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Court dismisses challenge over FCC media ownership rule

Court dismisses challenge over FCC media ownership rule
© Greg Nash

A federal court on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking to overturn the agency’s decision to effectively raise the limit on the number of local television stations a company can own.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the legal challenge on a technicality, ruling that the consumer group Free Press did not establish that it had the legal standing to bring the suit.

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Last year, Free Press sued the agency over its decision to reinstate the UHF discount, which makes ultrahigh frequency television stations count as half of a normal station when calculating for whether a broadcaster is in compliance with the national media ownership cap.

Those companies aren’t allowed to serve more than 39 percent of the country’s television viewing audience. The decision to reinstate the UHF discount last year was seen as a major win for companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has been trying to consolidate its power over the local television market.

In reinstating the discount, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (R) said that the loophole was outdated but argued that the Obama-era FCC erred in repealing it without reviewing the existing media ownership cap.

“I’m pleased with the court’s decision to reject this challenge to the reinstatement of the UHF discount pending the completion of our comprehensive review of the national ownership cap,” Pai said in a statement on Wednesday.

“We’re disappointed that this panel of judges refused to rule on the FCC’s phony math and poor excuses for the obsolete and harmful UHF discount," Jessica Gonzalez, deputy director at Free Press, said in a statement. “It’s important to remember that this decision does nothing to bless or approve the FCC’s unsupported policy changes and legal claims surrounding the reinstatement of the fossilized UHF loophole. It also offers no opinion on Pai’s proposal to unlawfully raise the national ownership cap in yet another rulemaking proceeding still pending at the agency.”

The win for the FCC, however, is likely too late to save Sinclair’s doomed merger with Tribune Media, a deal that would have put the combined company over the top of the 39 percent limit and relied on the UHF discount to bring it within striking distance of the cap.

But last week, Pai and the rest of commission voted to submit the deal through the arduous process of an administrative law review to scrutinize questionable side deals that Sinclair had proposed to bring the merger into compliance with the media ownership limit.

President TrumpDonald TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire MORE came to the right-wing media company's defense on Tuesday, calling the FCC's decision "unfair."

Updated at 12:25 p.m.