Broadcasters, Pay-TV Continue to Spar over TV Station Ownership As FCC Deadline Nears

Dec 21, 2023

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Dec. 21, 2023 – Ahead of next Wednesday's fast-approaching deadline, broadcasting and pay-TV industry representatives are using the limited time left to pitch the Federal Communications Commission on their preferred substance of potentially new media ownership rules.

Broadcasters are urging the FCC to loosen some current rules and allow for more TV station ownership consolidation at the local level. Meanwhile, cable and satellite TV companies think current rules have loopholes that need to be closed to reduce the number of signal blackouts and moderate their payments to stations for carriage.

The FCC is under a court order to issue a decision by Dec. 27.

TV station owners and the pay-TV companies have been clashing over FCC ownership rules for many years.

The National Association of Broadcasters wants the FCC to allow ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox stations to combine in a market without a waiver. The current “top four” rule limits ownership to just one Big Four station per market.

“The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the [FCC] to eliminate the top-four local TV rule, or at least make it less restrictive,” NAB said Dec. 19 in an FCC filing. The top four rule actually applies to a market's four highest-rated stations, which typically, but not always, means the Big Four local stations.

The American Television Alliance – which represents cable and satellite TV companies – says TV stations are bypassing the top four rule by carrying Big Four programming on low power stations (which are exempt under the top four rule) and by distributing Big Four programming on their digital multicast services, which are not considered separate stations.

Taking advantage of what cable calls “loopholes” in the top four rule, Gray TV in Harrisonburg, Va., controls all Big Four networks via a combination of full power and low power stations and digital multicast/subchannel streams, according to NCTA - The Internet & Television Association.

In a Dec. 20 filing with the FCC, ATVA’s lawyer said the organization would be willing to permit use of top four loopholes in markets with three or fewer commercial TV stations (low or full power), “which we believe fully addresses the concerns raised by broadcasters regarding provision of network programming in small markets.”

NAB has been pressing the FCC to leave what ATVA calls loopholes untouched.

United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry (UCC) told the FCC that the agency needed to look at small market TV station ownership relief on a case-by-case basis close but not identical to ATVA's approach.

“Very small towns that might not have sufficient stations able to obtain separate network affiliations should seek waivers as those circumstances are unique and should not dictate national policy,” UCC said.

Not all TV station owners are on board with blanket elimination of the top four rule.

Heritage Broadcasting, owner of the CBS affiliate in Cadillac, Mich., wants to see the top four rule relaxed only in small markets, Heritage CEO and President Pete Iacobelli said an FCC filing that noted his participation in a Dec. 19 videoconference with aides to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel and the other four FCC Commissioners.

In a previous FCC filing, Heritage said the FCC should "adopt ownership rules that allow small market, small group local broadcasters to own more than one top-four station in the same market.” But relief should be limited to small markets, defined as [markets] 100 and above or with five or fewer commercial television stations, and to local owners.”

The U.S. has 210 TV markets. The largest is New York City, with 7.7 million TV households, and the smallest is Glendive, Mont., with 3,920 TV households.