Media Consolidation & Political Polarization: Reviewing the National Television Ownership Rule

By Mary R. Hornak

Local television plays an important role in the democratic society. The medium is viewed as being trustworthy, and it is accessible and uniquely situated to report on matters of local interest. Among other roles, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates firms’ ownership interests in the media through regulations that permit a certain degree of consolidation at both the local and national levels. Since 1996, Congress has mandated that the FCC regularly review broadcast media ownership regulations. Originally, this requirement mandated biennial review. In 2004, however, Congress revised the mandate, requiring review on a quadrennial basis and excluding from such review only the regulation limiting broadcast television firms’ ownership interests at the national level—the national television ownership rule.

Since then, permissive regulations and the financial state of the local broadcast television industry have promoted consolidation among firms, and commentary suggests this consolidation has contributed to political polarization. A case study of the impact of one firm’s acquisition of affiliates demonstrates the relationship between consolidation and polarization, while the firm’s recent attempted acquisition demonstrates the stakes of the transactions the national television ownership rule currently permits.

Balancing First Amendment guarantees viewed in light of the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor with concerns raised by commentary identifying a link between consolidation and political polarization, this Note asserts that the regulations governing national limits on broadcast television ownership should be subject to regular review alongside other broadcast media regulations, beginning with the FCC’s next quadrennial review. Beyond this recommendation, this Note proposes moderate amendments to the rule and presents additional mitigating measures that could alternatively address the policy concerns underlying this Note’s proposals.