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WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to begin a rulemaking process to initiate the 2018 Quadrennial Review of broadcast-ownership regulations. Congress requires the agency to review these rules every four years to determine whether they remain “necessary in the public interest.”

Previous reviews have substantially weakened the FCC’s ownership rules, despite overwhelming public opposition to further media consolidation. Last year, the FCC slashed local television-ownership restrictions while blessing shady sharing arrangements that allow big broadcasters — like the Sinclair Broadcast Group and Nexstar Media Group — to buy up more and more local media.

This time, the FCC has teed up questions about both local radio and local television protections, seeking comment on whether nominal competition from non-broadcast sources justifies further deregulation for free, over-the-air local content. The agency is also considering modifying or outright eliminating the dual-network rule, which prohibits any mergers between the Big Four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC).

In previous reviews, the FCC failed to address the appallingly low levels of station ownership among women and people of color.

Today the agency raised several proposals allegedly designed to improve these numbers, but still refuses to perform court-mandated diversity studies that would allow it to inform any such plans. Instead, the FCC seeks comment on how to implement policies meant to benefit women and people of color without using any “race- or gender-conscious definitions.”

Free Press Policy Manager Dana Floberg made the following statement:

“In taking up this review, the FCC should ignore self-serving industry arguments that consolidation creates so-called synergies that enable broadcasters to provide better news and information to the public. It’s become even more evident since the last agency review that media consolidation adversely affects both the quantity and quality of local news and information from competing sources and diverse owners.

“Despite the growth in digital-media options, broadcast remains a critical source of local news and information, especially for people of color and low-income communities. We need to nurture local broadcast news, not let companies like Sinclair and Nexstar swallow the industry whole.

“Congress put in place broadcast-ownership limits to foster diversity and promote competition among local stations. But consolidated broadcasters are skirting these rules by entering into secretive agreements to combine local newsrooms and station operations. Sinclair is well known for such surreptitious dealings but it’s not alone. Nexstar, which is now pursuing a merger with Tribune Media, has similar broadcaster-sharing deals.

“Despite these shady arrangements, the alleged benefits of consolidation haven’t materialized. Instead, the outcome is the same: layoffs of station staff, limited editorial independence, reduced investment in newsgathering and diminished competition for audiences and advertisers. The FCC needs to close the loopholes for existing and prospective broadcasters’ use of combined service agreements.

“And the agency needs to commit itself to fostering a media system that reflects the diversity of the American people. Misguided industry deregulation has concentrated station ownership in a few hands and denied too many people in the United States local media outlets that address community needs. The Commission must develop a comprehensive strategy to remedy this injustice instead of offering marginalized communities the crumbs of a few presently impracticable proposals.

“As this process begins, Chairman Pai needs reminding that it isn’t the FCC's job to protect the broadcast industry’s profit margins. Rather, the agency must serve the public interest by creating and enforcing rules designed to promote competition, diversity and localism.”

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