Two separate proceedings with a common underlying thread emerged from the Federal Communication Commission’s monthly meeting on Thursday. Under its new Republican majority the agency continues to shift toward a deregulatory posture, and broadcasters looking to get out from some cumbersome rules are poised to emerge as benefactors.
FCC chief Ajit Pai said he learned early on in his tenure that “regulatory inertia” is one of the most powerful forces at work in Washington. “A rule that might have been necessary at one time can become yellowed and obsolete with age,” he said. “This applies to the FCC’s media regulations.”
So on a 2-1 party-line vote the Commission formally launched a top-to-bottom review (MB Docket No. 17-105) of all the regulations that fill a nearly 1,000-page rule book covering broadcast, cable and satellite television. Many of the regulations are decades old, Media Bureau officials point out. “The goal here is simple,” Pai said. “We aim to get public input on which rules are still necessary and which should be modified or eliminated. We want to modernize our rules in order to better promote the public interest and clear a path for more competition, innovation and investment in the media sector.” Pai first unveiled his plans during an address to the NAB Show in Las Vegas in April.
The proceeding amounts to a fact-finding endeavor since any rule that the FCC considers outdated would be subject to a later rulemaking proceeding. The review also won’t cover media ownership regulations; Congress would need to change federal law dictating how many stations an owner can operate in a single market.
The Commission’s lone remaining Democrat, commissioner Mignon Clyburn, cast the only vote against opening the proceeding. She said current regulations such as the Equal Employment Opportunity recruitment requirements to prohibit discrimination in hiring are still essential while she called a proposal to shift the required submission of broadcast ownership filings from every two years to every four short-sited. “Our job is to protect the public interest, not give a perpetual hall pass to big broadcast and cable companies,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn also suggested the FCC majority had already concluded that it wants a “clearing of the books” even before the public has weighed in on the initiative. “It seems the word ‘modernization’ in this proceeding has been ironically used,” Clyburn said. “It is really just code for deregulation at the expense of the American consumer.”
Speaking to reporters after the vote, commissioner Mike O’Rielly disputed that. “We’re going to review our existing rules and determine what should stay and what should go—and I don’t think there’s a predisposition that everything is going to go,” he said.
In a similar deregulatory vein, the Commission unanimously agreed on Thursday to advance a separate proceeding—It proposed to eliminate most of the current main studio rules (MB Docket No. 17-106) based on the FCC’s tentative conclusion that the regulation is now outdated and “unnecessarily burdensome” for stations.
Advocating for the changes, Pai said that the public is much more likely to contact a station by social media, email or telephone in the modern age rather than walking in the front door. There are also benefits to struggling operators. “Broadcasters have shown that the main studio rule is a continuous cost that keeps them from serving their local communities in meaningful ways, like broadcasting additional local programming,” he said. Pai recalled a recent letter he received from a Minnesota broadcaster who wanted to construct a new AM station in a nearby town but the costs associated with staffing and technical requirements amounted to a “ticket of doom” for the construction permit.
The proposal to eliminate the main studio rule includes the elements that come with it, such as having full-time management and staff present during normal business hours, and the mandate that a station must have the ability to originate programming from its main studio. But the FCC is proposing to keep some elements. Stations would still need to maintain a local telephone number in its community of license, or have a toll-free number.
Clyburn is also skeptical of doing away with the main studio rule but she was convinced to support opening the rulemaking after Pai agreed to look at adopting a rule that a station’s phone number must be staffed during any hours it is on the air. “This would provide means for the public and local officials to communicate lifesaving information during an emergency,” she said.
Speaking later with reporters, Clyburn seemed most receptive to easing requirements for “very small stations” but whether she’ll ultimately vote for blanket dissolution of the nearly 80-year-old rule is an open question. Clyburn said she recognizes the economic challenges faced by businesses but said the proposal raises serious questions about broadcasting’s localism requirements and questioned why some operators would want to cut their only physical ties to a community.
“It seems to me that we are embracing a world in which automated national programming is the new normal,” Clyburn said. “When the community wants to know what’s going on in their backyard, my question is whether simulcasting will fill the gap.” She said that’s most critical during an emergency. “It serves the station’s interest not to get caught flatfooted,” she said.