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How the FCC could weigh in on a 21st Century Fox-Time Warner deal

A forgotten asset could be the FCC's way into reviewing a potential 21st Century Fox-Time Warner deal.

At first glance, there is nothing in a 21st Century Fox-Time Warner marriage that would run afoul of Federal Communications Commission regulations.

However, that doesn't mean the FCC may not have the ability to weigh in on the deal should it happen and attempt to impose conditions.

Although Time Warner is known for its cable networks (HBO, CNN, TBS and TNT) and its Warner Bros. movie and television units (none of which are overseen by FCC regulators), it also owns one broadcast station -- WPCH-TV Atlanta.

Should 21st Century Fox succeed in its effort to acquire Time Warner, the FCC would presumably have to sign off on the license transfer of the station even if 21st Century Fox ultimately decided to sell it.

WPCH-TV is an independent station that was previously WTBS-TV, which was the first big media property of Ted Turner when he started building his empire. When WTBS went cable and became TBS, the call signs of WTBS were changed to WPCH (peach). The station is operated by Meredith Corp. but the license belongs to Time Warner.

That the FCC could involve itself in such a merger is not to be taken lightly. While a 21st Century Fox-Time Warner deal would certainly get scrutiny from the Department of Justice for anti-competitive reasons, the FCC can also try to dictate how the combined entity operates.

A combination of Time Warner and 21st Century Fox would be an entertainment behemoth responsible for a large chunk of TV shows on the broadcast networks, cable and in first-run syndication. Although there are currently no rules about how much content one company can produce and distribute, the FCC previously did regulate program production with regard to broadcast networks.

If the FCC were to impose draconian conditions on how a 21st Century Fox-Time Warner operates, it could undermine the rationale for a deal.

To be sure, there is no deal to be reviewed and in recent years the FCC has shown little desire to step back into regulating content production. However, the sheer size and potential for market concentration of a 21st Century Fox-Time Warner combination would likely lead to calls from the creative community, media watchdogs and consumer activists for restrictions.

Rupert Murdoch has never been a fan of the FCC and has tangled with the agency numerous times over the years. As recently as this week, Murdoch criticized the FCC on Twitter, calling its regulations that prohibit him from buying the Los Angeles Times "from another age." He was referring to the FCC's newspaper-TV crossownership rule, which prohibits one company from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market. Tribune Co. has a waiver from the FCC to operate KTLA-TV and the Los Angeles Times.

Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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