Back in 2015, I called then–FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai a corporate lapdog. He earned the nickname, in my mind, after he referred to his former Chairman, Tom Wheeler, as an “Obama lapdog,” although he didn’t directly make that statement. He had a few of his associates—Matthew Berry and Brendan Carr—do the name-calling for him. Pai and his proxies gave Wheeler this name because he sought to classify broadband internet service providers as “common carriers,” paving the way for what we commonly refer to as “net neutrality.” They accused Wheeler of being an Obama lapdog because he was following the pronouncements of the then-President of United States.
However, Pai, Berry, and Carr were truly acting like corporate lapdogs, following the commands of their masters in the broadcast and broadband industries. They were advocating on behalf of the telecommunications companies that provide broadband services at the expense of the public interest. Without net neutrality, ISPs can discriminate against certain websites and Internet services that might not be part of their corporate family or do not pay for “preferential treatment.”
Since Trump nominated Pai as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Pai’s FCC has done some shady things to further serve the interests of the broadcast industry, especially ones that support the Trump administration. Most notably, when the FCC was soliciting public comments on its website regarding its proposal to reclassify broadband as an information service, thus ending “net neutrality,” the FCC claimed that its public-comment website was down because it was the subject of a DDoS attack. It now appears that there is no proof that the site was attacked but instead was likely purposefully taken down to stop receiving comments from the public. During the last public comment period, the comments overwhelmingly supported net neutrality, which Chairman Pai is intent on dismantling.
Chairman Pai’s FCC has been even more active in working for the broadcast industry. Lapdogs, as we know, can be quite loyal. He has taken aim at three regulations that were instituted at various times over the last ninety years to curb the influence of broadcast station owners.
The first is the station ownership caps. The idea behind instituting station ownership caps is to prevent one partisan voice from dominating the broadcast media throughout the country. Before the 1980s, no single company could own more than seven AM radio, seven FM radio, and seven television stations. However, those rules have been relaxed over the past four decades. The current rules are a little complex but they basically restrict a single company from essentially reaching more than 39% of US TV households. By the way, the rules for radio station ownership are even more complex, but there are almost no ownership caps on radio stations.
There is one way to get around the 39% rule, and that is through the UHF discount. In the US, television stations are scattered across two bands: VHF (2-13) and UHF (13-69). VHF stations dominated the airwaves for two reasons. First, VHF TV signals travelled further than those of UHF TV stations and provided a clearly picture and higher-fidelity sound. Second, VHF TV stations were more widely watched because those stations were either owned or affiliated with a broadcast network and thus carried the most popular TV programming of the day. The UHF TV stations were exiled in a kind of TV “ghetto” and were rarely profitable.
In order to provide some equity between VHF and UHF station owners, FCC instituted a “UHF discount” in the 1980s. Since UHF TV stations didn’t have the same reach as their VHF competitors, the UHF discount allows owners of UHF stations to count their stations as having only half of their actual reach. This was because UHF stations were less popular than VHF stations. However, this also allowed owners of all-UHF stations to reach potentially reach 78% of US TV households, compared to the intention of the ownership rules: no single entity could reach more than 39% of US households.
If you’re confused by the 39% rule and the “UHF discount,” you’re not alone. I honestly think the broadcast industry and their lobbyists purposefully make it complicated so that the public can’t understand and advocate against the interests of broadcasters. Their interests and the public’s interests are often at odds with each other.
The UHF discount was abandoned during the Obama administration because the digital TV transition in 2009 made the difference between a VHF and a UHF station almost meaningless. In fact, most network broadcast stations use a UHF frequency that the FCC gave to them at the turn of the millennium. The reasons for implementing the UHF discount no longer exist and the FCC under Obama closed this loophole, although there was a “grandfather” clause for station owners who were the 39% rule during the UHF-discount era.
In April 2017, in a move friendly to broadcast station owners, Pai’s FCC restored the UHF-TV station discount. Now, a single company can again effectively reach twice as many households with UHF stations than if it had only VHF stations. It’s worth noting that one company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owns and operates many local TV stations—mostly on the UHF band—around the US, uses its outsized reach to “inject right wing political views” into their local newscasts, and is a vocal support of Pai’s boss, President Trump.
Also, Sinclair is trying to acquire television stations owned by Tribune. Without the UHF discount, Sinclair cannot acquire those stations without divesting of some stations or abandoning the merger altogether. Restoring the UHF discount clearly benefits Sinclair and would expand the reach of its right-wing propaganda. Chairman Pai’s move to restore the UHF discount has drawn the ire of one of his fellow commissioners. Jessica Rosenworcel has called for an investigation into the FCC and Chairman Pai’s “push for rules changes and policies that seem ‘custom-built’ to benefit the Sinclair Broadcast Group.”
The FCC has other rules to prevent the influence of a single partisan voice: newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule and the TV duopoly rule. The cross ownership rule restricts a single entity from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. Instituted in the 1970s, this rule also has a grandfather clause and allows for some case-by-case exceptions. Most notably, the right-wing News Corp was exempt from this rule, allowing it to own its Fox broadcast station (WNYW) and two newspapers—the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The duopoly rule prevents a single company from owning more than one television stations. Again, this is to curb the influence of a single partisan voice throughout multiple television stations. Of course, those rules have been relaxed in the largest media markets—New York and Los Angeles, for example—where there remain at least eight different station owners. In those markets, almost all the major networks own more than one TV station.
|Duopoly Owner||New York||Los Angeles|
|CBS||WCBS 2 and WPIX 11||KCBS 2 and KTLA 5|
|Comcast NBC||WNBC 4 and WNJU 49||KNBC and KVEA 52|
|21st Century Fox||WNYW 5 and WWOR 9||KTTV 11 and KCOP 13|
Chairman Pai wants rescind both these rules at the FCC’s next open meeting on November 16.
Rescinding these rules would be “great” for business, leading to layoffs and media consolidation. It would reduce the diversity of opinions in markets throughout the US and allow for committed partisan voices to influence local and national politics. If you wonder why our country is so politically divided, a lot of has to do with the waves of deregulation and consolidation that we have seen the 1980s.
Chairman Pai—and deregulators like him—claim that the rules are “out of date” or “obsolete” and that these ownership regulations should be relaxed or rescinded. But why stop at these “out of date” rules? Why not go after all the rules?
Chairman Pai has not yet targeted a couple of other longstanding rules. The dual network rule prohibits any of the Big Four networks—Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS—from owning one of the others. This was instituted to prevent one network from wielding too much influence over the broadcast TV, as NBC did when it owned a Red and a Blue network. However, the rule does not prevent a network from either owning outright or holding a stake in a minor network. Fox’s parent company owns the My Network TV, and NBC’s parent company owns Telemundo. Chairman Pai is just getting started gutting regulations, and it’s not unreasonable to think that his FCC would relax or eliminate this rule.
Another rule that recognized the power of broadcasting was the citizenship rule. A broadcast radio or television station owner must be a US citizens. This was done to prevent a foreign power from influencing our country through these powerful communications media. Given that Russia already influenced our presidential election in 2016 using mostly Internet advertising and bypassing the entire broadcasting infrastructure, I don’t see why Chairman Pai wouldn’t also abolish this rule since it’s clearly “out of date.”
The FCC does more than just regulate indecent speech on broadcast TV and radio. One of its core missions is to promote the “public interest” and has historically done so by instituting regulations that limit the influence one person or company can wield using broadcast media.
It’s only been about fifteen years since I understood what the FCC actually does and have followed the actions of its commissioners. I also know the history of some of the FCC most famous commissioners, such as Reagan’s Mark Fowler and Kennedy’s Newton Minow. Trump’s Ajit Pai seems to be running the commission in the mold of John C. Doerfer—the FCC Commissioner under the Eisenhower administration. Like Pai, Doerfer instituted many rules and policies that benefitted the broadcasters, almost always at the expense of the public interest. Doerfer’s tenure as FCC Commissioner came to an end after it was discovered that he had accepted trips and gifts from industry executives. Doerfer was an extraordinarily corrupt commissioner, and he haunts the history of the FCC. Historians have even given Doerfer-era at the FCC it’s own name, and it’s not a flattering name.
It’s known as the “Whorehouse Era.”