Senators Slam Wheeler Over Unwinding JSAs

In a sharply worded letter accusing him of ignoring their concerns and skirting the law, unhappy senators from both parties told FCC chairman Tom Wheeler Friday they were concerned with the FCC's unwinding of grandfathered JSAs as part of license transfers.

Those senators, including Democrats Chuck Schumer and Barbara Mikulski and Republican Cory Gardner, said they want the FCC to reverse that policy and want an answer by April 1. And no, it was no April Fool's joke.

According to a copy of a letter to Wheeler dated March 11 and sent by a dozen senators, they want the FCC to "1) eliminate any conditions imposed on previously approved license transfers that require the termination of JSAs in existence before March 31, 2014; and (2) respect the statutory grandfather of JSAs when evaluating any assignments and license transfers in the future."

The FCC said that while it was grandfathering those JSAs that would not extend to when the licenses were transferred.

An FCC source said the commission has received the letter and is reviewing it.

“The Commission is affirmatively complying with the statute in recognizing a 10-year grandfathering period for existing arrangements,"said FCC spokesperson Neil Grace. "However, the grandfathering of an arrangement does not survive a transfer of ownership.   This is consistent with how we grandfather media properties with respect to media ownership limits.”

The senators argue that requiring such JSAs to be unwound violates the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, the bill that included a 10-year extension of the FCC's grandfathering of stations the FCC concluded, as of March 31, 2014, would otherwise be attributable as ownership interests and in violation of multiple ownership rules in markets where that attribution constituted owning a second station among the top four or with fewer than eight stations.

The senators also took aim at that March 2014 decision, saying it ignored bipartisan concerns about the "controversial" policy that effectively eliminated JSAs (all those over 15% of another stations ad time, which was almost all of them).

The senators argue that the JSAs contribute to ownership diversity and in one case even provided life-saving weather information.

They said the FCC was undermining Congress' clear intent in grandfathering the JSAs.

"Recognizing the critical role local broadcasters play in communities around our states, Congress took bipartisan action to ensure existing JSAs can continue," they said. "We are extremely disturbed to learn the FCC is now requiring parties to unwind these agreement in connection with broadcast license transfers."

One such unwinding is recently in the news. That was the requirement that Gray terminate the JSA between Media General and Schurz Communications as a condition of Gray purchasing Schurz' WAGT Augusta, Ga.

Additional signatories on the letter included Roy Blunt, Richard Durbin, John Boozman, Ron Johnson, Kirsten Gillibrand, Roger Wicker, Robert Casey, Timothy Scott, and Benjamin Cardin.

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.