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Viacom wants to tip its cap

Co. files emergency appeal to keep handful of stations

NEW YORK — Viacom moved swiftly Monday to keep its TV assets intact, filing an emergency appeal in Washington, D.C., court for “interim relief” from a looming deadline that would force it to sell a handful of stations it badly wants to keep.

Viacom must unload the stations by May 4 to comply with the FCC’s broadcast ownership cap, under which no one company can reach more than 35% of U.S. television households. The conglom’s merger with CBS last year put it over the top.

But broadcasters are fighting the reg, heartened by a recent appeals court ruling that eliminated a similar cap on cable ownership. Viacom asked the FCC to stop the clock on the May deadline pending judicial review. On Friday the FCC said no, since a regulation that hasn’t been overturned in the courts still stands as the law of the land.

Viacom requested that the appeals court rule on the interim relief by April 9, since it would need “several weeks of lead time to comply with the divestiture order.”

Company insisted in its court filing that it meets the requirements for such relief on several counts. First, it would suffer irreparable harm in having to sell stations covering 6% of the U.S. TV audience. “Once Viacom is forced to divest its ownership in these stations, it is unlikely to regain its position in those markets if the 35% cap is later struck down,” company declared in the filing.

Also, Viacom said it thinks it is likely to succeed on the merits, calling the broadcast ownership cap “not rational.” If anything, it’s less justifiable than the cable cap, the company said, noting that in half the nation’s TV markets there are seven or more competing over-the-air stations but usually only one cable operator.

Viacom also said there’s no reason to believe any other parties will be harmed by pushing the deadline past May 4.

Free speech tack

And, naturally, the company called on the First Amendment. “The sales would preclude Viacom from using its editorial discretion through the stations to communicate its chosen messages to its chosen audiences.”

Separately, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected class-action status for an antitrust suit against Viacom-owned Blockbuster by nearly 200 independent videostore owners. Smaller rivals sued in January over Blockbuster’s revenue-sharing deals with studios, claiming the giant chain is monopolizing the video rental market and trying to drive them out of business.

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