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An appeals court on Wednesday struck down regulations meant to limit the consolidation of TV ownership in a single market. 

The decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is a win for the broadcast industry, which has fought the Federal Communications Commission’s 2014 rules at every turn, including through the courts and in Congress.

{mosads}The court on Wednesday struck down those new rules. Since the FCC has not recently justified why its baseline TV ownership rules are in the public interest, the court ruled that the agency could not strengthen them. 

“Unless the Commission determines that the preexisting ownership rules are sound, it cannot logically demonstrate that an expansion is in the public interest,” Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the panel’s opinion

FCC rules have long set limits on TV ownership in overlapping areas. Companies are generally barred from owning more than two broadcast stations in a single market. 

In 2014, the FCC closed what it called a loophole that allowed station owners to get around those limits with joint sales agreements. Those agreements let one station sell advertising for another station. 

The court noted the FCC can quickly rewrite the rules if it somehow determines they are in the public interest. 

Wednesday’s opinion was much broader than the issue of joint sales agreements. 

The groups that brought the case wanted the court to throw out nearly all media ownership regulations because the FCC has failed to issue a report that is supposed to review broadcast ownership rules every four years to determine if they are still in the public interest or should be repealed. 

Because the FCC last finished a review in 2006, critics had pressed the court to throw out all the FCC’s local television and radio rules as well as rules that limit the cross ownership of newspapers, television and radio in a single market.

The court declined to go that far, cautioning that it could lead to a free-for-all of media buying to consolidate local markets. But it did not rule that out in the future if the FCC does not act. 

“This would invite chaos, and it presumably would lead to drawn-out litigation over whether combinations entered into during this vacuum could continue to exist even if the Commission later determined to outlaw them once again,” the court ruled. 

The FCC is expected to circulate a key piece of the media ownership review next month and hoping to approve it by the end of the year.

Tags Federal Communications Commission Joint Sales Agreements Third Circuit

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