Senate Commerce Approves JSA Bill

'Bipartisan' Bill Still Gets Plenty of Democratic Criticism

The Senate Commerce Committee, after a brief false start, passed a bipartisan bill limiting the FCC's decision that most TV station joint sales agreements (JSAs) are attributable as ownership interests.

Specifically, it would grandfather in any JSA that violated the new rule but that was struck before the March 2014 decision.

While the bill had a number of Democratic supporters, they were mostly not on the committee.

Committee ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), along with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) registered their concerns and were among a number of Democrats who voted no on the bill.

Blumenthal wound up not introducing an amendment that would have limited the bill, and Booker also had an amendment he kept in his pocket. But Blumenthal and Booker also said they hoped to work with the bill's author, Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), to get the amendments or at least some of their principles, into the final bill. Blunt agreed to keep talking.

Booker said he was concerned about the impact of JSAs on diversity, saying that while some JSAs could help smaller stations, they were also pretty clearly being used by media "behemoths" to sell, i some cases, 100% of the ad time for smaller stations.

Booker said 100% was at the least extraordinary control and at worst de facto ownership.

Nelson said he wished Blumenthal and Booker had not withdrawn the amendments. He said a waiver process is available for situations in which smaller stations were actually helped by JSAs, but that the FCC was right to try to prevent more media market dominance by the big players.

Blunt pointed out that the bill only applied to JSAs in existence before the new FCC rule was passed, which he said was only fair since business decisions to enter into those JSAs, including by smaller, minority-owned stations, had been made under FCC rules that, at the time, allowed them.

For a new FCC to change the rules after the investments had been made, and apply them to those existing deals, was not fair, Blunt suggested, adding that the FCC needs to honor the deals made under those rules.

There were actually two votes approving the bill, but the first did not count because there were not enough voters present to make it official.

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who voted against the JSA change, said he was pleased with the development and commended the committee: "Under rules passed by the FCC last year on a party-line vote, JSAs that had been previously approved by the commission would have to be unwound in 2016. The legislation approved today, by contrast, would permit television stations to maintain those JSAs. Today’s vote, moreover, comes on the heels of an overwhelming, bipartisan 38-11 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee last week to deny the FCC funding to implement its new JSA policy."