By Brad Friedman on 3/31/2014, 6:30pm PT  

Finally. For the first time in years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has rolled back the mad consolidation of our public airwaves by huge corporate interests.

Today's party-line vote by commissioners is just one small step for the FCC, but it may suggest that, under its new Chair Tom Wheeler, the federal agency may once again be showing some interest in fulfilling its mission of assuring that the public airwaves actually serve the public interest...

The Federal Communications Commission today took a critical first step toward tightening its rules and putting more of the public airwaves into the hands of local owners.

In a tense vote, the agency closed a loophole that has allowed companies like Raycom, Sinclair and Tribune to evade federal ownership limits. The industry calls these loopholes "joint service agreements," but we call them "covert consolidation" because they allow companies to control as many as four TV stations in the same market. Companies that have exploited the JSA loophole have gutted newsrooms and often broadcast the exact same newscast on multiple stations in the same community - if they run any news at all.
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In the wake of this decision, some companies will be forced to sell off stations that violate the new rule.
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In addition, the JSA loophole was one of many. The Department of Justice has pushed the FCC to close all loopholes and a recent statement from the FCC's media bureau suggests it's primed to scrutinize future deals.

The LA Times reports the new rules "will greatly reduce and potentially bring to an end the popular practice of business partnerships between competing local television stations."

Mind you, many of the corporations who have been abusing the rules by partnering to avoid competing with other local stations are the very same corporations who pretend to be in favor of so-called "free market competition."

The Times goes on to note that "FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said such partnerships have been abused by many broadcasters who have used so-called joint sales agreements to get around the regulatory agency's rules limiting the number of television stations a broadcaster can own."

"Broadcasters will have two years to unwind their joint sales agreement arrangements or can file a request for a waiver and try to make the case that the partnership serves the public interest," the paper reports. Public advocates like Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron, who otherwise lauded today's vote, still has "concerns about how the FCC will apply waiver standards."

Still, Aaron said in a statement issued today, the new rules amount to very encouraging news from the FCC for a change...

"For years, a small handful of powerful conglomerates has used outsourcing agreements to dodge the FCC's ownership rules and grow their empires at the public's expense. And for too long the agency has looked the other way as these companies have dominated the airwaves.

"While today's vote focuses only on Joint Sales Agreements, it signals that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is willing to break with the past and stop broadcasters from using shell companies to skirt the agency's ownership limits.

"It's time for conglomerates to start playing by the rules. Divesting some of their stations could open the door for truly independent and diverse owners to enter a marketplace conglomerates have controlled for years."

"Under the new rules," according to the Times, "a broadcaster that accounts for more than 15% of another station's advertising sales would be seen by the FCC as the defacto licensee of that station. For many broadcasters, such a caveat could put them in violation of the FCC's ownership rules. The FCC typically limits the amount of stations one company can own in an individual market to one in all but the biggest cities."

Don't know that we've ever said it on this site --- especially following the FCC's most recent debacle folding under one-sided pressure from the corporate rightwing (ironically, issued over the very same public airwaves the FCC is supposed to oversee) forcing them to back off of a Congressionally mandated study that might have helped take back some of the public airwaves from the corporate rightwing which thinks they own them --- but: Good for the FCC!

It remains to be seen if actual oversight of our public airwaves, as mandated by law, continues under Wheeler's chairmanship at the agency. We may know a lot more once they finally decide on the pending question of whether Rush Limbaugh and friends present "bona fide news" over our public airwaves, as the FCC will soon be forced to determine.