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FCC Sets Comment Dates in Broadcast Ownership Proceeding

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The Comment and Reply Comment dates have been set for the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Regulatory Review of the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules. Comments are due on March 5, 2012 and Reply Comments are due on April 3, 2012.

As discussed in more detail in our Advisory, the NPRM can fairly be described as the regulatory equivalent of moonwalking–appearing to go forward with deregulation while actually going backward–and it is important for broadcasters to step up and get involved.

While the FCC tentatively has concluded that, other than minor tweaks that may not be so minor, it will make almost no changes to any of its broadcast ownership rules, the NPRM asks many questions about the future of the media marketplace. In particular, the NPRM seeks to scrutinize many contractual relationships among broadcasters, such as Local News Services (“LNS”) agreements and Shared Services (“SSA”) agreements, that currently fall outside of the FCC’s ownership rules, and asks whether those rules should be modified to make such agreements attributable ownership interests.

The commissioners’ separate statements regarding the NPRM make clear that the lack of definitive forward movement is the result of significant differences among the commissioners along the traditional regulatory/deregulatory fault line. This fault line is particularly apparent with regard to the suggestion that the ownership rules be expanded to encompass a wide array of contractual and operational practices in the industry.

When the FCC released the Notice of Inquiry in 2010 that commenced this proceeding, it did not ask for comment regarding whether any contractual arrangements should be deemed attributable under the FCC’s ownership rules. The FCC’s sudden interest now is therefore the result of comments filed by public advocacy groups in response to the Notice of Inquiry. These comments follow on the heels of calls for disclosure of such agreements in other proceedings, such as the proceedings concerning online public inspection files and quarterly public interest programming report requirements for television broadcasters, and the FCC’s report on the Information Needs of Communities. These advocacy groups assert that inter-broadcaster agreements result in layoffs, lower the quality of news programming, reduce the number of diverse voices in a market, and allow a station to have as much control over another station’s programming and operations as a Local Marketing Agreement (“LMA”), which the FCC already regulates under its ownership rules.

The FCC notes in the NPRM that its attribution rules are intended to restrict any arrangement which confers such influence or control over a station that it has the potential to impact programming or other “core” functions of that station. The FCC asks whether LNS and SSA arrangements confer a level of influence similar to an LMA, and if so, whether they should therefore be regulated like LMAs. Related to this question, the FCC asks whether the amount of local news programming available in a market would be reduced if LNS and SSA agreements are restricted in the same manner as LMAs.

While the FCC’s future treatment of such agreements is only one of many consequential matters presented by the NPRM, it is one that will have a significant impact on how broadcasters operate in the future. Although the FCC’s NPRM may itself be an exercise in regulatory moonwalking, broadcasters now need to put their best foot forward, or face the prospect of more regulation from this “deregulatory” proceeding.