FCC 2016

In a sharp rebuke of the Federal Communication Commission’s media ownership review efforts, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia today handed down a strongly worded “reminder” to the agency to complete its mandated quadrennial assessment. It also struck down one change the FCC made two years ago when it voted to make television station joint sales agreements attributable toward ownership caps.

“This is our third go-round with the Commission’s broadcast ownership rules and diversity initiatives. Rarely does a trilogy benefit from a sequel. To that end, we are hopeful that our decision here brings this saga to its conclusion,” circuit judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the court’s 56-page opinion.

The court said it was “troubling” that nearly a decade had elapsed since the FCC last completed a review of broadcast ownership rules despite federal law requiring one be done every four years. Because of the ongoing delays, Ambro noted some broadcasters have petitioned the court to wipe all the media regulations off the books. But that would be a step too far he says.

“This is the administrative law equivalent of burning down the house to roast the pig, and we decline to order it,” Ambro wrote. “However, we note that this remedy, while extreme, might be justified in the future if the Commission does not act quickly to carry out its legislative mandate.”

Speaking to reporters today in Washington, FCC chair Tom Wheeler said the court ruling had been a dozen years in the making across both Republican and Democratic administrations. “I committed to the Congress and the FCC told the court that we would be putting forth a media ownership proposal by June 30. I intend to stick with that,” he said.

In the meantime, the National Association of Broadcasters says it “could not be more pleased” with the appeals court’s ruling. “At long last, this opinion directs the FCC to do its job and adopt broadcast ownership rules that reflect the modern world,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. He added that the NAB is especially happy the court was critical of the rule that prohibits broadcast-newspaper combinations. “This rule needs to be ended immediately,” Wharton said.

The court ruling also won praise from some on Capitol Hill. “This is yet another unsurprising chapter in the FCC’s miserable history on the media ownership rules,” Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said. “It is a sad statement on FCC leadership that the agency must be taken to court in order to force it to comply with the plain reading of its statute.” Walden believes such “failures” have worked to depress the number of minority broadcasters.