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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The FCC’s Broadcast Media Ownership and Attribution Rules: The Current Debate

Charles B. Goldfarb
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) broadcast media ownership rules, which place restrictions on the number of media outlets that a single entity can own or control in a local market or nationally, are intended to foster the three long-standing goals of U.S. media policy— competition, localism, and diversity of voices. The FCC is statutorily required to review these rules every four years to determine whether they continue to serve the public interest or should be modified or eliminated. One part of these rules, the FCC’s attribution rules, identify criteria for determining when an entity holds sufficient ownership or control of a broadcast station that such ownership or control should be attributed to the entity for the purposes of applying the media ownership rules.

The FCC proposes eliminating its Radio/Television Cross-Ownership rule because it is no longer needed to foster the goals of diversity of voices and localism. It also proposes modifying its Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership rule to allow certain types of combinations in the 20 largest markets. It proposes a technical change in its Local Television Ownership Rule, but otherwise would continue to prohibit ownership of two stations in a local market unless one is not among the four highest-ranked stations in the market and, after the combination, there would still be eight independently owned and operating commercial full-power television stations. The FCC proposes that its Local Radio Ownership and Dual Network rules be retained as is.

In recent years, many television stations have entered into sharing arrangements with other stations in their local market to jointly sell advertising and/or produce local news programming, typically with one station managing that shared operation and perhaps providing most or all of the staffing and other resources. The FCC seeks public comment on how, for the purposes of the media ownership rules, to attribute control of a broadcast television station that has entered into such a sharing arrangement. Currently, the only sharing agreement-related attribution rule for television stations covers local marketing agreements in which one station both purchases blocks of time from another station in the same market and sells the advertising for the purchased time— that is, the broker station provides both the programming and the advertising—for at least 15% of the brokered station’s broadcasting time. The FCC has enforced this as a bright-line rule. As long as (1) the block of time covered by an agreement does not exceed 15% of the brokered station’s programming time, and (2) the agreement contains a certification and perhaps other language indicating that the licensee of the brokered station maintains ultimate control over station finances, personnel, and programming, the agreement will not trigger the attribution rule. Other evidence is considered immaterial. As a result, in many cases the FCC has not deemed a station to have control over another station in the same market even if such control is considered to exist, and must be reported, under generally accepted accounting practices. Such agreements create what is known in the industry as “virtual duopolies.”

The FCC also seeks public comment on how to define the criteria for an entity to be eligible for programs intended to promote the diversity of media ownership, and, in particular, to promote ownership by women and minorities. The FCC states that it does not at present have enough information to make a decision in this area and indicates that it plans to do so in its 2014 quadrennial review.

Date of Report: September 19, 2012
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R42436
Price: $29.95

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