The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FCC plans to roll back some of its biggest rules against media consolidation

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The Federal Communications Commission will vote next month to eliminate a decades-old rule designed to preserve media diversity in local markets, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Wednesday.

The move is aimed at supporting economically struggling media outlets in an age of digital consumption. But critics say it will lead to greater media consolidation and the loss of independent voices.

The regulations, passed in 1975, prevent any single company from owning both a full-power TV station in a given market and a daily newspaper at the same time.

“The marketplace is nothing like it was in 1975,” Pai told House lawmakers Wednesday, arguing that the restriction on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership was outdated. “The FCC's rules still presume the market is defined by pulp and rabbit ears.”

The FCC just ended a decades-old rule designed to keep TV and radio under local control

The FCC vote, expected Nov. 16, could also eliminate a rule that prevents TV stations in the same market from merging if the outcome leads to fewer than eight independent stations operating in that market. That rule, known as the “eight voices test,” was also aimed at ensuring a variety of perspectives on the air. Pai said he is also proposing to eliminate FCC rules regarding the simultaneous ownership of radio and TV stations, regulations he said are unnecessary and duplicative.

Pointing to the massive online media industry — and the enormous advertising revenue of companies such as Facebook and Google — Pai described the FCC's media ownership rules as a form of government intervention into a major civic institution. “If the federal government has no business intervening in news, then we must stop the government from intervening in the news business,” he said.

But Pai's critics were quick to cite the dangers of eliminating the rules, warning that it will lead to large media companies stifling the views of individual communities. “The already consolidated broadcast media market will become even more so, offering little to no discernible benefits to consumers,” said Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

Pai's announcement came a day after the FCC voted to eliminate a 77-year-old rule requiring that TV and radio stations operate a physical studio in the areas where they're licensed. Republicans at the agency said the deregulation would save the stations money, while Democrats said it would allow large media titans to better control the airwaves.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents TV and radio stations, said in a statement that Pai's announcement Wednesday could put station owners on a more equal footing with large telecom and cable companies whose “countless megamergers” have been repeatedly approved by regulators.

The debate over media diversity is taking place at a sensitive time, as Americans grapple with the role of the traditional press — not to mention digital social networks and other Internet platforms — in shaping U.S. political discourse. The FCC's moves to relax its stance on media ownership comes as the conservative broadcaster Sinclair aims to buy Tribune Media in a deal that could give the combined company a pathway into 72 percent of all U.S. households.