Business & Tech

FCC just repealed decades-old rules blocking broadcast media mergers

FCC chairman Ajit Pai said most Americans get their news from a variety of sources and online platforms like Facebook and Google.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai said most Americans get their news from a variety of sources and online platforms like Facebook and Google.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to allow a single company to own a newspaper and television and radio stations in the same town, reversing a decades-old rule aimed at preventing any individual or company from having too much power over local coverage.

The Republican-led FCC eliminated the restrictions, known as a media cross-ownership ban, in a 3-2 vote along party lines. As part of the vote, the agency also increased the number of television stations a company could own in a local market. A company will more easily be able to own two of the four largest stations in a market, instead of only one.

The vote was the latest action in a deregulatory blitz at the agency cheered on by media, broadband and cable corporations, but opposed by many Democrats and consumer advocates, who say Americans will be hurt from greater consolidation in those industries.

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In April, the agency relaxed other limits on television ownership. Shortly after, Sinclair Broadcast Group reached a deal with Tribune Media for a $3.9 billion merger that would allow Sinclair to reach 70 percent of US households. Some lawmakers have called for an investigation into the relationship between the agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, and Sinclair.

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Pai, who was appointed by President Trump, has said the media ownership rules — including the cross-ownership ban between newspapers and television and radio stations — was outdated. He said most Americans get their news from a variety of sources and, most prominent among them, online platforms like Facebook and Google.

Local media organizations, he has argued, would have a greater shot at competing against those Internet giants by combining resources in local markets.

“It’s a simple proposition: The media ownership regulations of 2017 should match the media marketplace of 2017,” Pai said Thursday. “That’s the proposition the FCC vindicates today — nothing more, nothing less. And it’s about time.”

Democrats on the commission said that rolling back the rules would hurt people who rely on local stations for news coverage.

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“During the first 10 months of 2017, the FCC majority has given the green light to more than a dozen actions that are a direct attack on consumers and small businesses,” said Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic commissioner, who voted against the orders. “And most Americans are unaware that the agency established to protect the public interest has traded in that role for the chance to grant the wish lists of billion-dollar companies.”

While local news audience numbers have declined in recent years, about 57 percent of Americans get most of their news from television, with local news leading cable outlets and national broadcasts, according to the Pew Research Center.

Public interest groups fear major corporations like Sinclair or CBS would grow more powerful through the relaxation of rules. Private equity investors who have purchased television stations and newspapers to flip them for a profit are also expected to take advantage of the changes.

“Our media ownership numbers are already dismally low,” said Carmen Scurato, the director for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes greater diversity in media. “These actions on Thursday shut out our voices.”

Some academics are skeptical that the relaxation in rules will result in more robust local news coverage, as Pai envisions.

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There is little evidence that mergers in local media have resulted in more jobs and stronger journalism, said Victor Pickard, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, the relaxation of rules could result in business models like that of Sinclair, which sends programming created from its station in Washington, to be run at stations across the nation, critics of the changes have said.

“Media concentration has been a concern since the 1940s, and this is a major reversal,” Pickard said. He added that Internet platforms do not create news content on their own so are not real competition to broadcast journalism.

“The fact that media content is coming from many sources, including the Internet, isn’t evidence of real competition because that isn’t where actual journalism is coming from,” Pickard said.