FCC considers ending merger ban among broadcast networks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday voted to open a new review of U.S. media ownership rules and seek comments on whether the government should end a prohibition on mergers among the four largest broadcast networks.

Chairman Ajit Pai speaks ahead of the vote on the repeal of so called net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The FCC said it could reverse the rule that bars a merger among the "Big Four" networks: NBC, owned by Comcast Corp CMCSA.O, Walt Disney Co's DIS.N ABC, CBS Corp's CBS.N CBS or Fox, owned by Twenty-First Century Fox FOXA.O.

The FCC asked if the rule “remains necessary to promote competition, localism, or viewpoint diversity.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission is “teeing up a number of questions” and keeping an open mind on whether the rules still make sense.

The FCC noted that a version of the rule barring dual ownership of networks has existed since the 1940s and asks if U.S. antitrust laws or other policies would “serve as a sufficient backstop to prevent undue consolidation between or among the Big Four networks.”

The FCC also wants comments on a rule that bars one company from owning two TV stations in the same market except under certain circumstances. The FCC asks if those rules continue “to serve the public interest and remains necessary.”

The FCC will also consider if existing rules that limit the number of local radio stations in a single market should be rescinded.

The FCC noted in a report that broadcast networks face significant competition in content creation and cited the billions of dollars that Netflix Inc NFLX.O Inc AMZN.O and Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O YouTube are spending on original content.

“The golden age of television — or the platinum age of content — is the direct result of choice,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, said. “The gatekeepers of the past are no longer gatekeepers. Americans, using a broadband connection, can access any content, from any device, anywhere.”

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel raised concerns that “too much consolidation can reduce the number of voices, jobs, and the newsgathering that results.”

In November 2017, 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 local TV stations in the same market.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio