By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 20 Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday urged Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai not to approve any transfers of broadcast TV licenses as part of proposed mergers pending a federal court ruling.
The 22 Democratic U.S. senators, led by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, said the Republican-dominated FCC should “stop making further changes to the nation’s broadcast landscape until the agency has conducted and completed a holistic look at the state of broadcasting and the media and waited for a ruling.”
The FCC, the senators’ letter added, “should not adopt any additional changes to its media ownership rules, (and) it should not implement any changes adopted over the last several months and it should not approve any pending transfers of control of broadcast licenses as part of proposed mergers or acquisitions.”
A spokeswoman for Pai declined to comment on the letter.
Last Friday, a federal appeals court panel questioned why the FCC in 2017 reinstated a rule, adopted in 1985, that allowed owners to partially count some stations against a broadcaster’s ownership cap. In 2016, the FCC under Democratic President Barack Obama said those rules were outdated after the 2009 conversion to digital broadcasting.
Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co relies in part on that reinstated rule in order to meet regulatory requirements. Democrats say the FCC inspector general is investigating whether Pai took a series of actions to benefit Sinclair.
“The FCC, under your leadership, has taken numerous actions that call into question your independence in the matter, and at the very least demonstrate the appearance of preferential treatment for Sinclair,” said Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat, at a House hearing on Thursday.
Pai has denied wrongdoing and told Quigley he is not required to recuse himself from the Sinclair review by the FCC general counsel’s office. He declined to forecast when the FCC may decide on whether to approve the deal.
In November, the FCC voted to remove key roadblocks to increased consolidation among media companies.
The FCC voted 3-2 to eliminate the 42-year-old ban on cross-ownership of a newspaper and TV station in a major market. It also voted to make it easier for media companies to buy additional TV stations in the same market.
The FCC in December voted to consider whether to rescind rules prohibiting one company from owning stations that serve more than 39 percent of U.S. television households.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler)