The Trump FCC will take aim in July at a longstanding media ownership limit designed to protect local news outlets and opinion diversity from monopoly power. The move comes as FCC boss Ajit Pai is already under investigation for being far too cozy with the companies he’s supposed to be holding accountable to the public.
We’ve already noted how Pai has been under heavy fire for gutting decades old media consolidation rules simply to aid Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose local news programming has been widely derided as facts-optional and arguably creepy on a good day, as this recent viral Deadspin video make abundantly clear.
Sinclair’s $4 billion merger with Tribune would create a local broadcast giant that would reach more than 72 percent of the nation. As the company’s merger ambitions bumped up against consolidation rules, Pai’s office quickly moved to eliminate those restrictions, resulting in Pai’s fellow Commissioners calling the agency a glorified rubber stamp for the broadcaster.
Traditionally these rules have broad, bipartisan support because they protect giant broadcasters from crushing smaller, regional competitors with an actual vested interest in the communities they serve. But much like the FCC’s attack on net neutrality, the Trump FCC has ignored nuance and the public interest in its quest to help giant corporations grow even larger.
For example, weeks before Sinclair even announced its merger, the FCC restored an outdated and unnecessary bit of 1980’s regulation known as the UHF Loophole, specifically to allow Sinclair to falsely under-state the company’s real reach. That move is currently facing a legal challenge by consumer groups, and the FCC is rushing to beat that court ruling to the punch.
Sources tell Bloomberg the agency will vote July 12 to reduce or eliminate the current media ownership limit, which prevents broadcasters from reaching more than 39% of local broadcast markets. It’s unclear where the new bar would be set, but it’s likely to be bumped high enough to meet the 72% household ownership reach of the Sinclair deal. Companies have been trying to lower this cap for years, and Sinclair petitioned the FCC to remove the cap entirely for what should be obvious reasons. Now the FCC is rushing to raise or eliminate the cap entirely before the courts can challenge FCC policy. But consumer advocates say the FCC doesn’t have the authority to remove a cap set by Congressional law. That’s something even Pai’s allied Commissioner Mike O’Rielly recently admitted in a otherwise misleading blog post, in which the Commissioner tried to claim that the FCC’s blatant Sinclair favoritism was just quirky happenstance.
"The FCC doesn't have the authority to raise the cap, period,” says Matt Wood, Policy Director for Free Press, one of the consumer groups suing to thwart the FCC’s attack on media consolidation rules. “It was set by Congress, in full awareness that the UHF discount would be obsolete once TV signals were digital and not analog.”
Wood and other consumer advocates have been quick to point out the irony of Pai’s office, which routinely laments “outdated and unnecessary regulation,” re-imposing some outdated and unnecessary regulation simply to help Sinclair grow larger.
“So now we have this farcical situation with an FCC Chairman who reinstated a technically obsolete rule while admitting it was an outdated relic, all to help big broadcasters get bigger,” notes Wood. “So much for following the rule of law and keeping up with technological changes. That all goes out the window for these guys as soon as Sinclair or some other conglomerate comes calling."
Allegations of Sinclair favoritism were severe enough to warrant the launch of a corruption inquiry last February by the nonpartisan FCC Inspector General, who is currently investigating whether Pai coordinated the agency’s attacks on media consolidation rules with Sinclair. The assault on media consolidation rules come as the FCC rubber stamps all manner of additional, problematic mergers in the telecom and media space, while also eroding consumer protections like net neutrality and broadband and media privacy rules designed to protect consumers and smaller competitors from monopoly harm.
What could possibly go wrong?