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Another Third Circuit Setback for Media Interests

In a setback for media interests, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit yesterday issued its Opinion in Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC (“Prometheus II“). The case focuses on the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent revisions to its media ownership rules, which were adopted in a 2008 Order (the “2008 Order“) concluding the FCC’s 2006 Quadrennial Regulatory Review.

The Prometheus II Opinion generally upheld those portions of the 2008 Order which retained the pre-2003 versions of the:

  • Radio/Television Cross-Ownership Rule
  • Local Television Ownership Rule, including the Top-Four Station and Eight Voices Tests
  • Local Radio Ownership Rule
  • Dual Network Rule

With respect to each of these rules, media interests had argued that the limitations were no longer necessary in the public interest as a result of increased competition, and that the FCC was therefore obligated under Section 202(h) of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to repeal or modify those regulations. The Third Circuit rejected those arguments and found the FCC’s analysis supporting a continuation of its pre-2003 ownership limitations to be reasonable, and not arbitrary, capricious, and/or unconstitutional.

The Third Circuit also remanded some portions of the 2008 Order to the FCC. First, the Third Circuit spent a considerable portion of the Opinion determining that the FCC failed to meet notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act with regard to its decisions affecting the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership (“NBCO”) rules. The court repeated at length criticisms raised by FCC Commissioner Copps and former Commissioner Adelstein and ultimately decided that these defects were so significant as to require that the NBCO rules be vacated and remanded to the FCC to be considered again as part of the 2010 Quadrennial Regulatory Review.

Also with respect to the NBCO rule, the 2008 Order had granted five permanent waivers of the rule to Gannett and to Media General. A group of public advocacy groups challenged those grants, but the Third Circuit held that the FCC had not been given an opportunity to pass on the arguments below and that the court therefore lacked jurisdiction to hear those challenges.

Finally, the Court ruled that the FCC failed to adequately address proposals to foster minority and female ownership of broadcast media in the 2008 Order and the related Diversity Order. It particularly criticized the FCC’s use of SBA criteria in determining whether a party was an “eligible entity” under the failed station solicitation rule adopted in the 2008 Order, and its failure to give adequate consideration to proposals from interest groups to limit eligibility to socially and economically disadvantaged businesses. As a result, this ruling was also vacated and remanded to the FCC.

From here, the FCC will now have to address the items that the Third Circuit has remanded to it. In addition, the FCC is again considering its multiple ownership rules in conjunction with its 2010 Quadrennial Regulatory Review. Therefore, the ball is yet again in the FCC’s court.