FCC Challenges Court's Broadcast Dereg Smackdown

WASHINGTON—The FCC is seeking full-court review of a three-judge panel decision vacating its broadcast media ownership deregulation decision.

The commission filed a petition for review Thursday (Nov. 7), arguing that the three-judge panel decision of appeals court imposed burdens beyond those allowed in the Administrative Procedures Act, second-guessed the FCC to the point that it undermined congressional intent and breaks with higher-court and sister-court precedents.

In September, that panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated most of the FCC's deregulatory order, saying the agency "did not adequately consider the effect its sweeping rule changes will have on ownership of broadcast media by women and racial minorities."

The court was hearing an appeal by Prometheus et al. of the FCC's fall 2017 decision under chairman Ajit Pai to eliminate the newspaper-broadcast and the radio-TV cross-ownership rules; allow dual station ownership in markets with fewer than eight independent voices after that duopoly created an opportunity for ownership of two of the top four stations in a market on a case-by-case basis (the FCC was not calling it a waiver); eliminate attribution of joint sales agreements as ownership; and created a diversity incubator program. The FCC also said it created some diversity mechanisms to address the court's long-standing concern.

Pai signaled back in September that the FCC would challenge the decision and made it clear what he thought of the court's persistent remands of FCC deregulatory decisions.

“For more than 20 years, Congress has instructed the Federal Communications Commission to review its media ownership regulations and revise or repeal those rules that are no longer necessary," said Pai at the time. "But for the last 15 years, a majority of the same Third Circuit panel has taken that authority for themselves, blocking any attempt to modernize these regulations to match the obvious realities of the modern media marketplace. It’s become quite clear that there is no evidence or reasoning—newspapers going out of business, broadcast radio struggling, broadcast TV facing stiffer competition than ever—that will persuade them to change their minds. We intend to seek further review of today's decision..."

An FCC spokesperson was echoing that Thursday (Nov. 7), saying “Over the last 15 years, while the media marketplace has changed dramatically, the same Third Circuit panel has repeatedly prevented the FCC from modernizing its ownership rules, including the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule that dates back to 1975. We hope that the full Third Circuit will agree to hear this case and finally allow the FCC to update these rules for the digital age.” 

UPDATE: The NAB is joining the FCC in filing a petition seeking a full court hearing from the third circuit. The NAB had backed the FCC's deregulatory efforts, and says that the three-judge panel was wrong to reject the commission's proposed rules.

This story was originally published on TVT's sister publication B&C.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio WorldTV TechTV FaxThis Week in Consumer ElectronicsVariety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.