Broadcast Law Blog

Broadcast Law Blog

The Confusing State of AM Radio Revitalization Efforts – No FM Translator Window for AM Licensees?

Posted in AM Radio, EEO Compliance/Diversity, FM Translators and LPFM, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, Public Interest Obligations/Localism

Almost two years ago, the FCC launched its AM revitalization efforts with great flourish, and promises of prompt action. We wrote about the two aspects of potential assistance for AM stations that were proposed in the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – technical proposals which mostly focused on ways to make the relocation of AM stations easier (see our article here) and the quick-fix proposal for new FM translators reserved for AM stations, a band-aid to keep AM stations alive while a new more permanent solution for these stations could be found (see our post here). The comments on the translator proposal, a filing window for new FM translators reserved for AM stations, were almost all positive. The vibrations from the FCC also seemed to be positive, and many AMs have been hanging on in anticipation of the coming of this filing window. This week, serious questions arose as to whether the FCC thinking on this issue has changed – and it appears that a translator window for AM stations may not in fact occur (or perhaps not in the manner that it was envisioned by most observers over the last two years).

This rethinking was first exhibited in an article on the FCC’s Blog, posted by FCC Chairman Wheeler on Monday morning, April 13, just as the National Association of Broadcasters Convention was beginning in Las Vegas. The article quickly became a prime topic of conversation among radio broadcasters at the convention. In the article, the Chairman promises to move quickly to resolve the issues posed in the AM NPRM, adopting some of the technical proposals that were set out in the NPRM, and proposing for future consideration new ideas for AM improvement. But what gathered the most attention were his comments on FM translators for AM stations. He wrote the following about that window:

I have two concerns about the record and whether opening such a window is necessary, given the current state of the marketplace. The first is whether there is an insufficient number of FM translator licenses available for AM stations….The second unanswered concern is why, if it is necessary to open the translator window, it should only be opened for one group… [I]f we are to assure that spectrum availability is an open opportunity, then the government shouldn’t favor one class of licensees with an exclusive spectrum opportunity unavailable to others just because the company owns a license in the AM band.

Conversations in Las Vegas centered around the meaning of these comments, comments that were further amplified in his speech before the NAB Convention on Wednesday. Continue Reading

A Seminar on FCC Rules for College Broadcasters – And an FCC Case on the Limits on Leniency on Fines For Rule Violations By Noncommercial Broadcasters

Posted in Appearances, Emergency Communications, FCC Fines, Noncommercial Broadcasting

Last month, I did a seminar at the College Media Association about the FCC legal issues that college broadcasters need to think about – talking about required FCC filings, pubic file obligations, underwriting issues, and programming that can get the broadcaster into trouble. Slides from that presentation, which present only an outline of the more detailed discussion that we had during the session, are available here.

I mentioned during the session that the FCC decided two years ago that they would be somewhat lenient with student-run radio stations who are first-time violators of certain FCC rules. In a case that we wrote about here, the FCC said that the fines that are imposed on commercial broadcasters for rule violations like the failure to include quarterly issues programs lists in the public inspection file (fines which can exceed $10,000 when numerous such lists are missing from the public file), would be greatly reduced – to something on the order of $1000 – for student-run stations that are facing their first violation, and provided that the fine dealt principally with paperwork matters and was not one that affected public health or safety. In a decision released by the FCC last week, the limits of that leniency were made clear. Continue Reading

How Misunderstandings about Big Numbers Distort the Debate over Songwriter Digital Music Royalties – As the DOJ Readies its Recommendations for Reform of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees

Posted in Intellectual Property, Internet Radio, Music Rights, On Line Media

Press reports indicate that the Department of Justice is nearing the completion of its study of whether to suggest the revision of the antitrust consent decrees that have bound ASCAP and BMI for over a half century (see our summary of the issues that DOJ is considering here). Much of the impetus behind this review comes from claims from songwriters and their associated publishing companies that they simply are not receiving enough money from digital music services. In the music industry trade press, one can barely go a day without seeing some article about a songwriter whose song was played a million times on a digital music service like Pandora or Spotify, with the artist only receiving some relatively small amount of royalty revenue from that seemingly large number of plays. In looking at this question, I think that there are a number of issues that are misunderstood – perhaps the greatest being the meaning of big numbers – what is really meant when a song is played a million times by a digital music service. I’ve moderated two panels in the last month where royalty experts debated royalties generally and this topic specifically, and I will be moderating another at the RAIN Summit West in Las Vegas on Sunday. Before that discussion, and for those who won’t be at the RAIN Conference, I thought that it would be worth exploring some of this confusion about this issue here.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing on the DOJ’s review of the antitrust consent decrees (video of the hearing, and written witness statements, are available here). During the course of the hearing, a songwriter representative, when asked by a Senator about the alleged impact of digital royalties on the songwriting community, made the assertion that when his song was played a million times on terrestrial radio, he could pay his bills, but when that song was played a million times on a digital service, he received only a few hundred dollars. While this kind of claim is made every day by songwriter representatives, and has contributed to the examination of music royalties being conducted by Congress (see our articles here and here), the Department of Justice and the Copyright Office (see our article here), in many ways, these claims seem to evidence a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of digital services. It is truly a comparison of apples and oranges (or maybe apples and watermelons might be more appropriate) that has distorted the conversation about royalties. The claim was challenged at the Judiciary Committee hearing by a representative of Pandora, who pointed out that the million people reached by the million spins of a record on Pandora is the equivalent audience reached by something like 16 spins on a New York radio station. I thought that this exchange was crucial to the understanding of the issues involved in the examination of changes to the ASCAP and BMI royalty structure, yet I saw little or no coverage of the issue in press reports after the hearing. Continue Reading

FCC Admonishes TV Station for Including Commercial Website Address in Children’s Program – A Good Reminder on Children’s Television Program Restrictions

Posted in Children's Programming and Advertising, FCC Fines, On Line Media, Programming Regulations, Television, Website Issues

In a decision just released by the FCC, a TV station was admonished for including, in the credits of a TV program, the URL for a website that contained commercial material. As this was deemed by the FCC to be an isolated occurrence, the station was only admonished, not fined for the violation. But the decision is a good reminder for TV stations of the advertising and marketing restrictions that apply to children’s television programs and to links to websites contained in such programs.

The FCC’s rules prohibit a station from including a website’s address in programming directed to children 12 and under unless it meets a 4 part test. The four parts of that test are as follows:


  1. the website offers a substantial amount of bona fide program related or other noncommercial content;
  2. the website is not primarily intended for commercial purposes, including either e-commerce or advertising;
  3. the website’s home page and other menu pages are clearly labeled to distinguish the noncommercial from the commercial sections; and
  4. the page of the website to which viewers are directed by the website address is not used for e-commerce, advertising, or other commercial purposes (e.g., contains no links labeled “store” and no links to another page with commercial material)


In this case, the website had commercial content, leading to the admonition to the station. The URL was apparently visible for less than a second, in the credits, and ran only once. As this was an isolated instance, the station was not monetarily penalized, but the FCC did make clear that this was a rule violation. Continue Reading

Copyright Office Calls for Greater Independence – What Would that Mean?

Posted in Intellectual Property, Internet Radio, Music Rights

Could the Copyright Office become an independent agency with rulemaking power? Congress is examining all phases of copyright law, as well as the functioning of the Copyright Office. In connection with that review, the Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante (the head of the Copyright Office) sent a letter to John Conyers, the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, explaining her views on this topic. The letter was sent at the request of the ranking member, made at a recent hearing reviewing the functioning of the Office. In the letter, the Register suggests that the agency be made into an independent agency, like the FCC, to overcome constitutional issues about its powers and to allow it to act as an expert agency to more quickly respond to issues that arise under the copyright laws.

So what are the issues that this proposal raises? The constitutional issue that is mentioned in the letter is similar to the issue that faced the Copyright Royalty Board a few years ago, where a Court of Appeals decision concluded that the Copyright Royalty Judges were not constitutionally appointed under the Appointments Clause of the US Constitution. We wrote about the arguments in that case here. While the specific issue addressed in the CRB case, about the Judges being subject to the supervision of the head of a government agency, do not seem to arise in the appointment and supervision of the Register, another aspect of the Appointments Clause has raised from time to time, asking whether the Librarian of Congress, who oversees both the CRB and the Copyright Office, is truly the head of a department of the executive branch of government. In a government organization chart, the Library technically reports to Congress, not the President, and thus the arguments are that the Library is not a true executive agency (though the President does appoint the Librarian of Congress). While these issues generally have been resolved in favor of the Copyright Office, the fact that they have come up, and never been resolved by the Supreme Court, suggests the constitutional issues which the letter addresses. While this may be very theoretical there are more practical issues that would arise from an independent Copyright Office as well. Continue Reading

NAB Requests Extension of May Obligation for TV Stations to Convert Emergency Information from Text to Speech

Posted in Digital Television, Emergency Communications, Television

The FCC two years ago adopted a rule requiring that television stations that provide emergency information visually (e.g. through open captions or crawls), outside of news programming, convert that emergency information into audio and run that audio on SAP channels (secondary audio programming channels – usually used for Spanish language translations of English-language programs). That rule required that TV stations be ready to do that conversion by May 26. As many stations have not been able to make that conversion as the equipment is not yet ready, the NAB has requested a six-month extension of that deadline (ACA, the association representing local cable systems, requested a longer waiver a few weeks earlier). The FCC almost immediately requested public comment on the broadcaster’s request, setting an April 13 deadline for comments and an April 20 date for replies. The Commission had earlier requested comments on the ACA Petition, with comments due April 2 and replies due on April 9.

The rule requires all emergency information run outside of news programs and provided in crawls or otherwise visually (e.g. weather radar) be converted to audio, and run twice on the SAP channel, each preceded by the same audio tones that run on the main channel to alert the visually impaired that there is emergency information being run visually on the air. The NAB requested a six-month extension of the basic requirement, to November 26, indicating that the equipment has, for the most part, not yet been tested and made available to stations. It also asked for waivers or exemptions to the following requirements:

  • Waiver of the requirement that visual but non-textual emergency information (usually weather radar and maps) be included in the audible crawl as there is no equipment available to provide that conversion automatically; and
  • Reconsideration of the suggestion in the FCC’s order that school closings are the kinds of emergency information to be included in the conversion to SAP requirement – the NAB arguing that reading all of the school closing information on a SAP channel could take forever, especially if that information needed to be run twice, as the rules provide.

For stations not ready to meet this FCC requirement by the current May 2 deadline, filing comments in support of the NAB request may be very important, so that the FCC moves quickly to grant this extension before the new rule goes into effect.

April Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Including Quarterly Issues Programs and Children’s Television Reports; Comments In Proceedings Including One on Digital Auxiliaries; and More Incentive Auction Seminars

Posted in Broadcast Auctions, Children's Programming and Advertising, EEO Compliance/Diversity, FM Radio, General FCC, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, License Renewal, Noncommercial Broadcasting, Payola and Sponsorship Identification, Programming Regulations, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

April is one of those months with many routine FCC obligations. Quarterly Issues Programs lists need to be in your public file by the 10th of the month. This is an obligation for all full-power broadcast stations – commercial or noncommercial. Similarly, all TV stations have an obligation to submit their Children’s Television Reports on FCC Form 398 demonstrating compliance with the obligations to provide educational and informational programming directed to children, and at the same time put into their public files documents showing their compliance with the limitations on commercials within programming directed to children.

EEO public file reports are due for stations that are part of an employment unit with 5 or more full-time (30 or more hours per week) employees which is located in any of the following states: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. Noncommercial TV stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee; and noncommercial radio stations in Texas, need to file their Biennial Ownership Reports with the FCC on April 1. Finally, license renewal applications in the last license renewal window for this license renewal cycle are due to be filed on April 1 by TV stations (and TV translators and LPTV stations) in Delaware and Pennsylvania. The next regularly scheduled license renewal will be filed by radio stations in certain states – but not until June 2019! Continue Reading

When is a Nondirectional FM Antenna Really Directional? The FCC Weighs In

Posted in FM Radio, Tower Issues

In a decision of the FCC Media Bureau’s Audio Division that may be of interest to the more technically minded broadcasters, the Commission found that an FM station’s supposedly nondirectional FM antenna should be treated as directional. This decision was in response to a complaint from another broadcaster on the same channel, arguing that the broadcaster in question was exceeding its licensed effective radiated power in the direction of the complaining station (which was also the direction of Dallas, toward the more densely populated areas that it was trying to serve). The station that received the objection argued that the apparent effect on its antenna pattern was simply the result of being side-mounted on the broadcast tower that it was using, and this kind of effect was common in the industry and impossible to avoid. Yet, in reviewing the pleadings filed by the parties, the FCC found that the supposedly nondirectional station looked far too much like a directional one, and ordered the licensee to reduce power to keep its ERP (effective radiated power) in the direction where it was greatest to a value within that set out in its license. What impact will this decision have on other FM stations with sidemounted antennas?

First, it appears that the this case is one where, at least according to the FCC decision, the station had specifically designed an optimized pattern that resulted in its significantly exceeding its permitted power in the direction of the complaining station. The FCC found that, in the direction in which its maximum power was being radiated, the station had an effective ERP of 274 kw, far in excess of its licensed 100 kw ERP. The Commission noted that the direction of the highest radiation was actually not in the direction of the station’s city of license. The FCC also found that the ratio of the power in the direction of maximum radiation to the power in the direction of the minimum radiation was 19.18 dB, far exceeding the maximum 15 dB ratio permitted for directional antennas. Finding these great discrepancies in what was supposedly a nondirectional antenna led the FCC to its decision that the antenna was designed to do what it did –radiate more than permitted in the direction of the complaining station. But does this decision have potentially greater impact? Continue Reading

FCC Proposes Fine of $325,000 in TV Indecency Case – What Prompted this Largest Fine Ever for a Single Incident?

Posted in FCC Fines, Indecency, Programming Regulations, Television

The FCC set a new record for a fine for a single violation of its indecency rules – $325,000 for a 3 second visual image of a penis run in a corner of a TV screen a single time on a TV station during its 6 PM news (a full description of the image is in the FCC’s Notice of Apparent Liability but, so as to not trigger too many spam filters, I will omit any more details in this article). The image in the newscast was a visual of a website, the website having several different frames, each with video images, and one of those frames had the image that led to the fine. This is the first time that the FCC has imposed a fine of $325,000, an amount authorized by Congress during the FCC’s last crackdown on indecency but never before used by the FCC. And not only did the FCC issue the Notice of Apparent Liability describing its legal reasoning for imposing the fine, but they also put out a press release publicizing the Notice, highlighting other recent indecency actions taken by the FCC, and warning broadcasters to pay attention to the decision. What happened here?

According to the FCC’s order, a TV station did a story on a former adult movie star who had retired from her former profession and begun to work with the local rescue squad. In providing background to what might otherwise be an off-beat human interest story about a person with a colorful past adapting to a new life as part of a local community, to provide context, the station showed the website of the adult movie company for which she had formerly worked. In editing the brief clip of the website into the story, neither the independent producer who put the story together nor anyone at the station noted the visual in one corner of the webpage with the image that got the station into trouble. According to the station, the image was not viewable on the editing machines used by those producing the story. But, apparently viewers at home, perhaps watching on bigger screens, were able to see the image, prompting the FCC complaint and other complaints to the station. While the image appeared on screen for only about 3 seconds, and only once, the FCC nevertheless selected this case to be its first in which to levy this new level of indecency fine – ten times higher than previous fines for a single broadcast of indecent material on a single station. Why? Continue Reading

FCC Asks for Comment on Radio Broadcasters Proposal for Moving Online Some Sponsorship Identifications

Posted in Advertising Issues, Music Rights, Payola and Sponsorship Identification, Programming Regulations

A group of radio broadcasters have asked the FCC to agree to waive some provisions of the current sponsorship identification rules of the FCC to permit stations that have sponsored music or sports programming to move some of the required sponsorship identification online (the request is available here). This is to provide listeners with a more detailed and accessible means of determining the sponsor of certain broadcast programming. The FCC’s Mass Media Bureau has asked for public comments on this proposal, with comments due by April 13, and reply comments by May 12.

The examples of situations where the waiver would be used as provided in the Petition are for sponsored music programming (e.g. if a particular music label was to purchase an hour to feature their recordings) or sports programs (e.g. if a team were to purchase time on a station to do a coaches program or even a full game). The current rules require that the identification must be broadcast at the time of the broadcast – which has often been interpreted to mean at the time of the program, which is why you see the sponsorship acknowledgements at the end of TV quiz shows, acknowledging all the companies who provided free stuff to the program producers to get their products mentioned on air. The proponents of the new approach set out in this petition suggest that the online disclosure might actually provide more information to listeners of a radio program as, if the listeners don’t happen to be listening at the top of the sponsored hour (or three hours for a sponsored baseball game broadcast), they don’t hear the fleeting announcement. So the broadcasters have suggested what they see as a better way of providing that announcement. Continue Reading