WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Free Press and a coalition of media-rights groups petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to stay its ruling reinstating an obsolete television-ownership rule. The rule in question, called the “UHF discount,” allows broadcasters to exceed the national ownership cap by discounting the actual population coverage of their UHF broadcast stations for purposes of calculating their stations’ reach.
The FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai voted in April to put this rule back on the books to pave the way for runaway broadcast-industry consolidation, like the Sinclair-Tribune merger that was announced earlier this week. These conglomerates hope to exploit the discount to leap over the 39 percent national audience-reach cap Congress put in place.
In their petition to the agency, Common Cause, Free Press, Media Alliance, Media Mobilizing Project, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Prometheus Radio Project and the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc. explain that this is a dangerous outcome stemming from a bad agency decision. The groups are represented by the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center.
The UHF discount is a technically obsolete loophole that allows the FCC to underestimate the true reach of broadcast companies. It’s technically obsolete because while UHF stations once had weaker signals, today stations broadcasting on these channels actually have better signals thanks to the Digital TV transition that occurred a decade ago.
As the groups’ filing makes clear, “Reinstatement of the UHF discount opens the door for rapid and massive consolidation despite a congressional directive that there should be a limit on the scope of national ownership.”
The full petition is available here: https://www.freepress.net/sites/default/files/legacy-policy/free_press_et_al_uhf_petition_for_stay.pdf
This filing asks for a stay from the agency, pending judicial review.
Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood made the following statement:
“The FCC under Ajit Pai has gone out of its way to do special favors for massive media companies. Reinstating the technically obsolete UHF discount is just another handout to these conglomerates. The FCC’s vote last month has already opened the floodgates for further broadcast consolidation, starting with Sinclair’s recently announced bid to buy Tribune Media’s stations in most of the nation’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.
“Sinclair has worked hard to curry favor with the Trump administration and Chairman Pai, all to gain the power to push these kinds of deals through. Buying Tribune and other broadcasters would give Sinclair access to more than 70 percent of the people in America, and would let this broadcast conglomerate fire local journalists and drown local viewers under a flood of cookie-cutter news and right-wing propaganda.
“Local broadcast television is still the most important local news source for many people, particularly in low-income and Spanish-speaking communities. The last thing local communities need is fewer perspectives — and more politically biased news.
“Allowing this wave of consolidation before courts can review the agency’s illogical decision to reinstate the UHF discount does a huge disservice to the country. It would irreparably harm both the petitioners and the public, which has a right to a diverse broadcast media.
“Chairman Pai likes to talk about taking an evidence-based approach when it comes to jettisoning obsolete rules, yet here he is reinstating one that he admits has no technical justification. He’s doing so solely to let broadcast conglomerates skirt the law and expand their control over the nation’s airwaves.
“The original justification for the UHF discount has long since disappeared. It’s arbitrary and capricious to re-adopt the rule now, with no possible technical rationale, all just to undermine congressionally mandated checks on the sort of dangerous broadcast consolidation that Chairman Pai favors.”