The agency moves to relax several rules, including eliminating the newspaper-TV station ban, and will now allow a company to own more than one Top 4 station in a market. Critics say the actions will reduce ownership diversity and benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group. JSA also are OK’d.
The FCC voted 3-2 Thursday to permit broadcasters to own two TV stations in every market, regardless of size, by eliminating the so-called eight-voice test.
As expected, the FCC’s GOP majority also eased the prohibition against owning two Top-4 stations in a market, saying that it would consider allowing combinations on a case-by-case basis.
In addition, the FCC, over the dissents of the agency’s two Democrats, affirmed the ability of broadcasters to use joint sales agreements to operate more stations in a market than they can own under the agency’s ownership rules.
Broadcasters have been using JSAs to get around the FCC’s local ownership rule limits for many years.
The FCC also axed a regulation that has long barred broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets.
Before the vote, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the FCC’s action set the agency’s “most basic values on fire.”
“As a result of this decision, wherever you live, the FCC is giving a green light to a single company to own the newspaper and multiple television and radio stations in your community,” Rosenworcel said.
Added FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, also a Democrat: “I vociferously dissent and look forward to the day when the court issues a decision to right this sad wrong,” Clyburn continued.
But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, said that few of the FCC’s rules were “staler” than the agency’s broadcast ownership regulations.
“After too many years of cold shoulders and hot air, this agency finally drags its broadcast ownership rules into the digital age,” Pai said.
At the same time, the FCC proposed to establish an “incubator program that will facilitate entry of new and diverse voices in the broadcast industry,” an agency fact sheet said.
The National Association of Broadcasters lauded the FCC’s action.
“We are grateful the commission has adopted a common-sense approach to media regulations that will foster innovation, re-investment in investigative reporting and better service to our tens of millions of listeners and viewers,” said Gordon Smith, NAB president and CEO, in a statement.
Jeff Baumann, former NAB general counsel, commented: “I never thought I would see the day when the FCC threw out these archaic rules. The media landscape is far different today than when most of those rules were adopted. I can get news and opinions instantly and there is no reason to keep broadcaster chained to the past. Chairman Pai and FCC are to be commended.”
But watchdog group reps blasted the agency’s decision to deregulate.
“Rolling back these rules is corporate welfare at its worst,” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel for the activist group Public Knowledge. “If this proposal passes, citizens can expect an ever-more bland and homogenous media landscape controlled by out-of-town interests with no connection to their communities,” Bergmayer continued.
In a news release, Allied Progress charged that the vote was part of a Trump administration effort to clear the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group’s pending $3.9-billion merger with Tribune Media.
“This was an unprecedented vote by the FCC to change the rules to benefit one company,” said Karl Frisch, Allied Progress ED in a news release.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that Sinclair has a quid pro quo with President Trump and Chairman Pai; in exchange for fawning coverage, the administration is paving the way for this unprecedented merger, ignoring precedent and current law,” Frisch said.
In a statement, Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association, said the FCC’s action set the scene for “vast consolidation that could lead to more blackouts and higher cable bills.”
And Free Press, a group that opposes media mergers, said Thursday in a posting directed at Pai: “Today you’ve turned over our collective resource of the public broadcast airwaves to a company [Sinclair Broadcast Group] whose business model is built on tearing apart the fabric of communities by pushing racist fearmongering in the guise of news. You granted Sinclair the ability to not simply broadcast this hate, but to maximize its already inflated profits by targeting its seeds of hate.” It added that it will challenge the rule changes in court.