Public Interest Groups on Court Ruling Clearing Way for FCC to Erode Rules Allowing Further Media Consolidation
- David Vance
Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the emergency stay motion filed by public interest groups, including the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Free Press, Common Cause, Media Alliance, and United Church of Christ, OC, Inc., which sought to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from implementing its decision to reinstate the so-called UHF discount. This will allow the FCC to make it easier for the nation’s largest television ownership groups to acquire additional stations, and crowd out diverse and local voices. The groups are represented by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center. Despite this interim ruling, the Court will hear the appeal later this year.
The FCC’s April, 2017 decision issued overturned a ruling issued in September, 2016 by an new Commission majority created after two Obama Administration appointees left the Commission. It allows large TV groups to evade a cap on how many stations they own by counting only half of the audience of UHF frequency TV stations towards a Congressionally-established limit of 39% of the nation’s TV homes. This undermines the goals of the Communications Act to promote localism, competition and diversity.
In the wake of the FCC’s decision to reinstate the discount, on May 8th Sinclair Broadcast Group announced plans to purchase Tribune Media TV stations for $3.9 billion. The deal would create a broadcast colossus with more than 200 TV stations, and would result in Sinclair reaching more than 70 percent of the national audience with stations in large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. However, by reinstating the technically outdated UHF discount, this large deal would mean that Sinclair would be in compliance with the 39% ownership limit.
Read more about the case here: http://bit.ly/2qXEz96
“The UHF discount has long outlived its usefulness,” said former FCC Commissioner and Common Cause Special Adviser Michael Copps. “Reinstating it was a huge, unwarranted gift to Big Broadcast. So it is disappointing that the court did not rein in the broadcast-friendly majority at the FCC. We remain committed to halting the wave of media consolidation the FCC majority has sought to unleash.”
“The Court of Appeals’ decision to allow the reinstatement of the UHF discount makes it easier for huge ownership groups to take over the media market, at the expense of Latinos, media owners of color and local voices that seek to serve their diverse communities,” said Carmen Scurato, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “The DC Court has cleared the way for massive consolidation, negatively impacting the thousands of owners and consumers that this appeal represented. The FCC has a mandate to act in the public interest yet by reinstating the UHF discount, Chairman Pai has signaled that he is on the side of big media conglomerates that want more control of what we see and hear on the airwaves.”
“We’re disappointed by the court’s decision to deny the stay, but still plan to show the unlawful nature of the FCC’s arbitrary and capricious decision under review in this case,” said Gaurav Laroia, Policy Counsel at Free Press. “Chairman Pai’s decision to revive this obsolete rule would allow broadcast consolidation far beyond the already high limits set by Congress. And that would grease the skids for companies like Sinclair to cash in, acquiring other media conglomerates like Tribune with the merger those two companies proposed last month. Runaway broadcast consolidation at the national and local level is bad for competition, diversity and localism in broadcasting. Sinclair’s practices are a prime example of how consolidation undermines those three principles, with its penchant for dictating coverage to local affiliates and intervening in the editorial decisions of the stations it owns.
“Chairman Ajit Pai, President Trump’s appointee at the Federal Communications Commission, is a full partner in the Trump Administration’s attack on the press,” said Cheryl Leanza, Policy Advisor at United Church of Christ, OC, Inc. “With his decision to put an obsolete rule back on the books, Chairman Pai will devastated the American public’s access to multiple points of view from hard news sources. We look forward to a positive result when the court reviews the substance of this irrational and dangerous decision.”
“The petitioners in this case regret the abrupt reinstatement of the admittedly obsolete UHF discount rule to aid a single corporation. Rushing through yet more media consolidation in a hasty and ill-considered manner is no favor to the public’s increasing frustration with the media,” stated Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director at Media Alliance.
“This case is far from over,” said Professor Angela J. Campbell, Director of the Communications and Technology Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation. “Most stay motions are denied. The Court’s unwillingness to grant our motion doesn’t change the fact that we have strong legal arguments against Chairman Pai’s unseemly rush to allow the nation’s largest broadcasters to become even larger.”
The stay motion and the reply to the oppositions to the stay motion can be viewed here and here.