Three Big Four Networks, TV Stations Pitch Deregulation to FCC’s Gomez

Dec 14, 2023

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Dec. 14, 2023 – It’s looks like TV stations owners think the Federal Communications Commission’s newest member could help them on a big vote.

FCC Commissioner Anna Gomez, a Democrat sworn-in on Sept. 25, hasn’t tipped her hand on key TV station deregulation issues, but it appears broadcasters consider her a potential vote in their corner. Democrats control the FCC, 3-2.

On Monday, broadcasters made three separate presentations to Gomez policy aides on the need to protect the regulatory status quo at a minimum regarding TV station ownership. The National Association of Broadcasters went a step further in calling for relaxation of a rule that limits combinations among the most popular stations in a local market.

At issue is the long-standing FCC Top Four rule, which disallows common ownership among the top four stations in a market, which is intended to keep the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox stations in separate hands to promote competiton and ownership diversity. This one-to-a-market rule, however, exempts low-power TV stations and Big 4 network signals carried on a TV station’s digital multicast service.

Under those exemptions, one station can control all Big 4 signals in a local market –  loopholes that the cable industry wants the FCC to slam shut, saying local TV station dominance leads to frequent TV signal blackouts and higher cable bills.

It’s unclear whether Gomez is going to side with broadcasters or cable or perhaps try to forge a compromise. In a speech two days ago, Gomez discussed her regulatory approach.

“I am a firm believer in the power of competition to drive innovation that improves services and lowers prices for consumers,” she said. “But competition only works when the market works. And when the market fails, there are public policy goals to be considered and prioritized that require government action.”

In its presentation, NAB reiterated that based on current market conditions, the FCC should allow top four stations to merge – something they can’t do now without going through a waiver process.

“Indeed, rather than making the top four rule more restrictive, Section 202(h) of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the Commission to either eliminate or at least loosen it,” NAB said.

The FCC is under a court order to issue a decision by Dec. 27, a deadline that has triggered a steady stream of meetings between industry players and FCC officials. 

“I’m hopeful we’ll have it voted shortly,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said yesterday.

Representatives from Disney (ABC), Paramount Global (CBS) and Fox Corp. met with Gomez aides on Dec. 11. They urged the FCC to reject calls to eliminate the exemptions for low-power TV and digital multicast streams.

“... Such a change would ignore marketplace realities and the needs of viewers, given that in smaller markets there often are fewer than four separately owned full-power broadcast stations,” the network representatives said. “This is by no means a hypothetical concern. Among the ABC, CBS, and FOX broadcast networks, each network has at least 20 affiliates on a multicast channel or LPTV station, and one of the networks has over 45 such affiliates.”

In recent days, Comcast has not been joining the other broadcast TV networks in FCC meetings. Comcast has a foot in both camps by owning NBC Universal, which owns the NBC television network and local NBC stations in several major markets. Comcast is also the largest cable TV company in the country.

Also on Dec. 11, Gray Television sent an executive to meet with Gomez aides to stress that tightening the rules will not serve “the public interest but instead will further exacerbate the problem of news deserts throughout the large swaths of the country outside the top fifty media markets.”

Gray controls all Big Four signals in Harrisonburg, Va., according to NCTA - The Internet & Television Association, a trade association for the biggest cable companies in the country.

Gray told Gomez’s aides that “allegations that these combinations result in ‘triopolies’ and ‘quadropolies’ that supposedly ‘evade’ [FCC rules] ignore the important facts that these combinations both comply with the rules and serve the public interest in these communities.”