As has been long expected, the FCC has loosened media ownership regulations after a 3-2 vote by its executive which, while an expected development under the Trump administration, has drawn a mixed reaction.
For one, the decision eliminates the ban on TV stations owning newspapers and vice versa; FCC chairman Ajit Pai has called the cross-ownership rules “utter nonsense.” Also, the National Association of Broadcasters said the rules were “not only irrational in today’s media environment, but they have also weakened the newspaper industry, cost journalism jobs and forced local broadcast stations onto unequal footing with our national pay-TV and radio competitors.”
The FCC also voted to greenlight the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard and relax rules restricting media companies’ ownership of multiple TV and radio stations in the same market, though it’s unclear how that policy will shake out. Broadcasters in theory will be able to consolidate their presence in local markets to attract more advertising, improve their negotiating leverage and bring down their costs. However, opponents say the harm to local markets outweighs the business benefit.
US Senator Bill Nelson told Reuters that the decision “will pave the way for massive broadcast conglomerates to increasingly provide local viewers with nationalised cookie-cutter news and corporate propaganda that’s produced elsewhere.”
Dissenting Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn weighed in, saying, “This is really about helping large media companies grow even bigger. [Republicans are] more intent on granting the industry’s holiday wish list early rather than looking out for the public interest.”
Opponents to Sinclair Broadcast’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media were quick to point out that the vote makes it much easier for that deal to go through.
“Today the FCC acted to weaken media consolidation rules that pave an easier path for the proposed Sinclair-Tribune mega-merger,” the Coalition to Save Local Media said. “Countless parties have raised serious questions to this merger including media organisations, distributors, independent networks, public interest groups, labour, and four state Attorneys General, including the Attorney General from both Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media’s home states. But thus far in this process, Sinclair has utterly failed to prove that their proposed merger is in the public interest and has only provided vague promises, incomplete answers, and unpersuasive evidence.
The move comes on the back of the decision to greenlight the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard this week. Broadcasters can proceed with their rollouts of the next-gen TV spec, which is the first TV broadcast system based on an IP backbone, for compatibility with internet-delivered content and services. As such, ATSC 3.0 greatly enhances the capabilities of broadcast television to deliver enhanced and personalised content for viewers.
Yet the Coalition to Save Local Media had some criticism here as well: “The FCC took steps to rush the implementation of a new television standard on which Sinclair holds patents in a manner that could force consumers to purchase new equipment to receive broadcast programming and raise consumer costs. This proposed merger will stifle local and independent media voices and hurt consumers.”