FCC Ownership Decision Draws Divided Crowd

Fans and foes of the FCC's media ownership deregulation proposal adopted Thursday (Nov. 16)  by a strongly divided FCC along political lines were lining up to throw bouquets or wield brickbats at the decision.

Among the former was the National Association of Broadcasters, which was realizing a chunk of a years-long deregulatory wish list.

“NAB thanks the FCC for voting today to reform outdated broadcast media ownership rules," said NAB President Gordon Smith. "These rules are not only irrational in today’s media environment, but they have also weakened the newspaper industry, cost journalism jobs and forced local broadcast stations onto unequal footing with our national pay-TV and radio competitors. We are grateful the Commission has adopted a common-sense approach to media regulations that will foster innovation, reinvestment in investigative reporting and better service to our tens of millions of listeners and viewers.”

As were newspaper owners now able to team up with TV stations once again.

“We are extremely pleased with today’s decision by the FCC to repeal the ban on cross-ownership,” said News Media Alliance President David Chavern. “This long-overdue decision recognizes the vastly different landscape that exists today, as compared to when the rule was created over forty two years ago.”

The alliance represents almost 2,000 newspapers.

Among the latter were the American Cable Association.

"The FCC today has set the stage for vast consolidation in local television markets -consolidation that could lead to more blackouts and higher cable bills," said ACA President Matt Polka. "When a television station controls one of the "Big Four" networks in a market, it already has small cable operators and their subscribers over a barrel. If it can control two or more such networks, there are few limits to what it can demand, or how much it can punish cable operators who do not cave in to these demands. The FCC knows this because it explicitly found so just three years ago.

"Congress and the Department of Justice reached the exact same conclusion. Yet today, the FCC decided it would allow some 'top-four' combinations anyway. Under the new rule, stations will still have to show why a particular top-four combination serves the public interest. We think such a showing will be difficult in light of the proven impact on cable subscribers' pocket books. If the FCC implements its new rule fairly and responsibly, top-four combinations should remain rare - or subject to conditions designed to mitigate these proven harms..."

There were plenty of other voices in both camps.

"I’ve been involved intimately in communications law and policy for four decades now, and I can say without hesitation that today’s action curtailing the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules is at least a decade overdue," said Free State Foundation President and former FCC official Randolph May. "But better late than never! Despite all the tiresome talk about ‘massive media consolidation' and ‘broadcast behemoths,' everyone without an axe to grind knows we now live in an age of media abundance, not scarcity...”

Related: Hill Dems Slam Ownership Reg Rollback

'Whether measured by subscribers, users, market cap, or revenues, the real behemoths in today’s media environment are Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix. I’m not suggesting the government should control their size or regulate the content they make available, but it diminishes the credibility of those who advocate continued legacy regulatory control by the FCC of broadcasters to ignore the changes the Internet and other technologies have wrought in the media landscape.'

"Even for this craven FCC majority, today’s vote to bless more media consolidation represents an awful new low," said Michael Copps, a special advisor to Common Cause and former Democratic FCC chairman. "The FCC just wiped away time-tested and common sense safeguards that promote vibrant local media by ensuring voters have access to competing sources of news.

A couple of Newhouse faculty members shared his concern.

"As we struggle to find clear 'truth' in media, it becomes more important than ever that the sanctity of our broadcast spectrum and traditional news media is not adulterated by one specific voice," said Imraan Farukhi, assistant professor of radio, TV and film at Syracuse University's Newhouse School. "We may be heading into territory where economic, political, or social agendas of a specific few will ultimately shape our marketplace of ideas. The initial policy behind the FCC’s current cross-ownership rules may be outdated, however, I believe the same rules find new relevance and justification in today’s media climate."

"Journalism thrives on competition and diverse voices," said Chris Tuohey, associate professor and chair of the Broadcast and Digital Journalism Department at Newhouse and himself a former broadcaster. "The public is not well-served if there are only one or two companies providing local news and information to a particular market. A recent Pew Research study showed people who are civically engaged in their communities are more likely to use local news. I think that speaks to the need for more voices in local news coverage, not fewer."

Ditto Allied Progress and several others.

“This system is rigged. This was an unprecedented vote by the FCC to change the rules to benefit one company. It’s no wonder members of both the House and Senate are calling for investigations into Chairman Pai’s connections to Sinclair,” said Karl Frisch, Allied Progress executive director. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that Sinclair has a quid pro quo with President Trump and Chairman Pai; in exchange for fawning coverage, the administration is paving the way for this unprecedented merger, ignoring precedent and current law."

"The Commission claims that its media ownership rules need to be modernized. Instead, it has not proposed to modernize them, but to abandon them," added John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge.

“Today the FCC acted to weaken media consolidation rules that pave an easier path for the proposed Sinclair-Tribune mega-merger," said the Coalition to Save Local Media.

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.