Supreme Court Reinstates FCC’s 2017 Broadcast Ownership Rule Changes

Posted on April 30th, 2021 by

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the Third Circuit and reinstated the broadcast station ownership rule changes that were adopted by the FCC in 2017.  In doing so, the Court emphatically underscored the principle that federal courts are required to defer to the decisions of expert federal agencies.  In some circles, the decision is seen as a rebuke of the Third Circuit exerting its authority and oversight over the FCC’s ownership rule reviews and changes, which has been ongoing for well over a decade.

In 2017, the FCC eliminated the newspaper-broadcast ownership ban, the radio-television cross-ownership restrictions, a test that required 8 other TV voices in a market before two TV stations could be owned in that market, and the blanket prohibition on combining two of the top four TV stations in a market.  Each of those decisions was reinstated by the Court’s decision.

Radio ownership rules are not directly affected by the Court’s decision, as they were not part of the FCC’s 2017 rule changes.  A 2019 FCC proceeding had begun to examine whether radio ownership rules should be revised, but with the Third Circuit’s action, the FCC halted that proceeding.  The Commission now has to decide whether to proceed with a review of the radio ownership rules, and the Court’s decision will certainly inform that analysis and any follow-on orders related to radio station ownership rules.