In August 2012, the Coalition for Broadcast Investment (“CBI”), a group comprising national broadcast networks, radio and television station licensees, and community and consumer organizations, filed a letter with the FCC requesting clarification of the foreign ownership rules contained in Section 310(b)(4) of the Communications Act. Specifically, CBI requested clarification that “the FCC will conduct a substantive, facts, and circumstances evaluation of proposals for foreign investment in excess of 25 percent in the parent company of a broadcast licensee.…” If adopted, this approach would represent a marked change of course for the FCC, which has in the past “categorically refused” to consider transactions involving investment in broadcasters above the 25% benchmark, according to CBI.
Citing the numerous other contexts where foreign investment above 25% is permitted (including, among others, sectors such as cable, direct-to-home satellite, and wireless), CBI highlighted the “structural disadvantage” broadcasters face because of the FCC’s “effective presumption” against foreign investment above 25% in the broadcast sector. In addition, CBI pointed out that ending the presumption would place broadcasters “on the same footing” as other industry participants, facilitating crucial access to capital in a market where they face increasing competition for consumers.
In February 2013, the FCC responded with a Public Notice (MB Docket No. 13-50) soliciting comments on CBI’s request. The first round of comments were due April 15, and a review of those submissions reveals a uniform desire for the FCC to relax the de facto 25% indirect cap applied to foreign ownership in broadcasters. Although all commenters supported CBI’s request, different groups highlighted particular points of emphasis.
Adelante Media Group, the National Association of Broadcasters, and Nexstar Broadcasting all noted that the Over-the-Top providers competing with traditional broadcasters face no restriction on foreign ownership. The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council emphasized that encouraging foreign investment in broadcasters would help “reverse the decline in minority broadcast ownership.” The National Association of Media Brokers referenced the fact that many entities that provided working capital to prospective new broadcasters were no longer in the market.
The question remains whether the FCC will hear the pleas of the broadcasters for regulatory parity. On the one hand, broadcasters may have reason for optimism if the FCC’s recent Public Notice (IB Docket No. 11-133) stating that it has streamlined its policies and procedures for reviewing foreign ownership of common carrier wireless licenses and certain aeronautical radio licenses is any indication. On the other hand, the broadcast industry has a long history of special concern in Congress due to its potential to influence the outcome of elections, and the FCC has not yet heard from Congress on these issues.
Reply comments on the proposal to lift the 25% cap on indirect foreign ownership of broadcast licensees are due at the FCC on April 30.