FCC Chair Said to Seek Tighter Limits on TV Station Owners

  • Proposal restarts debate at agency over media-holding limits
  • Wheeler wants to keep rule on newspaper-broadcast combinations

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Monday proposed tightening limits on television-station ownership, an official said, rekindling debate over media-holding restrictions as the internet disrupts consumers’ viewing habits.

CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox Inc. and the National Association of Broadcasters with members including ABC owner Walt Disney Co. and NBC owner Comcast Corp. all have asked the agency not to tighten the rules.

“Chairman Wheeler continues to ignore the will of both the courts and Congress by proposing to retain broadcast ownership rules that long ago outlived their usefulness,” Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the Washington-based broadcasters’ association, said in an e-mailed statement. He said other FCC members, Congress or the courts should “end this indefensible FCC charade.”

The live audience for broadcast TV has been shrinking for years, and broadcasters have said they need to be freed of “antiquated and unreasonable” rules to vie with digital competitors. On-demand operators like Netflix Inc. have fractured audiences, as many viewers opt for the convenience and ease of watching through apps.

UHF Signals

Wheeler wants to do away with a provision that counts only half of the potential audience of some TV stations -- those that used UHF signals before the switch to digital broadcasting -- when judging compliance with ownership limits, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan hasn’t been made public. Companies are limited to holding stations that reach no more than 39 percent of the national TV audience.

Wheeler also proposed reinstating limits on ad-sharing by nearby TV stations that a court rejected in May, and he proposed retaining the four-decade old ban on common ownership of a broadcast station and nearby daily newspaper, according to a fact sheet circulated by the FCC.

Wheeler in 2014 led the FCC to vote to restrict ad-sharing, and Congress stepped in to declare existing arrangements couldn’t be affected until 2025, sparing Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and other companies that used the sharing. Any new rules would apply to new combinations.

Court Complaints

The agency in its fact sheet said it was proposing “minor updates” to its suite of ownership rules. The court last month took the FCC to task for not completing a review of ownership rules since 2006, despite a requirement to do so every four years, and said it might wipe the regulations from the books if the agency doesn’t act.

“We’re delighted to hear that most of the rules are going to be retained,” said Cheryl Leanza, an attorney for United Church of Christ - OC Inc., which lobbies for ownership restrictions.

Wheeler’s proposals need three votes from the five-member agency where he leads the Democratic majority.

CBS and Fox already have lobbied against Wheeler’s proposal, according to filings.

Ending the UHF provision “may affect the company’s ability to acquire television stations,” Fox said in an annual filing. It said its stations cover 37.1 percent of the national audience, without taking into account the provision. On June 7, Fox Senior Vice President Jared Sher told FCC officials they shouldn’t modify the provision without also considering the 39 percent limit.

Last month, CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves told Wheeler that if the UHF discount is eliminated, the ownership cap should be raised. CBS stations reach about 38 percent of the national audience, and less if the discount is applied, the company said in an annual filing.

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