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Supreme Court to Tackle Media Ownership Case

The Supreme Court (Courtesy of ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutter)

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in the latest challenge to the FCC’s efforts to loosen its rules that limit media ownership.

The high court on Friday said it would take on the case brought by Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, a collection of low-power radio stations. Prometheus and others are challenging the FCC’s rollback on the grounds that the commission has not given sufficient consideration to how such moves will impact broadcast station ownership by women and minorities.

The FCC has been fighting in court over its media ownership rules for 17 years, through Republican and Democratic administrations. Most recently, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last September vacated the FCC’s 2017 rule changes, saying the commission had not properly defined some of the specific terms used to define how stations would be evaluated for complying with revenue and reach-based limits.

The decision had the effect of reinstating rules that limit the ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same market, and mandates that limit on the number of TV and radio stations that a single entity can own in the same market.

The National Association of Broadcasters and most of the largest TV station groups are siding with the FCC in pushing for an overhaul, arguing that the rules put undue burden on broadcasters at a time when they face tougher competition than ever from largely unregulated competitors.

“NAB looks forward to presenting our case before the Supreme Court this term,” said CEO Gordon Smith, in a statement. “For almost two decades, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked common-sense changes to outdated broadcast ownership regulations to the detriment of local journalism. The time has come to allow the FCC to modernize its rules.”

Oral argument is expected to occur either in January or February.

The Third Circuit wrote last September that the FCC’s analysis of the market impact of allowing entities to own more stations was “so insubstantial that it would receive a failing grade in any introductory statistics class.” The appeals court also accused the FCC of comparing “apples to oranges” in its long-range study of female and minority station ownership because the commission’s methodologies have changed over the years.

“The media marketplace has undergone massive changes over the past few decades, let alone since 2004,” the NAB said in September 2019 after the Third Circuit ruling. “We strongly encourage the FCC to appeal this misguided decision so that broadcasters can compete on an even playing field with tech giants and pay TV conglomerates.”

Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman, issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case.

“I am very pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to review the Third Circuit’s Prometheus decision, which vacated the FCC’s long-overdue reforms of its media ownership rules,” he said. “This is a breakthrough: a real chance to finally have media ownership rules that better match today’s realities. For seventeen years, the same divided panel of the Third Circuit has repeatedly frustrated the FCC’s efforts to amend its rules to allow broadcasters to compete in today’s dynamic media marketplace. Upon review, I hope that the Supreme Court will affirm the FCC’s reforms, which empower struggling local news outlets to thrive in today’s increasingly competitive media landscape.”

Variety's Cynthia Littleton contributed to this post.

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