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Court Unlikely to Ease Duopoly Rules

Don’t expect federal judges to lift restrictions on TV duopolies or triopolies any time soon.

A three-judge panel in Philadelphia indicated Wednesday they won’t allow unfettered TV deals even if they strike down the FCC’s new broadcast-ownership rules. Instead, they will keep some version of TV limits in places while the FCC attempts a rewrite.

"It would be a remand without vacation" of the restrictions, Judge Thomas Ambro said during oral argument. Washington telecom attorneys attending the hearing were buzzing that a significant number of rules could be ordered rewritten because the judges expressed repeated skepticism about the design of the FCC’s "diversity index," the economic model used to set many market ownership limits.

The Federal Appeals Court for the Third circuit is reviewing the FCC’s June 2 relaxation of limits on TV duopolies, triopolies, radio combos, and local crossownership of newspapers and stations. As an indication of the weight the judges are placing on the issue, they spent more than seven hours hearing argument from 13 industry and public-advocate lawyers.

Industry officials say the June deregulation did not go far enough. Specifically, they want the FCC to eliminate a rule blocking duopolies among a market’s four top-rated stations and to ease limits on crossownership. Public advocates say the rules are too lenient.

Also under review is the UHF discount allowing such stations to be counted at half their audience reach toward the national ownership cap.