At the FCC’s monthly open meeting on Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made good on his earlier promise to apply the figurative “weed whacker” to what he considers to be burdensome, unnecessary or obsolete FCC regulations, as the agency’s Republican majority approved a Report and Order (R&O) which eliminates the agency’s broadcast main studio rule.

Instituted nearly eight decades ago, the main studio rule requires AM, FM and television broadcast station licensees to operate main studio facilities within their local communities of license. Adopted along party lines by a 3-2 vote, the R&O was one of seven items addressed by the FCC during a busy open meeting session. In addition to the main studio R&O, other items appearing on Tuesday’s meeting agenda included, among others: (1) a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) which proposes to eliminate annual broadcaster reporting requirements pertaining to ancillary or supplemental services, (2) a decision to scale back reporting requirements for providers of international telecommunications services, and (3) an NPRM to consider changes to previously-adopted FCC rules governing fifth-generation wireless and other services in the 3.5 GHz band.

On the heels of Tuesday’s R&O, Pai also confirmed on Wednesday that he had begun circulating a draft order among his fellow FCC commissioners that would ease or eliminate FCC media ownership rules which limit cross-ownership of a newspaper and a television station in the same market and common ownership of two of the top four television stations in a single market. That order is expected to appear on the agenda of the FCC’s next monthly open meeting scheduled for November 16.

Observing that the purpose of the main studio rule is “to facilitate input from community members and the station’s participation in community activities,” the FCC’s Republican majority concluded that the rule has become unduly burdensome insofar as the public today “can access information via broadcasters’ online public files, and stations and community members can interact directly through alternative means such as e-mail [and] social media.” The FCC also predicted that the rule’s elimination will produce substantial cost savings for broadcasters “that can be directed toward such things as programming, equipment upgrades, newsgathering and other services that benefit consumers.” Broadcasters will still have to maintain a local, toll free telephone number and store any portion of their public file that is not available online in a publicly-accessible location within their community of license. 

Both members of the FCC’s Democratic minority, Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, characterized the R&O in dissenting statements as a threat to broadcast localism. Describing the agency’s vote as “a solemn one in the history of television and radio broadcasting,” Clyburn remarked: “the FCC signals that it no longer believes those awarded a license to use the public airwaves should have a local presence in their community.” Warning that the decision could “hollow out the unique role broadcasters play” in their local communities, Rosenworcel told reporters that the FCC would have done better by applying a waiver policy to the rule. However, as the National Association of Broadcasters argued that the main studio rule has “outlived its usefulness in an era of mobile newsgathering and multiple content delivery platforms,” Kim Keenan, the President of the Minority Media, Telecom & Internet Council, commended the FCC for doing “the right thing,” explaining: “in practice, the rule drove capital away from multicultural broadcasters who were unable to operate as efficiently as other broadcasters who could house more stations in a main studio.”