ATVA: FCC Must Close Top-Four Loopholes

WASHINGTON — Cable and satellite operators are pushing back on the Federal Communications Commission’s loosening of local broadcast ownership rules.

Ajit Pai

Ajit Pai

The pushback came in comments by the American Television Alliance on the regulator’s quadrennial regulatory review.

Under Republican chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has loosened the restriction on owning two of the top four rated stations in a market, continuing to presume them to be off limits but giving a chance for broadcasters to argue for them on a case-by-case basis. Sinclair Broadcast Group tried to do that in its failed merger with Tribune Media, and Nexstar Media Group is trying to do it in its effort to buy the Tribune stations.

ATVA, whose members include ACA Connects, Dish, and DirecTV parent AT&T, has said that not only should the FCC not further loosen that top-four ownership rule, as some have called for, but it must also close what ATVA says are a couple of loopholes: owning network-affiliated low-power stations that don’t count against local limits and programming digital subchannels as affiliates.

ATVA said the “loopholes” lead to higher retransmission-consent prices, which is the chief beef cable and satellite operators have with allowing broadcast groups to get larger and more powerful.

Broadcasters say the FCC should simply drop the top-four station prohibition altogether as a “per se” ban that is unjustified, a pitch the National Association of Broadcasters has made to the FCC.

The deregulatory FCC is unlikely to reinstate the top-four prohibition or start counting subchannels or low-power TV stations (LPTVs) toward ownership limits. But that isn’t stopping ATVA from spotlighting the issues, or tying them to consumer pricing.

The FCC has to weigh the financial burden of increased consumer prices when deciding what to do about the top-four rule, increased prices that “rank among the principal public-interest harms the Commission seeks to avoid,” they said.

Pai has yet to signal when the FCC will complete its latest quadrennial review.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.