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Taking a Narrow View of the UHF Discount

This morning, the FCC’s proposal to eliminate the UHF Discount was published in the Federal Register, establishing the comment and reply comment dates for that proceeding. Comments are due December 16, 2013, and reply comments are due January 13, 2014.

Under current law, no individual or entity is permitted to hold an interest in broadcast TV stations that, in the aggregate, reach more than 39 percent of U.S. television households. While this if often shorthanded as “no broadcast group can reach more than 39% of the population”, the rule is actually more restrictive than that. Since it applies not just to broadcast groups but to individuals, the rule prohibits an investor from holding 5% of the voting stock of two different TV groups if those otherwise unconnected groups’ stations together reach more than 39% of the population. Similarly, the rule would be violated if an individual served as a director for both companies.

Fortunately, the rule’s impact on broadcast investment has been lessened by the FCC’s UHF Discount, under which the FCC counts only half of the population in a station’s market towards the 39% cap if the station operates on a UHF channel (14-51) rather than on a VHF channel (2-13). Because most digital television stations operate on UHF channels, the practical effect has been to permit a group or individual to hold interests in TV stations located in markets representing more than 39% of the population (note, however, that the rule still counts every TV household in the market against the 39% cap, even where the station does not actually serve those households with an over-the-air signal).

The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposes to eliminate the UHF Discount on the theory that while UHF stations had weaker coverage than VHF stations in an analog world, VHF frequencies are not well suited to digital transmissions, and it is now VHF stations that are suffering from poor coverage. That is accurate, but it would seem to be an argument for also creating a VHF Discount rather than eliminating the UHF Discount. While it is true that the FCC provided UHF stations with an opportunity to increase their operating power in transitioning to digital television if they could do so without creating interference to other stations, the guiding principal of making channel allotments in the DTV transition was replicating analog service areas, meaning that UHF analog stations were given digital allotments replicating their flawed analog coverage.

Oddly, however, the NPRM looks past that history, focusing instead on the fact that UHF stations and VHF stations are now much more equivalent because of VHF’s digital woes. While the 39% ownership cap, and how it is calculated, may well merit revisiting, the NPRM explicitly makes the decision to forego an examination of the 39% cap and how compliance with that cap should be calculated, and instead limits the FCC’s review to whether the UHF Discount should be eliminated.

In his dissent to the NPRM, FCC Commissioner Pai noted this fact, chiding the FCC for putting on its regulatory blinders while plunging ahead on the UHF Discount:

[B]ecause we are proposing to end the UHF discount, we should ask whether it is time to raise the 39 percent cap. Indeed, this step is long overdue notwithstanding any change to the UHF discount. The Commission has not formally addressed the appropriate level of the national audience cap since its 2002 Biennial Review Order, and it has been nearly a decade since the 39 percent cap was established. The media landscape has changed dramatically in the many years since. I’ve spoken a lot about the importance of reviewing our rules to keep pace with changes in technology and the marketplace, and I wish today’s item had done so with respect to this issue in a comprehensive manner.

Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, the FCC’s NPRM thrusts out its hand, touching only one aspect of the FCC’s ownership rules, and risks discovering later that there is much more to the elephant than its tail.

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