Broadcasters Want More Local Dereg

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Television broadcasters are continuing to push for greater local deregulation, hoping a federal court in Philadelphia will force the Federal Communications Commission to permit more stations to combine around the country, especially in small markets.

The National Association of Broadcasters wants to knock out a rule that bars one top-four station from merging with another top-four station in the same local market.

Although the FCC relaxed media ownership rules last year, the agency imposed the "Top Four" rule to guard against excessive market power.

But the NAB — which represents hundreds of affiliates aligned with ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — argued that the FCC's rule was misguided because TV stations serving small and medium-sized markets were facing tough economic conditions that warranted greater common ownership.

NAB called the FCC rule "grossly overbroad" because it "blocks mergers precisely where the need for consolidation is greatest — in small and midsized markets — and thus prevents the substantial public interest benefits that common ownership allows."

The NAB's comments came in a Jan. 5 filing with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, where the FCC's new broadcast-ownership rules are under assault as both too lenient and too rigid.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Feb. 11. Last September, the court stayed all the new rules, including the Top Four rule, while litigation was pending.

In its brief, NAB noted that the Top Four rule prevented any merger from occurring within dozens of the country's 211 markets. Specifically, the NAB said the rule allowed no merger at all in 81 markets because those markets do not have more than four commercial stations.

The NAB's support for greater media concentration on the local level contrasts with its position on national concentration levels. The FCC adopted a rule that would allow a TV station group to reach 45% of TV households nationally, up from the 35%.

In court, the NAB is supporting an affiliate group that is seeking restoration of the 35% cap. On Capitol Hill, Congress is expected to adopt a 39% cap as part of deal reached with the White House last November.