Looking to the Law

As a General Counsel – now at NAB and formerly of the FCC – I tend to believe that adhering to the law is a good thing.  That is why I am very troubled by the broadcast ownership order now circulating at the Commission and the blog posts filed by senior FCC officials supporting it.

The very first line of the Chairman’s blog post makes it surprisingly clear that the agency must take a closer look at the law before moving forward on the proposed order. His post describes the FCC’s quadrennial obligation to review the broadcast ownership rules as one to “determine if they need to be modified to serve the public interest.”  That is not the law.

Section 202(h) of the 1996 Telecommunications Act which imposes the quadrennial review requirement on the FCC was adopted as part of a deregulatory framework. The statute states that the Commission “shall determine whether any [broadcast ownership] rules are necessary in the public interest as the result of competition.” And, it goes on to say that the Commission “shall repeal or modify any regulation it determines to be no longer in the public interest” (emphasis added).

Given this directive, I find it very hard to understand how one could conclude that reaching back to a docket from 2004 to increase regulation of joint sales agreements (JSAs) without any consideration of the larger picture or change in the marketplace is consistent with the directive of Section 202(h).

I am even more perplexed and troubled that the apparent basis of the decision to declare television JSAs attributable is a sweeping and inaccurate generalization that JSAs necessarily create de facto ownership and thus violate existing ownership rules.  The blogs do not reference or apparently consider the very significant database of JSAs that resides at the FCC. Instead, they draw conclusions from Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.  Those filings respond to rules and goals established by the SEC for a very different purpose than FCC licensing. SEC filings are not a part of FCC precedent or law.

Indeed it is striking that the blogs make no reference to the decades old FCC indicia of control: decision-making authority over programming, personnel and financing. Those indicia led the FCC staff to approve at least 50 JSA arrangements since 2011, making clear in their review that the licensee must control at least 85% of programming and retain at least 70% of net advertising revenue. Also, to pass muster, the terms of the deal must apply at least 20% of station value to the license value.  The FCC is not free to ignore precedent.

Similarly, as a matter of law, the FCC is not free to simply ignore the record before it. Here, basing a decision on gross generalizations that JSAs are intended to get around ownership rules is wrong.  Adhering to the law in this case requires the agency to take a hard look at the evidence in its own records and consider the presentations made by NAB and others – presentations that demonstrate the varied nature and very real public interest benefits of television JSAs.

Finally, adhering to the law in this case means taking the directive of Section 202(h) seriously. The Commission must look at the local television ownership rules in light of current competitive conditions. That cannot mean starting another never-ending quadrennial review while tightening restrictions on local broadcast stations alone.