NAB Seeks SCOTUS Review on TV Station Ownership Limits

WASHINGTON: Broadcasters are taking local TV ownership rules to the nation’s highest court. The National Association of Broadcasters is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a July decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upholding station ownership limits. The lower court backed rules crafted in 2008 by the Federal Communications Commission curtailing common ownership of multiple TV stations in the same market. The limits are based on how many media “voices” there are in a given market.

The NAB argues the Philly court decision contradicts an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. That ruling applied to a 1999 FCC order that applied the voice test differently for radio than for television. The D.C. court consequently found it to be “arbitrary and capricious” and remanded it back to the FCC. The commission followed the D.C. Court’s directive and relaxed ownership limits in 2003, but the Philly Court stayed those rules. The commission tried again in 2008, using the 1999 order as a baseline.

The NAB’s petition claims the FCC adopted the “exact same rule” in its 2008 revision. Under the ’99 rule, a single entity may own two television stations with overlapping signal contours in the same market only if at least one is not rated in the top four, and at least eight independent full-power TV stations remain. The NAB says the rule prohibits common ownership in 154 markets.

“The Third Circuit’s ruling is unjustifiable, and threatens serious harm to broadcasters--in some cases, putting their very survival in doubt,” the NAB’s petition says. “It also thereby threatens serious harm to the viewing public, which depends on the news and other programming provided by local broadcasters.”

The NAB said intervention by the high court was necessary to settle the schism between D.C. and Philly.

“The split of authority between the circuits must be resolved both so that the commission has proper guidance on its responsibilities under the Act, and so that parties are not encouraged to ‘game’ the lottery system… by filing petitions for review in as many circuits as possible other than the D.C. Circuit,” the NAB petition said.

The Philadelphia court also struck down a ruling that allowed common ownership of newspapers with TV and radio stations. The NAB’s petition notes that other parties have filed for certiorari over that decision.

Media ownership rules reviews and revisions were triggered by the 1996 Telecom Act, which directed the FCC to determine which of the rules was in the public interest, and to do away with the rest. The commission’s been trying to do so ever since, with each revision ending up in court. The most recent quadrennial review was launched in May of 2010 and findings are expected soon.
~ Deborah D. McAdams