Court Fight Set on Broadcast Ownership Rules


The first legal showdown over new broadcast-ownership rules is scheduled for Sept. 3 in a Philadelphia federal appeals court.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit will hear arguments that the new rules should be blocked from taking effect while litigation is pending.

The stay request was filed by Prometheus Radio Project, represented by the Media Access Project.

Without a stay, MAP — a public-interest law firm — claimed that the broadcast industry could take advantage of the new rules to restructure itself in a manner causing "irreparable harm."

The rules, MAP said, would promote industry consolidation to the detriment of competition and ownership diversity.

The Federal Communications Commission, which adopted the rules following a lengthy review mandated by Congress, on Aug. 25 filed an opposition to the stay request. The agency denied the possibility of irreparable harm, noting that MAP is entitled to oppose at the FCC a request to transfer any TV or radio license and take the commission to court for transferring a license that would not benefit the public.

The new rules become official Sept. 4. If a stay were issued, the new rules would remain on ice until affirmed in court, an appellate process that could take months or years, depending on whether the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Republican-controlled FCC voted to relax several ownership rules, which generally allow ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to own more stations by raising the number of TV households they can reach from 35% to 45%.

They also allow TV stations and newspapers to combine in the same local market for the first time without a waiver since 1975. The FCC also made it possible for one entity to own two or three TV stations in a market, depending on its size.

The House in July approved a spending bill that would restore the 35% cap, in a major lobbying defeat for the networks. A month earlier, the Senate Commerce Committee voted not only to restore the 35% cap, but also to reimpose the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), working with Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss), said he had the votes lined up to void all of the FCC's new rules.

Another legal battle is occurring over venue. ABC, CBS, and Fox want the case moved from the 3rd Circuit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The 3rd Circuit was selected by lottery, after suits had been filed in four circuits.

The networks prefer the D.C. Circuit because a panel from that court remanded the 35% cap to the FCC, after finding the agency failed to justify it adequately. The D.C. Circuit has also remanded cable-ownership rules, struck down a ban on cross-ownership of cable systems and TV stations, and remanded a rule related to a single entity owning two TV stations in the same market.