FCC Republicans Blast Agency’s New TV Station Ownership Rules

Dec 26, 2023

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Dec. 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission under Democratic control has decided to tighten its TV station ownership rules.

Under the rules, the FCC will make it harder for one local TV station to affiliate with more than one Big Four broadcast network. TV stations say that the FCC’s approach is unjustified given the intense competitive pressure they face for advertising revenue.

The FCC decision was a substantial victory for the cable TV industry, which has tied current TV station ownership rules to a rise in signal blackouts and higher retransmission consent fees.

The FCC released a 94-page document of rules and explanations Tuesday afternoon, one day before a court-set deadline for the agency to issue a ruling.

The agency’s two Republican Commissioners attacked the Democratic-majority’s rule-tightening decision as completely divorced from market realities.

“… Despite a record bursting with evidence of a vibrant media marketplace, the [FCC] continues to advance the fiction that broadcast radio and broadcast television stations exist in markets unto themselves,” said Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, claiming the FCC took an “ostrich-like approach” to the competitive forces shaping modern media markets.

FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington said the FCC’s decision “is anti-localism and hastens the death of local news in small markets, and it does so on the thinnest of gruels supplied in the factual record.” He added, “Given that the [FCC] is, in this item, transporting itself back in time to the age of broadcast tycoons, perhaps a ‘Hello, McFly?’ is warranted.”

For decades, the FCC under its top four rule has effectively banned one local TV station from owning more than one Big Four station. But local TV stations in dozens of market bypassed this restriction by relying on low power TV stations and multicast services to affiliate with multiple Big Four networks.

In Harrisonburg, Va., Gray TV, via a combination of full power, low power and multicast services, controls access to all Big Four programming, according to NCTA - The Internet & Television Association. The American Television Alliance, a group representing a collection of pay-TV providers such as Mediacom and DirecTV, fought with NCTA to get the FCC to crack down on top four rule loopholes.

In her statement, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC’s new rules would prevent evasions of its top four rule.

“With respect to television, it closes a loophole that involves the transfer of station affiliation to a multicast stream or low-power station that can be used to evade rules and exceed the limits in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004,” she said. “While the ways we consume news and content in the digital age have changed, this approach is consistent with our longstanding values.”

Going forward, Rosenworcel said “a case specific request” to the FCC would be “necessary to own more than one of the top four stations.”

In footnote 335, the FCC said that TV stations today with multiple network affiliations in violation of the new top four rule “will not be subject to divestiture,” meaning they will be grandfathered.

However, the FCC put the TV station owners on notice that grandfathering “will not be transferable or assignable” and will require agency permission to assign “the grandfather arrangement.”

As footnote 335 put it, “All future transactions will be required to comply with the Commission’s rules then in effect.”

Rosenworcel said the FCC retained its dual network rule, which requires separate ownership of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks. Without an FCC waiver, Comcast/NBC Universal, owner of the NBC network, would not be able to acquire the CBS network, which reportedly been in sale talks.