The Federal Communications Commission was ordered on Tuesday to rethink its rules on the ownership of TV stations. The current regulations, which limit a company from owning multiple TV stations in smaller cities, are “arbitrary and capricious”, according to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

This is the third time within the past two months that the court, sited in the nation’s capital, has undermined FCC rules: on the first occasion striking them down and on the second demanding that they be redrafted.

In the latest ruling, the court upheld a challenge by Baltimore-headquartered Sinclair Broadcast Group, which the FCC had barred from buying stations in certain markets. Its decision was based on the so-called ‘eight voices’ test, established in August 1999, which limits TV owners from operating duopolies and local marketing agreements in markets where there are less than eight broadcast voices.

Sinclair, however, was eager to acquire local broadcasters in seven cities – Greenville, Baltimore, Columbus, Charleston (West Virginia), Charleston (South Carolina), Dayton and Syracuse) - and appealed against the decision. The court ruled that the FCC had failed to give clear reasoning why it had chosen eight stations as the threshold. Furthermore, the court did not understand why the FCC failed to include as ‘voices’ newspapers or radio stations in a given market.

The FCC said it was reviewing the ruling and had no comment, although chairman Michael K Powell has advocated including newspapers and radio stations as other ‘voices’ when mulling multiple-station ownership (but failing, presumably, to convert a majority of his colleagues to that view).

Some consumer groups suspect the DC court of political leanings. Notes Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union: “There is such a fundamental hatred of [the FCC] in this court that they can't trust them in any factual or policy determinations.”

Data sourced from: The Washington Post Online and (USA); additional content by WARC staff