The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has proposed to repeal Section 73.3556 of its Rules, which prohibits two commercial AM or two commercial FM radio stations from devoting more than 25% of the hours in an average broadcast week to duplicating programming if they are commonly controlled (through either common ownership or time brokerage) and the principal city contour of one station overlaps more than 50% of the principal city contour of the other station. Broadcast of the same program on two stations within 24 hours is deemed to be duplicative.
Program duplication restrictions have been on and off the FCC’s books since 1964. The first rule was intended to reduce inefficient use of the spectrum when FM stations did little more than rebroadcast commonly owned AM stations at a time when FM was just developing and economic strength was concentrated in the AM band. Later, when FM became fully competitive, the rule was eliminated in favor of allowing market forces to dictate how much programming would be duplicated. The rule was restored in 1992 but confined to two stations in the same service (AM or FM) carrying the same programming, intended to promote program diversity when the demand for radio station licenses far exceeded the supply.
Today’s marketplace is very different from what it was when the duplication rule was last reviewed. AM stations rebroadcast their signals on FM translators; some programming originated on either AM or FM stations is repeated on FM HD streams of different stations in a market, and some licensees try to serve a wide area by putting the same programming on several small stations. The FCC has tentatively concluded that the rule no longer serves any valid purpose. The FCC’s suggested response is to get rid of the rule altogether.
Parties advocating retention of the rule are asked to state what the scope of the rule should be in terms of percentage limits on duplication and the amount of signal overlap that invokes the rule. It also asks whether, given the current economic distress of many AM stations, AM stations should be completely released from the rule, and the rule should apply only to FM stations.
Comments are due January 22, 2020, with Reply Comments due February 6, 2020.