By: David Oxenford, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP
We’ve written (see, e.g. our articles here, here and here) about the pending petitions asking the FCC to reconsider decisions reached last year to end the UHF discount, to leave the TV local ownership rules in place and to make attributable new TV Joint Sales Agreements, and to not adopt any change in the FCC radio ownership rules in “embedded markets.” Recently, that list of items on the table before the FCC has expanded, with a number of radio groups making a concerted push to change the FCC rules on ownership “subcaps” – limiting the number of AM or FM stations that can be owned in a single market. Thus, while a broadcaster can own up to 8 radio stations in the largest markets, no more than 5 can be either AM or FM. In the smallest markets, broadcasters can own up to 3 as long as they do not exceed half the stations in a market, but only 2 can be of the same service. The new petitions seek to eliminate those subcaps, allowing owners to own up to the maximum number of stations in a market without regard to whether those stations are AMs or FMs.
A group of radio broadcasters have filed a letter with the FCC asking that these subcaps be abolished, citing the change in the media landscape in the 20 years since the rules were adopted. A more detailed economic study was submitted by a Syracuse radio broadcaster, here, showing that the growth in digital and mobile advertising to local companies already exceeds the share of advertising enjoyed by radio generally, and is likely to grow in the coming years. Google alone, according to this analysis, has as much local advertising in Syracuse as the entire radio industry. To compete against these growing new media entities that are eating into local advertising dollars, the radio broadcasters have asked that they be allowed to own more radio stations in a single service – AM or FM – than currently allowed.
As the FCC has told the Court of Appeals (where some parties filed an appeal of last September’s ownership decision) that they plan to review the entire ownership decision, not just those areas singled out by petitions for reconsideration, the radio ownership issue is now before the FCC. There has been some limited grumbling against these new proposals, some observers suggesting that AM radio would be further imperiled if big broadcasters gave up their AM holdings to pursue the ownership of more FM stations. Of course, if that were to happen, there would be nothing stopping ethnic programmers and others who are making more and more uses of the AM spectrum to acquire more AM stations, perhaps at lower prices, to pursue their innovative programming. This is an issue that will be debated in the coming months, as broadcasters adjust to the reality that all of the old rules are now subject to reexamination by this new FCC.
David Oxenford is MAB’s Washington Legal Counsel and provides members with answers to their legal questions with the MAB Legal Hotline. Access information here. (Members only access).
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