WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency's unwinding of TV-station joint sales agreements (JSAs) as part of merger decisions does not violate the language of Congress's legislation providing a 10-year grandfather of any JSAs that existed before the FCC's March 2014 decision to make them attributable as ownership interests.
That came in an FCC oversight hearing before the House Communications Subcommittee, during which Republicans raked the Democratic FCC chairman over the coals, saying the agency had ignored that statute, which had no exceptions for JSAs that changed hands as part of station sales.
Wheeler argued to House Appropriation Committee members at a hearing last week that when licenses change hands, the FCC treats such transactions as the sunsetting of the old license and a granting of a new license to the purchasing party.
Under that interpretation, which he has said goes back several decades, the JSAs become new arrangements, and are thus subject to the March 2014 decision that they are ownership interests — and must be unwound if they violate local ownership rules.
Wheeler did not get a chance to repeat that explanation as he was peppered with requests for yes or no answers from Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.). Wheeler answered no when Long asked if the FCC JSA unwindings violated the language of the statute or circumvented the law.
Long had prefaced his peppering with the point that JSAs in his state had allowed for the purchase of life-saving weather radar.
But Long was far from the only Republican on the panel to probe him on the JSA decision, which also drew a letter from Senate Democrats and Republicans earlier this month also accusing the FCC of circumventing the legislation and the intent of Congress.
Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) began the hearing by saying he was concerned about the unwound JSAs, and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) even related it to the general political “revolt brewing” against government out in the country.
When the people see agencies disregard duly passed statutes, Shimkus said, that contributes to the frustration and “revolt.”
Shimkus said the bill was not ambiguous, and allowed for no exceptions. He said he was surprised and shocked to find the dissolution of "legitimate" JSAs via merger reviews.
Commissioner Ajit Pai agreed that the FCC was circumventing the law, but not with the surprise. Asked by Shimkis to comment, he said it was “paradigmatic of the agency's disrespect for the rule of law.” He said the FCC had "thumbed its nose" at the statute, including unwinding an Entravision Communications JSA in his home state of Kansas that provided the only Spanish-language news, and which the FCC had assured him would not be affected by the March 2014 order.
Again, Wheeler’s argument is that existing JSAs aren’t affected, only new ones struck since March of 2014, and any JSA involving stations that changed hands since March 2014 is considered new.
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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.