FCC Majority Said to Back Keeping TV Station Ownership Limits

  • Proposal by Chairman Wheeler wins Democratic votes, people say
  • Wheeler wants to keep rule on newspaper-broadcast combinations

The Federal Communications Commission’s Democratic majority has voted to preserve TV and radio station ownership restrictions, including a ban on owning both a daily newspaper and a nearby broadcast station, according to people familiar with the vote.

The proposals were offered by Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler last month after a court chastised the agency for inaction on media rules. Approval by his two fellow Democrats by remote electronic voting gives the measure enough support to pass once all five commissioners have weighed in.

Wheeler’s proposal won votes on Monday from both of the other Democrats on the five-member agency, said an official familiar who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter hasn’t been made public. Kim Hart, an FCC spokeswoman, declined to comment.

The votes came one day ahead of a congressional hearing, where Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said he’d been told the “commission majority” had voted on the media ownership rules. Walden didn’t offer details.

Live Audience

“I’m also told that we probably won’t see many changes,” Walden said on Tuesday. “And yet the marketplace to me has changed dramatically."

The FCC often votes behind closed doors and makes the results public only after all five members have voted.

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.

Wheeler proposed retaining longstanding rules such as limits on owning TV stations in a locality, and prohibiting mergers among the top four national television networks, according to a fact sheet the agency circulated last month.

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

Ad Sharing

In 2014, Wheeler 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.

The agency in its fact sheet said it was proposing “minor updates.” The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in May 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.

Wheeler has also proposed doing 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. Companies are limited to holding stations that reach no more than 39 percent of the national TV audience. That measure is still awaiting a vote.

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