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FCC to Launch Review of Media Ownership Rules, Including Ban on Broadcast Network Mergers

WASHINGTON — The FCC will review whether to modify or even eliminate a series of media ownership proposals, including a current ban on mergers among the four major broadcast networks.

The review, mandated by Congress every four years, includes no specific policy proposals, but will take public comment on whether changes are warranted. The FCC will also review rules that restrict the number of radio and TV stations an entity can own in a single market, and other provisions to promote diversity in ownership.

Given the makeup of the FCC, there could be a drive for easing of some of the restrictions. Over the past year and a half, the Republican majority on the commission, now 3-1, has favored relaxing a series of broadcast industry regulations in the face of changes in the marketplace.

A so-called “dual network” rule prevents ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox from merging. The FCC is asking whether the rule “remains necessary to promote competition, localism, or viewpoint diversity.” In past reviews, the FCC has concluded that the rule is necessary.

In its review, FCC takes note of the changes in the competitive landscape, including the growth of online video platforms. But it also acknowledges the current dynamics in areas such as network-affiliate negotiations.

“The ability of networks to achieve online distribution of network programming in a local market, without the need for local affiliates to consent, may give networks some additional leverage in the network-affiliate relationship that did not exist in the pre-online video world,” the FCC said in its public notice. “What implications, if any, do developments related to the growth of online video distribution have for the Dual Network Rule and its underlying localism rationale?”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told reporters that they wanted to include a “wide range of options for each of the different rules.”

“We didn’t want to foreclose one avenue of opportunity for the commission to follow,” he said.

But he said at the FCC’s meeting that “our endpoints may be unclear right now, but the end goal is not: Our rules must keep pace with the modern media marketplace.”

He pointed to the FCC’s decision last year to eliminate a rule prohibiting common ownership of a broadcast station and newspaper in the same market, and said it was already having a “positive impact.” He cited the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s purchase of a radio stations group in the Colorado community.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said limits on the ownership of AM radio stations deserve “serious consideration,” as well as those to increase diversity of ownership of broadcast entities.

She also said, by weighing the changes to the rules, the FCC was considering proposals to eliminate them.

The review “fails to honestly assess the impact of too many changes we propose on the values of localism, competition, and diversity that have informed this agency’s media policies in the past, and I believe should still inform our efforts in the future.”

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