FCC clears way for big TV mergers, eases broadband price limits

The three-member commission’s lone dissenter said the move “is a huge gift for large broadcasters with ambitious dreams of more consolidation.”

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday accelerated its deregulation push under Republican control, voting to ease limits on broadcast TV ownership and prices that large telecom companies can charge businesses and governments for bulk broadband services.

Revisions to how the agency calculates the audience reached by broadcasters would clear the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. to purchase Tribune Media Co., which owns more than 40 stations.

Thursday’s changes, advocated by the agency’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, and approved on party-line votes, reverse initiatives the FCC pursued under Democratic leadership during the Obama administration. Consumer groups and some lawmakers warned that the deregulation steps would trigger more media consolidation and higher prices for consumers.

The moves came as Pai is expected to soon try to roll back the controversial net-neutrality rules for online traffic that were pushed through by former Chairman Tom Wheeler.

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A small group of protesters disrupted the meeting briefly, singing a song indicating they would fight any attempt to water down those rules, which are designed to ensure the free flow of internet content.

The FCC’s sole Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, said it was “abhorrent that the policy goal is deregulation at all costs.” She opposed both regulatory changes Thursday.

Pai said he was “not acting from ideological zeal” but just trying to promote more competition.

“The overall approach is pretty simple — it’s not to deregulate or over-regulate,” Pai told reporters after the meeting.

Sinclair and Tribune Media are two of the largest owners of broadcast stations. Their reported desire to combine would create a company whose total audience would have exceeded a statutory cap under the FCC’s former rules that limit reach to 39 percent of the nation’s television households.

Tribune Media was formerly Tribune Co., which owned the Los Angeles Times and other dailies before spinning off its newspapers into a separate company in 2014.

The FCC on Thursday reinstated the so-called UHF discount, which allows stations broadcasting on those higher-frequency airwaves to count only half of their audience against the cap.

The FCC voted 3-2 in the summer to eliminate the discount, arguing the 2009 federally mandated switch to digital TV ended the technical inferiority of the weaker UHF signals. The FCC grandfathered in existing station groups that exceeded the cap but said the exception could not be transferred in a sale.

Pai and the FCC’s other Republican, Michael O’Rielly, opposed the 2016 change, arguing it was unlawful to alter the way the cap limits were calculated. With Republicans now holding a 2-1 majority, they…

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