FCC Sticks with Media Ownership Limits

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By Kyle Daly

Aug. 11 — The Federal Communications Commission voted Aug. 10 to approve media ownership rules that leave largely intact current ownership limits, including a ban on owning both a daily newspaper and a broadcast station serving the same geographical market.

Congressional Republicans and representatives of the broadcast and print media industries maintain that the limits are outdated and ill-suited to an era in which broadcasters and newspapers have to compete with the internet for consumers' attention, which presents an increasingly difficult challenge for newspapers in particular. Democrats in Congress and public interest groups say ownership limits are vital to protecting local and diverse voices from being quashed.

FCC spokesman Neil Grace confirmed to Bloomberg BNA that the vote by the full five-member agency was triggered after its three Democrats approved the rules last month (2016 TLN 16, 8/1/16). Grace declined to indicate how the commissioners voted, although Republicans have historically been critical of existing rules. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai said in a June statement, after FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated the proposal, that it “reflects the world that existed in the 1970s.”

According to a fact sheet issued by the FCC when Wheeler first floated the proposal, the agency maintains the ban on cross-ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station if the station’s broadcast range encompasses the newspaper’s city of publication. An exception is made for failing media properties that would go out of business without cross-ownership. The FCC also readopted a limit on sharing agreements between broadcast stations that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated because the FCC hadn't completed a congressionally mandated quadrennial review of its media ownership rules. If adopted, the order will resolve the quadrennial review of the FCC's ownership rules.

Industry, Lawmakers React

The vote drew strong criticism from leading broadcast and newspaper industry groups, which have argued that loosening ownership rules would help the ailing print media industry. National Association of Broadcasters Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said in a statement that the group “strongly disagrees with the FCC’s decision to cling to long-outdated media ownership rules that no longer serve their purpose.” He warned that the order, the NAB believes, will “hasten the great decline of our nation's newspapers.”

Newspaper Association of America CEO David Chavern said in his own statement that the rules were “deeply disappointing.” He called the cross-ownership exception for struggling newspapers “a `too little, too late' recipe that will never be pursued given the low barrier entry for news on digital and mobile platforms” that broadcasters could invest in instead.

In a joint statement, Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the panel's Communications and Technology subcommittee, called the move a “weak attempt to fulfill [the FCC's] mandate,” saying they expect the courts to intervene to prompt more reform of media ownership rules. Upton and Walden have led congressional Republicans as critics of the FCC. Congress has pushed back against the sharing agreement limits by using spending legislation to grandfather in existing joint sales agreements, under which one broadcast station can sell advertising on behalf of another, through 2025 (2016 TLN 6, 6/1/16).

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tim McElgunn at tmcelgunn@bna.com

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