Report: FCC Hands TV Stations A Setback on Local Ownership

Dec 23, 2023

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Dec. 23, 2023 – After weeks of intense lobbying, the Federal Communications Commission has reportedly adopted new media ownership rules, and it appears TV station owners have been dealt a setback.

The news came in a post on the X microblogging site by a reporter for Communications Daily, an industry newsletter that follows FCC activity closely.

“The FCC has approved the 2018 Quad Review order 3-2. I'm told the order still extends top 4 prohibition to LPTV and multicast streams, only change is language highlighting the waiver process,” reporter Monty Tayloe wrote on Friday.

If the report is accurate, then the FCC has decided to modify its top four rule – which says an entity may not own more than one of the four highest-rated TV stations in a local market, which are typically, but not always, the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox stations.

Under the current rule, a single TV station in a market has been allowed to affiliate with multiple Big Four networks by owning low power TV stations or airing the programming on digital multicast subchannels. In Harrisonburg, Va., Gray TV uses this combination to control all Big Four networks, according to NCTA - The Internet & Television Association.

It appears the FCC has decided that it needed to tighten its regulations to ensure that the local provision of Big Four programming cannot be concentrated in the hands of one or two TV station owners.

Unclear is what the FCC decided about short markets, where not all Big Four programming is available because the market has three or fewer full power TV stations.

Also unclear is whether the FCC is going to grandfather markets where a TV station has affiliated with multiple networks, and whether the grandfather will continue with future owners of the TV station.

The FCC was under a court order to issue a ruling by Dec. 27.

NCTA, whose members include Comcast and Charter, urged the FCC to shutter the top four rule’s “loopholes,” saying they trigger signal blackouts and higher payments to TV station owners.

“The [FCC] and the Department of Justice have repeatedly found that the common ownership of two top-four stations in a market gives the owner increased leverage in retransmission consent negotiations that harms competition and leads to increases in retransmission consent costs, higher consumer prices, and an increased risk that multiple top stations go dark simultaneously,” NCTA said in a Dec. 21 letter to the FCC.

On Dec. 19, TV station owners affiliated with the Big Four networks defended the right of a single TV station owner to control the programming of more than one Big Four network.

“The tangible benefits of dual and multiple affiliations are particularly critical in small markets, where viewers often rely primarily if not solely on over-the-air broadcast signals for local news and other programming,” the Big Four affiliates said in a letter documenting a videoconference call with aides to Democratic FCC Commissioner Anna Gomez.