Is the FCC Making a Move to Stop TV Groups From Getting Any Bigger?

Proposed rule could change how TV stations are counted toward national ownership cap

Acting Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Mignon Clyburn may have turned activist. In a bold move, Clyburn has circulated an item aimed at making sure TV groups don't get any bigger.

Over the past few months, a flurry of mergers among TV broadcasters—including Gannett-Belo, Tribune-Local TV, Sinclair-Allbritton and Media General-Young Broadcasting—have given media consolidation critics heart palpitations.

The notice of proposed rulemaking that showed up Friday as a single line on the FCC's website offered no detail. Here's what it said: "Amendment of Section 73.3555(e) of the commission's rules, national television multiple ownership rule, notice of proposed rule making ('NPRM')."

Here's what it means: The rule cited governs how TV stations are counted against the FCC's ownership cap, which restricts TV groups to owning properties that reach no more than 39 percent of the nation's TV households. How a station counts toward the ownership cap depends on its frequency. 

When TV was analog, a UHF TV station didn't reach as many households as a VHF and was counted as 50 percent of a VHF. But now that TV stations have gone digital, the situation is reversed, and most stations converted to UHF.

So is Clyburn proposing a rule change? That's the speculation.

And why do this now before new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is sworn in?

"I suspect that all the news about TV consolidation is putting pressure on the FCC to at least look like they are on top of it," said Scott Flick, a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "At the rate TV deals are moving, the FCC may feel like it will be all over by the time the new chairman settles in and can start to focus on it."

Although a change in the rule is unlikely to alter current TV deals, it could stop some future deals for groups getting close to the limit. Sinclair Broadcast Group's purchase of Allbritton's TV portfolio would put it at 38 percent of TV households; a combined Gannett and Belo group would reach about a third of TV households.

FCC representatives could not be reached for comment.

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