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The FCC UHF Rollback and the Sinclair Media Appeal

By George Khoury, Esq. on April 24, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In one of the many rollbacks from federal agencies over the last year, the FCC has curiously reinstated the UHF rule. Despite the fact that the technological rationale behind the UHF rule no longer exists due to the transition in 2009 to digital broadcasting, the rule was reinstated this past year.

Almost immediately after the rule was reinstated, Sinclair Media began the process to acquire Tribune Media, leading to controversy and litigation. Just this past week, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether to get rid of the rule again, as public interest groups argued the reinstitution of it was arbitrary and capricious.

What's the UHF Rule?

The UHF rule essentially provided television broadcasters with a discount on the size of their viewing audience, which is capped at 39 percent by the FCC, to prevent media monopolies. The UHF discount was used to promote broadcasters using higher frequency channels which might not reach as wide an audience.

However, with the change to digital broadcasting, the UHF channels actually got a significant upgrade thanks to the digital airwaves. This led the FCC, in 2016, to conclude that the rule and discount was no longer needed, though the 39% cap remained in place. But, after the new executive administration took control, in April 2017, the FCC pulled back and reinstating the rule. With the old UHF discount back in place, Sinclair media was able to propose the buyout of Tribune.

Public interest groups challenged Sinclair Media's proposed buyout, but the DC Circuit Court of Appeals seemed rather concerned with whether those groups even have standing, or can even allege an injury.

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