FCC’s Pai Is Taking Aim At Array of Media Rules

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai is looking beyond media-ownership regulations with an eye toward using his regulatory weed whacker on other rules affecting broadcasting, cable and satellite TV.

The review he plans to launch next week, with an expected public-meeting vote on Thursday (May 18), is targeted at trimming a much-larger landscape.

Pai emphasized his media-ownership review last month at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, but that’s part of a congressionally mandated quadrennial review of ownership regulations. Congress also mandates a periodic review of telecom regulations, but there is apparently no such requirement for a review of media regulations in general.

“The chairman is taking that on,” an FCC spokesperson said.

In its tentative agenda for the May 18 meeting, the FCC said there will be a vote on a “Modernizing Media Regulation initiative.”

Pai has already signaled he wants to take a fresh look at broadcast ownership limits, including small-market duopolies, the national ownership cap and cross-ownership. This new review would sweep far beyond that, looking at all regulations applied to all media services “including radio, cable and satellite,” which the FCC noted “must comply with hundreds of pages of commission rules, many of which are decades old.”

The comprehensive review would set the stage for targeted rollbacks in the future. Specifically, it will ask for input in three areas:

• “Which of the FCC’s media-related rules the commission should propose to modify or repeal in subsequent rulemaking proceedings.”
• “The impact of rules on small businesses with an eye toward regulatory relief.”
• Reducing “unnecessary regulations and undue burdens that can stand in the way of competition and innovation in the media marketplace.”

That second point is right in the wheelhouse of the American Cable Association, which spends much time trying to get the FCC to bake a recognition of the burdens of regulation on the ACA’s constituency of smaller independent cable operators into the agency’s regulatory DNA.

Scott Cleland, chairman of the ISP-backed NetCompetition, has some ideas about what the FCC should look at, starting with the public-interest standard that underpins its merger reviews.

While the FCC applies the public-interest standard to old media like TV and radio stations, new media gets a pass, he noted. The merger public-interest test also needs to be limited, Cleland said.

“There should be some rigor, some logic and some limits, so that it is not simply what three votes imagine it to be, doing whatever they want, whenever they want,” he said.

On the cable side, Cleland said the FCC needs to get rid of its “aspirational” definition of broadband. He called it just “making up” a definition to suit a policy goal, in this case, “taking a competitive market and [saying] it was not competitive.”

Randolph May, president of free-market think tank the Free State Foundation, said common-carrier regulations could also stand to be slimmed down.

“To the extent a need for regulatory oversight remains, for example, with regard to interconnection arrangements, a simple, antitrust-like rule would suffice,” he said.

With strong backing from the Trump administration and congressional Republicans for eliminating and revising rules, it looks as though a regulatory winnowing is only a matter of time.

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.