FCC Chair Proposes Relaxation of Media Ownership Rules

WASHINGTON — FCC chairman Ajit Pai unveiled a series of proposals to relax media ownership rules, including ending the ban on the ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market.

The proposals are set to come before the FCC at its next commission meeting on Nov. 16.

“The marketplace today is nothing like it was in 1975,” Pai said, a reference to the year that the broadcast-newspaper rule was put in place.

Pai also is proposing to eliminate restrictions on joint sales agreements between outlets in the same market, in which two stations jointly sell advertising time. His proposal would end the FCC’s requirements that joint-sales pacts be a factor when it comes to calculating whether station groups fall within ownership limits. Commercial stations will still be required to disclose those agreements.

He made the announcement at an oversight hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday.

He likely has the votes to push through the changes, long sought after by the broadcast industry. Republicans command a majority at the agency.

But Democrats have been skeptical of some of Pai’s moves to relax media ownership restrictions, arguing that they are exacerbating the problem of broadcast industry consolidation. They have been highly critical of Pai for his moves earlier this year to reinstate an FCC rules that allow station groups to “discount” the reach of their UHF holdings when it comes to calculating whether they fall within ownership limits.

Moreover, at the hearing on Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers took aim at the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media, now under consideration by the FCC. It would create a broadcast giant made up of more than 200 stations reaching 72% of the country.

Sinclair advocated for the restoration of the the “discount” on UHF stations, as it has allowed them to push forward with plans to merge with Tribune. Without it, the combined company would greatly exceed the cap on media ownership, which bars any one company from owning stations reaching more than 39% of the country.

Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of the public interest group Free Press, criticized Pai’s proposals.

“We need to strengthen local voices and increase viewpoint diversity, not surrender our airwaves to an ever-smaller group of giant conglomerates,” he said. “Pai is clearly committed to doing the bidding of companies like Sinclair and clearing any obstacles to their voracious expansion. But his attempt will be met with fierce opposition at the Commission and in the courts.”

Yet the idea of eliminating the newspaper-broadcast rule has drawn some bipartisan support, particularly as print journalism struggles in so many media markets. Late last year, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) introduced legislation to eliminate the ban on newspaper-broadcast ownership in the same market.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said that for “40 years, policymakers and the courts have blessed countless mega-mergers among national telco, cable and satellite program giants, while at the same time blocking broadcast/newspaper or radio/TV combinations in single markets.

“This nonsensical regulatory approach has harmed the economic underpinning of newspapers, reduced local journalism jobs, and punished free and local broadcasters at the expense of our pay TV and radio competitors,” he said in a statement.


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