A Senate bill that would exempt TV stations in current joint sales agreements from being forced to unwind the deals under a new Federal Communications Commission rule was voted out of the commerce committee 14-10.
But the bill, authored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is not out of the woods yet.
While Democrats agreed with the bill’s intent to make sure the current FCC honors JSA deals approved under prior FCC, they also worried that the bill was “too broad.”
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) offered amendments that would prohibit JSA deals from existing in perpetuity. Although the Senators withdrew the amendments, allowing the bill to advance, the Senators will try to work with the bill’s author Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to put additional “safeguards” in place before the bill goes to the floor.
The committee debate over the bill reignited a familiar policy debate about media ownership and diversity.
“The FCC’s ownership rules are in place very specifically to protect diversity. But these rules are being evaded by these JSAs. Sometimes they help in smaller markets; there can be good productive use of these JSAs, but what frustrates me, is these agreements are getting abused in dramatic fashion. In some cases, stations selling 100 percent [of the advertising time of another station] and that to me is clearly extraordinary control over these stations and is de facto ownership,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “As these bigger companies are growing in influence, diversity in media ownership is scant. Less than 3 percent of TV stations owned by minorities and this affects the content being put out there.”
Blunt countered that his bill was simple, limited and bipartisan.
“This does not act in a way that allows this model (JSAs) to go forward. What this does is require the FCC to honor the agreements they’ve told stations they could enter into. In some cases, minority stations were able to stay in business. We can’t have the government allowing private entities to do things and then come back and change their mind. That’s too late if you’re a minority owner that got into business through a JSA,” Blunt said.
The FCC’s rule, passed March 2014, would attribute ownership limitations on any JSA where one station sells more than 15 percent of the advertising time of another station in the market. Highly controversial, the FCC’s order was voted 3-2 along strict party lines.
Unlike the FCC order, the bill to undo it has bipartisan support from seven co-sponsors including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
Broadcasters, who have been lobbying Congress to turn around the rule ever since it was passed, have reason to be optimistic.
“NAB appreciates the support of the Senate Commerce Committee and Sen. Blunt for advancing this bipartisan legislation that allows local broadcasters, especially in small and midsize markets, to continue operating joint sales agreements that enhance local news, weather and community interest programming. We look forward to working with the legislation’s cosponsors, Sens. Blunt, Cardin, Durbin, Johnson, Mikulski, Schumer, Scott and Wicker, and other lawmakers toward successful passage of this important bill,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB executive vice president, communications.
Over in the House, lawmakers took a different approach when the appropriations committee passed in a 38-11 vote adding a rider on a budget bill to stop the FCC’s order.
“These developments demonstrate that the FCC’s misguided assault on JSAs is in serious trouble,” said FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who voted against the FCC’s order last year. “I hope the full Senate and House correct the agency’s error.”