The National Association of Broadcasters is upset, but consumer groups are gleeful, after the FCC followed Chairman Tom Wheeler’s lead and approved orders that limit TV stations’ ability to jointly negotiate ad sales and retransmission consent deals. In a 3-2 vote on party lines, commissioners said that a station that sells at least 15% of the ads for a would-be rival will be considered to own the station — which could run afoul of ownership caps. Broadcasters can get a waiver if they demonstrate that the arrangement serves the public, or doesn’t affect the smaller station’s programming. Companies have two years to either secure a waiver or unwind sidecar deals. In a separate, 5-0 vote the FCC barred joint retransmission consent negotiations involving two of the four highest-rated stations in a market. Wheeler says that the changes will promote competition and diversity. TV station collaborations represent “a growing end run” around the FCC’s ownership limits.
Former Commissioner Michael Copps, now with Common Cause, says that he hopes the vote “marks the long overdue start of a new era of public interest leadership.” Another FCC vet, former Chairman Michael Powell — now CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association — also praised the retransmission consent rules saying that “such coordinated behavior harms consumers by artificially inflating the cost of watching over-the-air broadcast stations on cable systems.” But NAB’s Dennis Wharton says that the vote threatens the ability of “free and local TV stations to survive in a hyper-competitive world dominated by pay TV giants.” He adds that “the public interest will not be served by this arbitrary and capricious decision.”
Separately, the FCC voted to make about 65 MHz of spectrum available for Wi-Fi. Activist group Public Knowledge praised what it calls “the first concrete action” the agency has taken in five years to open airwaves for the public. Internet providers also are pleased: Comcast says it “will help alleviate congestion and pave the way for next generation Wi-Fi technologies that will operate at gigabit-per-second speeds.” And Verizon says the decision “will enable wireless companies to meet consumer expectations, particularly those using 4G LTE networks.”