it opened the door to ownership consolidation in the television industry, and immediately deals were announced based on the discount being back in place. But public interest groups in DC, fearing too much consolidation, asked the FCC to stay the effect of the rules. When the FCC did not act, the public interest groups last week asked the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia for a stay to put the rules on hold. In response, the Court order expedited briefing on the stay request, with the FCC filing its brief Thursday (here) and the public interest groups scheduled to file their brief shortly. Then late yesterday, the Court issued what it termed an “administrative stay” – temporarily putting the rules on hold while it considers the briefs filed by the parties. The Court was careful to say that this administrative stay was not any sort of judgment on the merits of the stay request – it was just putting everything on hold while the Court considered the arguments of the parties.

While there seems to be a rush to put everything on hold, it is interesting to note that there does not seem to be any imminent risk of anything happening, as the FCC procedurally does not seem to be in a position to imminently grant any application that would create new combinations taking advantage of the reinstated UHF discount. Regardless of this anomalous rush to a decision, the issue to be considered by the Court in assessing any stay request is whether the public interest groups have a likelihood of success on the merits of the case, and whether there is irreparable injury if the stay is not issued (see our article here discussing the standards for a judicial stay). In this case, the Court will be assessing whether the new FCC’s reinstatement of the UHF discount was an arbitrary and capricious decision to overturn the FCC’s abolition of the discount – which took place just last August (see our article after the full text of that order was released in September, here).
Continue Reading Court Issues an Administrative Stay on Effective Date of Reinstatement of UHF Discount While It Considers Arguments as to Whether to Put the Discount on Hold

The FCC yesterday released the agenda for its April 20th meeting – and it includes three broadcast items.  Two deal with noncommercial broadcasters (undoing the requirement for noncommercial broadcasters to get Social Security Numbers from its board members so that they can acquire an FCC Registration Number for them – see our articles here and here on this issue – and one allowing noncommercial broadcasters to interrupt programming to raise funds for unrelated non-profit organizations- see our article below).  But in a decision which, if adopted, will likely have an immediate impact on the market for the purchase and sale of television stations, the FCC released a draft order, to be voted on at the April 20 meeting, proposing to reinstate the UHF discount.

That discount, in assessing the broadcaster’s compliance with the 39% cap on the nationwide audience that any broadcaster can reach with TV stations in which it has an attributable interest, accords half the weight to the population of television markets in which a broadcaster holds a UHF station.  The discount was adopted back in the days of analog television, when UHF stations had signals that were harder for most viewers to receive, and the stations were more expensive to operate than VHF stations.  In the digital world, that deficit has disappeared, underlying the September decision of the Commission (which we summarized here) to abolish the discount.  The September decision did away with the discount, and the Commission had effectively put on hold television transactions that would exceed the cap for several years while considering the September order.  This effectively froze the acquisition of new stations by the major television groups – a freeze that may quickly thaw if the Commission follows through and adopts its draft order on April 20.
Continue Reading FCC Releases Draft Order to Reinstate UHF Discount at April 20 Meeting – A New Round of TV Consolidation? 

A new President and a new Chair of the FCC have already demonstrated that change is in the air in Washington. Already we’ve seen Chairman Pai lead the FCC to abolish the requirement that broadcasters maintain letters from the public about station operations in their public file (which will take effect once the Paperwork Reduction Act analysis is finalized), revoke the Media Bureau guidance that had limited Shared Services Agreements in connection with the sales of television stations, and rescind for further consideration FCC decisions about the reporting of those with attributable interests in noncommercial broadcast stations and the admonitions given to TV stations for violations of the obligation for reporting the issues discussed in, and sponsors of, political ads (see our article here). Also on the table for consideration next week are orders that have already been released for public review on expanding the use of FM translators for AM stations and proposing rules for the roll-out of the new ATSC 3.0 standard for television. Plus, the television incentive auction moves toward its conclusion in the repacking of the television spectrum to clear space for new wireless users. Plenty of action in just over 3 weeks.

But there are many other broadcast issues that are unresolved to one degree or another – and potentially new issues ready to be discussed by the FCC this year. We usually dust off the crystal ball and make predictions about the legal issues that will impact the business of broadcasters earlier in the year, but we have waited this year to get a taste for the changes in store from the new administration. So we’ll try to look at the issues that are on the table in Washington that could affect broadcasters, and make some general assessments on the likelihood that they will be addressed this year. While we try to look ahead to identify the issues that are on the agenda of the FCC, there are always surprises as the regulators come up with issues that we did not anticipate. With this being the first year of a new administration that promises a different approach to regulation generally, what lies ahead is particularly hard to predict.
Continue Reading What’s Up for Broadcasters in Washington Under the New Administration – A Look Ahead at TV and Radio FCC Issues for the Rest of 2017

As we wrote here, the FCC has requested comments on a petition for reconsideration of the elimination of the UHF discount – which had counted UHF stations as reaching only half of their market in assessing an owner’s compliance with the National Ownership Rules for TV.  These rules limit an attributable owner from having

After months of speculation, Chairman Wheeler today announced that he will step down from the FCC on Inauguration Day. Together with the Senate not confirming the renomination of Commissioner Rosenworcel (as the Senate is effectively on recess and not expected to return before the end of the term, her renomination will almost certainly not be approved in this session of Congress, meaning that she must step down when the Congress adjourns on January 3), that leaves three Commissioners on the FCC. Two are the current Republican commissioners – Pai and O’Rielly – and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. What will that mean for broadcasters?

First, it is expected that one of the two Republicans will be named as Acting Chairman to set the agenda for the first few months of the Trump administration, until a permanent Chair is announced (and confirmed by the Senate, if that Chair is not one of the two current Republicans). These commissioners have been vocal in their dissents on several big issues for broadcasters – including the repeal of the UHF discount (about which we wrote earlier this week) and on other issues dealing with the ownership of television stations – including the decision to not repeal the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, and the decision to reinstate the FCC’s ban on Joint Sales Agreements in TV unless they are done between stations that can be co-owned. We already speculated about these issues being on the Republican agenda soon after the election. What other issues are likely to be considered?
Continue Reading And Then There Were Three – Chairman Wheeler to Step Down on Inauguration Day Leaving a Republican-Controlled FCC – What’s It Mean for Broadcasters?

While several parties went to Court to challenge the FCC’s decision ending the UHF discount, one broadcaster decided instead to ask for reconsideration. That petition for reconsideration has now been published in the Federal Register, giving interested parties until December 27 to comment, and other parties until January 6 to reply to any comments that are filed. This reconsideration petition may give a new Republican-led FCC its first opportunity to revisit the FCC’s multiple ownership rules which have been the subject of several petitions for reconsideration, as we suggested might happen in our review (here) of the impact on communications law of the election of Donald Trump as the new President.

The UHF discount counted only half the audience reached by UHF stations in assessing an owner’s compliance with the 39% national cap on audience. The FCC ended that discount in September (see our summary here), finding that in a digital world, UHF channels were no longer inferior to VHF ones. Given that most TV stations are operating on the UHF band after the digital conversion, the FCC determined that the discount was not justified in the current television marketplace. A number of TV groups argued with that determination, contending that, in today’s media market, there was no reason to impose what was in effect a tightening of the national ownership cap. The elimination of the discount capped acquisitions by several TV groups, and actually put a few over the 39% limit. In addition, broadcasters have argued that the discount was in effect when Congress adopted the 39% cap, so any change would need to be authorized by Congress. While other parties have filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals, it is likely that the Court will defer to the FCC and allow it to reconsider the abolition of the UHF discount (which the two Republican Commissioners opposed when it was adopted).
Continue Reading Reconsideration of FCC Order on UHF Discount Published in the Federal Register – Starts Clock on Comments and Consideration of the Multiple Ownership Rules by a Republican-Led FCC