In a 3-to-2 vote last week, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rolled back media merger rules that have been around since the 1970s. These 42-year-old regulations prevented a handful of companies from owning the majority of media outlets in a market.
One now defunct rule stipulated TV stations in the same market couldn’t merge if the combo would mean there were fewer than eight independently owned stations as a result. Another rule prohibited a single company in a market from simultaneously owning a TV station and a daily newspaper.
Additionally, the original stipulations restricted how many TV and radio stations a company could own in a single media market. The FCC also approved Next Gen TV, a new broadcast standard expected to improve targeted ads as well as higher quality video and audio for on-air television.
Further easing media creation, last month, the FCC voted to nix a rule that required broadcasters to have a physical studio in their licensed market.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says these long-standing rules have made it difficult for smaller outlets like websites, blogs, and podcasts to thrive in a media landscape vastly different from the one that originated the regulations.
“Few of the FCC’s rules are staler than our broadcast ownership regulations,” Pai said. By eliminating them, he said, “this agency finally drags its broadcast ownership rules to the digital age.”
The National Association of Broadcasters agreed with Pai, welcoming the changes. In a statement they noted the old rules “weakened the newspaper industry, cost journalism jobs and forced local broadcast stations onto unequal footing with our national pay-TV and radio competitors.”
However, opponents argue this change will lead to media monoliths, with even fewer companies controlling most media outlets. “Instead of engaging in thoughtful reform,” said Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, “this agency sets its most basic values on fire.”
Predictably, shortly after the vote, Comcast hit up 21st Century Fox all like, “Hey let us buy those parts of your company Disney wanted earlier this year but now we can have it because the FCC said so, I hope.” Previously Fox was talking about selling most of the company to Disney but keeping sports and news. Although the talks aren’t ongoing, apparently there may still be a Disney/Fox deal on the table. Verizon also noted interest in acquiring portions of Fox as well to provide mobile streaming content.
Senate Democrats called on the FCC inspector general to launch a probe regarding impartiality of the vote.
They cited concerns about how the deregulation may benefit conservative broadcasting company Sinclair, who expressed interest in buying Tribune Media for $3.9 billion dollars. This purchase could now be possible without Sinclair selling off their other stations to receive FCC approval.
“This merger would never have been possible without a series of actions to overturn decades-long, settled legal precedent by Chairman Pai,” wrote 14 lawmakers in a letter. Sinclair declined to comment, while Pai merely assured these changes “will open the door to pro-competitive combinations that will strengthen local voices.”
Guess we’ll just have to see how things go when Disney and like three other companies own everything.