McAdams On: Alien Ownership

EARTH -- There are edicts that quietly come out of government agencies that can have a profound impact on how Americans conduct their daily lives, but are obscured in bureaucratic arcana and thus subjected to minimal scrutiny. Such may be one released this week by the Federal Communications Commission on who can own how much of a broadcast license.

A group called the “Coalition for Broadcast Investment” has asked the FCC to review its 20 percent cap on foreign ownership of a broadcast license, or 25 percent ownership of the parent company of a licensee. The FCC has the authority to exercise discretion on how it applies those limits, according to media attorney David Oxenford, but it has yet to do so in the case of broadcast licenses. The Coalition is asking it to do so.

“For the avoidance of doubt, we seek here only the confirmation of the commission’s intent to exercise its statutory discretion to consider, in any particular case, whether it would serve the public interest to authorize, condition or disallow proposed foreign investment in excess of the 25 percent benchmark,” the Coalition’s legal reps at Covington & Burling wrote in a request dated Aug. 31, 2012.

“The modest relief requested here would enable local broadcast stations to join their cable, satellite and online counterparts in having the opportunity to gain access to significant new or additional sources of capital,” the filing continues. “Ceasing to single out broadcasters and broadcasters alone, for a per se ban on above-benchmark foreign investment, would ensure that common carrier and broadcast licensees respective ability to participate in world capital markets is not determined by a false dichotomy in the application of statutory benchmark.”

Coalition membership includes CBS, Disney, Sinclair, Nexstar, Hearst, Ion Media, LIN, Schurz, Univision, etc., and a slew of minority advocacy groups, including the League of Latin American Citizens, the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, (the only women’s organization among the 28 members).

Access to global capital markets in the face of competition that already has that option is certainly a reasonable request. It might even bring renewed interest in broadcast from domestic capital markets,where access for minorities and women “has been limited,” according to the Coalition.

Foreign ownership of American media is certainly nothing new. Melbourne, Australia-born Rupert Murdoch managed it by becoming a U.S. citizen in 1985. Many likely are horrified by the way Murdoch has influenced American media; still others clearly welcomed it. The question is, how would national discourse play out if all media were locally owned? We will never know, but it’s an interesting little thought exercise versus having someone else tell me what to think.

Arguably anything touching TV and the press alters media consumption and public discourse in unforeseen—and generally unmeasurable—ways. After all, people watched an average of nearly 145 hours of TV per month in the second quarter of 2012, according to Nielsen. That would be six days in front of a TV set, to say nothing about the hours spent with our noses stuck to a smartphone display or time-shifting “The Daily Show.” TV programs our subconscious, whether we “think” so or not.

Regardless of media’s presumed status as a necessary component of democracy, it is first and foremost a business, which today appears to be situated between increased foreign investment or further consolidation. It will be interesting—at least to me—how this issue plays out, and if anyone outside the industry trade press even notices.

Comments on the CBI’s proposal are due on Media Bureau Docket No. 13-50 are due April 15, 2013. Replies are due April 30, 2013. As of today, there are none posted.