FCC Streamlines Broadcast Foreign Ownership Vetting

Eliminates requirement for shareholder surveys and samples
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The FCC has voted to approve an order streamlining the process by which foreign owners can buy U.S. broadcast properties, making it easier for broadcasters to attract new sources of capital.

That unanimous vote came at the commission's September public meeting. The proposal had been approved unanimously as well back in October 2015.

The item extends to broadcasters the streamlined foreign ownership approval process that applies to common carrier wireless licenses.

That includes no longer requiring them to survey or sample shareholders, which broadcasters said was impractical and the FCC agrees.

In ascertaining the level of foreign ownership, broadcasters will only have to take reasonable measures to identify foreign shareholders that have a predictable ability to influence the company.

The FCC's previous presumption was that any unknown shareholder was not a U.S. citizen.

The item codifies that broadcasters can request that a controlling parent company have up to 100% foreign ownership of a broadcast property subject to the FCC's public interest review, as well as the "team telecom" review, an interagency review team vetting foreign ownership deals for national security issues.

The item also allows a non-controlling foreign ownership stake to be raised to 49.99% without having to petition the FCC.

It also does not require FCC approval of non-controlling foreign interests of 5% or less, or 20% in certain circumstances. There were complaints about the difficulty of tracking down and identifying all shareholders to make that determination.

In 2013, the FCC lifted its ban on foreign ownerships above 25%. Foreign ownership can now be as much as 100%, so long as it is found to be in the public interest.

The item does not change the prohibition on foreign government ownership in broadcast stations.

"These same streamlined procedures have worked well in the common carrier context, and I’m confident they’ll work well in the broadcast context," said FCC commissioner Ajit Pai. "They’ll make it easier for broadcasters to access capital while at the same time still ensuring that any foreign ownership above the 25% benchmark set forth in Section 310(b)(4) of the Communications Act does not compromise our national security or any other public interest. They will also promote regulatory parity and ensure that different sectors of the communications industry."

“This is welcome news for diverse owners in the United States and abroad, who – all things being equal – have more difficulty securing the capital needed to start or grow any business,” said Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) president Kim Keenan. “The Commission’s decision today – and specifically the efforts of Commissioner [Michael] O’Rielly – will provide minority broadcasters with far greater opportunities to finance their stations. Ultimately, this outcome will directly increase the diverse content needed and demanded to serve millions of people from coast to coast.”

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler also gave O'Rielly credit for his work on the item.

"The FCC has taken an important step in allowing broadcasters to more freely and fairly compete for investment dollars," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. "This order extends to broadcasters the same application and approval process that has been open to our competitors for years, and establishes more streamlined ways for radio and TV stations to comply with foreign ownership limits. NAB applauds the Commission’s decision and looks forward to greater investment in local sources of news and programming."

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