Broadcast Law Blog

Broadcast Law Blog

FCC Proposes to Eliminate Public File Obligations – No More Letters from the Public for Broadcasters, No Cable Headend Information for Cable Systems?

Posted in AM Radio, FM Radio, General FCC, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

At its open meeting earlier this week, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing changes to the public file rules for both broadcasters and cable systems. For commercial broadcasters, the FCC proposed to eliminate the requirement that they include in their public file copies of letters and emails to the station concerning station operations. For cable systems, the FCC proposed to eliminate the obligation to include in their file documents disclosing the location of their headend. What do these proposals mean for broadcasters?

Most of the broadcaster focus has been on the proposal to delete the obligation that commercial broadcasters keep a correspondence folder in their public inspection file for letters and emails from the public commenting on the operation of the station (the requirement has never applied to noncommercial broadcasters). Those files are supposed to contain, in a physical file at their main studio, all of the correspondence that stations receive from listeners (allowing broadcasters to omit correspondence that listeners asked to be kept private, and correspondence that contains offensive material). For TV stations that have already converted to an online public file for all of their other public file documents, and for radio stations who will soon be doing so (see our posts here and here on the upcoming obligation of radio to convert to an online public file), these letters will be the only remnant of the public file that must still be maintained at the main studio. The FCC tentatively concluded that the obligation to keep these letters and emails was no longer necessary. Continue Reading

Appeals Court Tells FCC to Finalize Multiple Ownership Review, Throws Out TV JSA Attribution, and Questions Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership Ban

Posted in EEO Compliance/Diversity, Multiple Ownership Rules

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday issued an opinion faulting the FCC for not completing any required review of its broadcast ownership rules since the 2006 review was completed in 2007. These reviews of its ownership rules, now done as “Quadrennial Reviews” every four years, but previously required to be done biennially, have been the subject of much judicial review and delay in the past 9 years. Because of the delays in finalizing a review and addressing issues previously raised by the Court, yesterday’s decision ordered the FCC to meet with certain parties who brought the appeal to finalize a timetable for FCC review of the rules designed to promote minority ownership of broadcast stations. At the same time, the Court threw out the FCC’s 2014 decision determining that television Joint Sales Agreements were attributable interests (see our article here), which had essentially banned these agreements in most markets as the attribution of an interest in one station to the owner of another station in the same market would constitute a combination of stations not permitted under the local TV duopoly rules. The discussion in the decision also raised questions as to whether the FCC could justify the continued existence of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rules given the radically changed state of the newspaper industry since these rules were adopted over 40 years ago.

While much has been made of the decision overturning the attribution of television Joint Sales Agreements, that part of the decision was actually a narrow one, and one which leaves the FCC in a position where it could reinstitute the attribution requirement when it completes its current review of the ownership rules. The Court looked at the 2014 decision determining that JSAs should be attributable, and concentrated on the dissenting opinion of Commissioner Pai. The Commissioner argued that the FCC’s decision making the interests attributable ignored record evidence that such combinations were in the public interest. The dissenting opinion said that some combinations were necessary, particularly in smaller television markets, to permit the profitable operations of weaker stations in these markets, and that the agreements otherwise contributed to the public interest by allowing stations that could not afford news and other beneficial programming to air such programming. The Commission dismissed those arguments, contending that they were really addressing questions as to whether more small market TV duopolies should be permitted. But, as the FCC did not address whether small market TV duopolies might be in the public interest, but instead deferred that decision until the next Quadrennial Review, the Court found (as Commissioner Pai had argued) that the FCC decision could not be justified. The FCC could not ban JSAs as not being in the public interest until they considered the arguments as to whether small market duopolies, which could permit many of the JSAs to continue even if attributable, were in the public interest. Continue Reading

Fine for Missing Quarterly Issues Programs List Not Excused by Intervening Transfer of Control of TV Station – Buy Assets Not Stock to Avoid Assuming Prior Owner’s FCC Liabilities

Posted in Assignments and Transfers, FCC Fines, Public Interest Obligations/Localism

In an FCC decision fining a TV station $10,000 for failing to include 15 Quarterly Issues Programs lists in its public inspection file, the FCC refused to reduce the proposed liability based on an intervening “long-form” transfer of control followed by a short-form assignment of license of the station. Thus, even though the station was no longer controlled by the same individuals who controlled the station at the time of the violation, and even though the licensee company was different, the fine still applied.

The Media Bureau decision looked at precedent that has held that a transfer of control of a station, even a “long-form” application on FCC Form 315 that is subject to public notice and a 30 day waiting period during which the public can comment on the change in control of the licensee, does not excuse the licensee for violations of the FCC’s rules that occurred prior to the transfer. We wrote about a similar holding in another case last year. The FCC’s view is that, when you are buying the stock of a company, you acquire not only the assets of the company but also its obligations, including any potential FCC violations. This is different from an assignment of license filed on a Form 314 (also a “long-form” application subject to a 30-day public comment period) – where a buyer just buys the assets through a new company and does not assume the liabilities – a difference that the FCC has recognized in these cases. In the decision reached today, the licensee attempted to exploit that different treatment – but the FCC rejected the distinction. Continue Reading

Equal Opportunities – What to Do With the On-Air Employee who Runs for Political Office

Posted in Political Broadcasting, Programming Regulations

Last week, we posted a reminder about the obligations for stations to provide equal opportunities for competing candidates to buy time on broadcast stations, and also talked about how the equal time provisions do not apply to bona fide news and news interview programs. Almost immediately, I received several questions about on-air employees who decide to run for political office, and how they are treated for purposes of the equal opportunities rule. Having an on-air employee who runs for political office – whether it is a federal, state or local office – does give rise for equal opportunities for competing candidates whenever that employee’s recognizable voice or picture appears on the air, even if the personality never mentions his or her candidacy on the air, and even if they appear in what is otherwise an exempt program (e.g. a newscaster who runs for office triggers equal time when he delivers the news even though a candidate’s appearance as a subject of that news program would be exempt). Stations need to take precautions to avoid the potential for owing significant amounts of free time to competing candidates, where those candidates can present any political message – if they request it within 7 days of the personality’s appearance on the air.

We have written about this issue many times before, including coverage of when well-known local or national personalities have contemplated runs for office – see our stories here, here and here. In 2010, we wrote an article that provided a discussion of this issue, which remains valid today. An edited version of that article is below. Continue Reading

FCC Announces June 24 Effective Date for Radio Online Public Inspection File and New System for TV Stations Online File, Plus a Reminder to Upload JSAs

Posted in AM Radio, EEO Compliance/Diversity, FM Radio, General FCC, Multiple Ownership Rules, On Line Media, Political Broadcasting, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television, Website Issues

The FCC today issued a Public Notice that the obligation will begin on June 24 to start uploading documents to the online public file for radio stations in the Top 50 markets .   For Top 50 market commercial radio stations that are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees, the June 24 date will mark the start of their obligation to upload materials to the online public file.  New public file documents (including political file documents) created on or after that date are to be placed in the online public file.  These stations will have 6 months from the effective date (until December 24, 2016) to upload to the online public file existing documents that are already in their paper public file.    This would include documents like EEO Public Inspection File Reports and Quarterly Issues Programs Lists. Pre-effective date political file documents need not be uploaded. Letters from the public also do not need to be uploaded (see our article here about the FCC’s proposal to entirely do away with the requirement that letters be kept). We wrote more extensively about the obligations for the radio online public inspection file here.

TV, too, needs to pay attention to this notice.  The Public Notice announces that the online public file will be moving to a new database.  Effective on June 24, TV licensees will need to use this new database too – what the FCC calls the “OPIF” (for expanded online public inspection file) as opposed to the old “BPIF” (“broadcast public inspection file”).  The FCC suggests that the new OPIF database will allow for easier uploads – including the ability to upload a single document into multiple stations’ files at the same time.  It will also have a more user-friendly interface, and will work better with other online systems like Dropbox and Box.  This database moves these files off the FCC server and onto a cloud-based storage system.  Stations can already try out the new system hereContinue Reading

Countdown to the Incentive Auction – FCC Announces Details of May 24 Workshop for Reverse Auction Participants, and Reminds Them to Preview the Auction System

Posted in Broadcast Auctions, Digital Television, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, Television

Yesterday, the FCC released a Public Notice setting out the agenda for the May 24 Workshop to explain the process of bidding in the reverse auction. The reverse auction is of course when broadcasters can bid to surrender their current channel to the FCC so that the FCC can repackage the surrendered spectrum and then sell it in the “Forward Auction” to wireless companies who plan to use it for wireless broadband and other uses (and the bidding among TV stations for the right to vacate their spectrum in exchange for compensation from the FCC begins May 31, see our post here). The May 24 Workshop to be held at the FCC’s offices in Washington will also be streamed live on the Internet and archived for future viewing. The workshop, to be held from 10 AM to 1 PM Eastern, will cover the process for bidding and will review the bidding software itself. Given the importance of getting it right in the auction process, as stations have their very existence at stake, it would seem that every auction participant will want to watch the Workshop.

The FCC also uses the Public Notice to remind broadcasters to look at the Online Tutorial on the bidding software which will be available online before the Workshop – so that the broadcaster will be generally familiar with the software before the Workshop begins. It also reminds broadcasters to take advantage of the auction system’s “preview period” from 10 AM on May 23 until 6 PM on May 24. During that preview period, qualified reverse auction bidders will get to see what the FCC will be offering them during the initial bidding rounds of the auction – providing the list of stations for which the authorized bidder may make bids in the “clock phase” once the auction starts on May 31; each station’s bidding status (e.g., whether it has been “frozen” meaning that the FCC has determined that in this auction stage it will need to clear the station in order to meet the spectrum clearing target and thus the bidder’s offer to sell its spectrum has been accepted, subject only to the success of the Forward Auction, or whether the station is no longer needed at all, or whether the bidder needs to keep bidding in subsequent rounds of the auction as the price falls, if the FCC has not yet determined that the station’s spectrum will be needed); the initial relinquishment option assigned to the station (e.g., whether the station is willing to go off the air or merely wants to change to a VHF channel); and, where applicable, the available bid options with associated vacancy ranges and next round clock price offers (e.g., if the station has not been frozen or determined to be unnecessary, the specific financial options that the FCC is offering to that bidder for each of its participating stations). Clearly, this information will be of crucial importance to every reverse auction participant in deciding what they will do when the bidding starts on May 31.

Finally, the FCC reminds broadcasters that the Mock Auction, where they can take the auction software for a test ride to make sure that they know what they are doing without any potential adverse consequences, will occur on May 25 and May 26 – individual stations should have been notified which Mock Auction they are eligible for in the Final Confidential Status letters that the FCC mailed to auction participants last week. The auction is a reality. If you are participating, take advantage of these educational opportunities so that you can be ready for the important decisions ahead.

With November’s Presidential Election Taking Shape – Likely Political Advertising Issues Ahead for Broadcasters – Looking at Equal Opportunities

Posted in Advertising Issues, Political Broadcasting

After last week’s Indiana primary, it appears that the Republican Party will be nominating Donald Trump as their Presidential candidate. While Hillary Clinton’s defeat in that primary may mean that the primaries continue to have meaning on the Democratic side, with apologies to supporters of Senator Sanders among our readers, most political commentators seem to believe that the likely Presidential matchup will pit Mr. Trump against Secretary Clinton in what will no doubt be a fascinating political race. From this past weekend’s news reports, it appears that there will be no shortage of heat in that race right up until the November election. Plus, with an unorthodox Presidential candidate heading the Republican ballot, there is some speculation that down-ballot races – including those for seats in Congress – may include real contests in districts that were previously considered to be safe for one party or another. With this confusing political landscape, what legal issues can a broadcaster expect to face in the upcoming election season?

We will start our discussion today with issues that may arise under the equal opportunities rule (sometimes referred to as requiring “equal time”) that generally requires that a station provide equal opportunities for the use of its facilities to competing candidates for any political office. We have written about that issue many times, including our general article on the topic here. Also, this topic is covered in our handbook for stations on the political broadcasting rules, POLITICAL BROADCASTING – Questions and Answers on the FCC Rules and Policies for Candidate and Issue Advertising. But let’s look today at some of the particular equal time issues that may come up this year. Continue Reading

New Federal Advertising Rules on E-Cigs and Other Tobacco Products Adopted – To Become Effective within Two Years

Posted in Advertising Issues, AM Radio, FM Radio, Internet Radio, Internet Video, On Line Media, Television, Website Issues

E-Cigs and vape shops have become a new advertising category for many broadcast stations over the last few years. Unlike ads for cigarettes, little cigars, and smokeless (chewing) tobacco, which are effectively banned on broadcast stations, there are currently few Federal rules on e-cigs. Ads currently cannot make health claims about the product (so the ads cannot say that they are healthier than smoking cigarettes, nor can an ad even make the claim that e-cigs help users stop smoking). While some states have placed some additional restrictions on sales that carry over into advertising (e.g. age restrictions on sales), the Federal government, until this week, had passed on imposing more sweeping regulation on the industry.

In a “Final Rule” issued by the Food and Drug Administration yesterday (to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday), a number of new requirements were adopted for tobacco products generally, and e-cigs were included in the FDA’s definition of tobacco products. So, too were cigars, pipe tobacco and tobacco used in water pipes or hookahs – tobacco products not covered by the over-the-air advertising ban that applies to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. The new rules have a number of implications for the e-cig industry generally, including bans on sales to those under 18 and requirements that the FDA conduct “pre-market review” and approval of any new tobacco product introduced to the market in February 2007 or later. Of particular note for broadcasters are new requirements for health warnings in advertisements for all tobacco products, including e-cigs. Continue Reading

FCC To Consider Abolition of Requirement that Broadcasters Maintain Letters From the Public in their Public Files – Moving Toward the End of the Physical Public File?

Posted in AM Radio, FM Radio, General FCC, Noncommercial Broadcasting, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

Yesterday, the FCC announced its agenda for its May open meeting to be held on May 25. Among the items on the agenda is a proposal to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to abolish the obligation that broadcasters maintain in their public files copies of letters and emails from the general public about station operations. These letters are the last vestige of the physical public file for TV broadcasters who several years ago migrated the rest of their public file to an online system maintained by the FCC (see our summary of the TV online public file obligations here). The letters from the public were deemed too sensitive to put online, as they could reveal private information about the writers of those letters. Thus TV stations must still maintain a paper file at their main studio. Radio broadcasters too will soon be moving their public files online. In the order adopting the requirement for an online public file for radio (see our summary here), the FCC proposed that the same paper system for letters from the public be maintained. However, it did note that there were calls to abandon entirely the requirement to maintain these letters in a separate file, and promised to initiate this rulemaking to look at that issue.

Commissioner O’Rielly has been a major proponent of that change, tying the issue to one of the security of broadcast stations and personnel. In his concurring statement to the Online Public File order, he noted that the abolition of the requirement that broadcasters maintain these letters from the public would eliminate the need for many broadcasters to open their stations to all comers who enter on the pretext of inspecting the public file. In a blog post, he noted the need for security at broadcast stations. The recent events at Sinclair’s Baltimore TV station, where an individual with emotional or mental issues triggered a police shoot-out at the station, and last year’s tragedy involving the Roanoke TV crew, highlighted the very real threats to safety that broadcasters face every day. Minimizing these threats by removing one pretext for people to enter broadcast studios unchallenged is an important consideration in these deliberations. Continue Reading

Summer Internships – Good for FCC EEO Credit, But Be Careful of Wage and Hour Law Implications

Posted in EEO Compliance/Diversity

As summer approaches, many stations are preparing for the arrival of summer interns.  While internship programs can earn stations EEO “credit” towards meeting the requirement that they conduct non-vacancy specific outreach efforts (the so-called “menu options” or “supplemental efforts” offered by the FCC to encourage stations to reach out to their communities to educate community residents as to what jobs are available at broadcast stations, and how people can train for and find out about such openings (see the article here for a link to a presentation that I did on all of the FCC’s EEO requirements), stations need to be cautious in setting up their internship programs for other reasons. In recent years, there have been a large number of lawsuits in over whether interns need to be paid for their work. While these lawsuits have spanned many industries, several involved broadcasters and other media companies.  Thus, we felt the need for this cautionary note.

These disputes arise over wage and hour issues.  In the most general terms, lawyers for former interns who were not paid have argued that the interns should have been paid as they functioned as employees of the station.  In analyzing these issues, courts look at a number of issues, principally to determine if the internship was one that was meant more to benefit the intern and their education, or whether it was of a greater benefit it the station.  Where the interns do the work that a paid employee would normally do, then there is an argument that the intern should themselves have been paid. What issues do the courts review? Continue Reading