FCC Republicans Rip Effort to Limit TV Station Ownership

FCC Republicans Rip Effort to Limit TV Station Ownership

Tom Wheeler speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing June 18, 2013. (Getty Images)

Commissioner Mike O'Rielly says new rule is not in the public's best interest

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to prohibit joint sales between TV stations drew fire on Monday from Republican FCC commissioners.

As the FCC readies to vote on Wheeler's proposal March 31, the proposal seems to be rekindling a traditional fight between Republican and Democratic members of the FCC — and in Congress — about whether the FCC should be loosening or tightening its media ownership rules.

Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly announced his opposition to the proposal and called for it to be altered before any commission vote.

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“The JSA proposal being put forward appears flawed and not in the public interest,” O'Rielly wrote. “My meetings and the record indicate that the JSA portion could significantly impair the ability of broadcasters with diverse voices to offer local programming, such as news, to meet consumer needs.”

O'Rielly went on to say: “Moreover, the proposal would establish a very subjective ‘Mother-May-I’ approach to obtain or retain a JSA, which is a recipe for market uncertainty and reduced offerings.”

Current FCC rules prevent any single media company from owning two of the Big 4 network affiliates in a market, and limit the number of total stations they can own in a market. Some station owners have tried to get around the rules by signing joint services agreements that give them effective control of a rival station, but not the station's license.

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Station owners have argued that the agreement allows stations — especially in smaller markets — to offer better programming and to better survive tough economic times. Consumer groups have argued that the agreements leave viewers with fewer choices for local news and information and violate FCC rules.

Under Wheeler's proposal, the FCC would start counting stations in a joint service agreement as being “owned” by the broadcaster in control, forcing the media companies to either sell the licenses or seek waivers from the FCC.

Last week a spokesman for Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai also attacked the proposal.

“This JSA proposal is a dagger aimed at the heart of small-town broadcasters,” she said. “It's a job-killer that would result in less news programming, less diversity, and more stations going dark.”

Wheeler's joint services agreement is part of two related proposals the commission is due to vote on at the meeting. The other proposal would prevent two local Big 4 stations from banding together to negotiate retransmission rates with cable systems.