DOJ Pushes for Tougher TV Ownership Rules

The department urges the FCC to crack down on TV cost-sharing deals.

Members of the cast of NBC's 30 Rock.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Feb. 21, 2014, 11:57 a.m.

The Justice De­part­ment is call­ing for tough­er fed­er­al rules to lim­it the abil­ity of TV sta­tions to co­ordin­ate with each oth­er.

The de­part­ment’s An­ti­trust Di­vi­sion filed a re­port Fri­day with the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion, ur­ging the agency to crack down on ar­range­ments that loc­al TV sta­tions use to share costs. The di­vi­sion warned that those ar­range­ments are un­der­min­ing the FCC’s me­dia-own­er­ship re­stric­tions, which are in­ten­ded to pro­mote di­verse views in the me­dia.

The di­vi­sion cri­ti­cized “joint sales agree­ments,” which al­low TV sta­tions to sell ads for each oth­er, and “joint ser­vices agree­ments,” in which TV sta­tions share re­sources, such as news heli­copters or staff. The Justice De­part­ment warned that the deals al­low one TV com­pany to ex­ert “in­flu­ence or con­trol” over com­pet­it­ors.

The de­part­ment re­com­men­ded that the FCC bar the joint sales deals if cur­rent rules would pro­hib­it the sta­tions from mer­ging. The de­part­ment said the FCC should eval­u­ate the ser­vice-shar­ing deals on a case-by-case basis.

The re­port is a boost to FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er, who is ex­pec­ted to push an or­der next month that would closely track those re­com­mend­a­tions.

But he will likely have to over­ride Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion. Both Ajit Pai and Mi­chael O’Ri­elly, the two Re­pub­lic­ans on the five-mem­ber com­mis­sion, have signaled that they would op­pose tough­er TV own­er­ship rules.

Den­nis Whar­ton, a spokes­man for the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Broad­casters, said he “strongly dis­agrees” with the DOJ re­port, which he warned could “kill jobs and dam­age the eco­nom­ics of loc­al broad­cast­ing.”

“Joint sales agree­ments al­low loc­al TV sta­tions that might oth­er­wise go out of busi­ness to in­crease loc­al news and com­munity ser­vice, and to provide ro­bust com­pet­i­tion to pay TV gi­ants,” he said. “In an era when $200 monthly bills from con­sol­id­ated broad­band and cable com­pan­ies are be­com­ing the norm, it’s im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that heav­ily reg­u­lated loc­al TV sta­tions re­main free of charge to every Amer­ic­an.”

The FCC is re­quired to re­view its me­dia own­er­ship rules every four years, but it nev­er com­pleted its 2010 study, which is now be­ing com­bined with the 2014 re­view.

Wheel­er will cir­cu­late the new own­er­ship rules among the FCC com­mis­sion­ers as soon as next week for a vote at the March 19 meet­ing, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials. The com­mis­sion is also ex­pec­ted to seek pub­lic com­ments on its rules re­strict­ing the abil­ity of a single com­pany to own a broad­cast sta­tion and news­pa­per in a single mar­ket.

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