Broadcast Law Blog

Broadcast Law Blog

The Location of the Public Inspection File of a College Radio Station When the Station’s Main Studio is in a Building Not Open to the General Public Addressed in FCC Consent Decree

Posted in FCC Fines, Noncommercial Broadcasting, Public Interest Obligations/Localism

How to deal with a noncommercial radio station’s public inspection file when the station is licensed to a college and has a main studio in a restricted-access student residence hall is a question that I have received repeatedly when I have conducted sessions on FCC rules at noncommercial broadcasters’ conventions and meetings.  In a consent decree reached with a college and announced by the FCC on Friday, the FCC’s Media Bureau has suggested how this issue should be dealt with – by asking for a waiver of the Commission’s rules to allow the file to be maintained at another campus building which has access for the public during normal business hours.

In that case, the Bucknell University station had its main studio in a residence hall not open to the public, and it kept its public file at the student center, another campus building to which the public had access.  While the station posted a sign at the entrance to the residence hall where the main studio was housed that the public file was at the student center, and instructed campus security that this was where anyone who asked for the file should be directed, the college had not asked the FCC for a waiver of Section 73.3527(b)(1),  which requires that the public file of a noncommercial station be kept at the main studio of the station.  In the Consent Decree, the FCC agreed to waive the FCC rules to allow the public file to remain at the student center location, balancing the needs of the public for access to the file with the security needs of the college.  Nevertheless, the licensee made a $2200 “contribution” to the US treasury for not having previously asked for a waiver of the rules to locate the files at a location other than its main studio, and for also failing to include in its files Quarterly Issues Programs lists for several years during the license renewal term in which these issues arose. Continue Reading

Proposal Asks that Low Power FM Stations Be Given Primary Status, and Allowed to Operate Commercially

Posted in FM Radio, FM Translators and LPFM, Noncommercial Broadcasting

The FCC has asked for comments on a rulemaking proposal that would fundamentally change the way in which LPFM stations operate – proposing that they be allowed to take commercial messages (as opposed to the current limit the they operate noncommercially, only taking underwriting announcements and other noncommercial sponsorships), allowing them to be owned by local small businesses (as opposed to the current rule that limit their ownership to nonprofit organizations), and giving them primary status (protecting them against being displaced by a subsequent move of a full-power station or the initiation of service by a new full-power FM station). The proposal also asks that the limits on ownership, which currently limit most nonprofit groups to ownership of a single LPFM, be lifted. There is also a suggestion that LPFM stations be governed by the same spacing rules that apply to FM translators, letting them locate wherever there is no predicted interference, not limiting them to locations where they meet mileage separation requirements set out by the current rules. This is a new proposal, going beyond the proposal we wrote about here to allow LPFM stations to increase power to 250 watts, on which the FCC recently took comments.

Comments on this proposal are due on August 30. The proposal is not a proposal by the FCC to adopt rules on these matters, but instead just a preliminary notice that the petition asking for these changes to the rules was filed, and asking for public comment as to whether the FCC should take any action and further pursue the proposals being made. Obviously, some broadcasters may want to comment on this proposal which would fundamentally change the nature of the LPFM service. Continue Reading

FCC Chairman Details Issues Coming Soon for Broadcasters – Review of Retransmission Consent, Network Nonduplication, AM Improvements, and Contest Rules

Posted in Advertising Issues, AM Radio, Cable Carriage, Digital Radio, Digital Television, FM Radio, Programming Regulations, Television, Website Issues

In an article posted on the FCC’s blog yesterday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler listed four actions that would soon be coming out of the FCC to address broadcast issues. For TV, these include looking at what constitutes “good faith negotiations” in the retransmission consent context, and whether to do away with the FCC’s network nonduplication protection rule. For radio, the long-delayed AM revitalization docket will apparently soon be considered by the FCC. And, finally, the FCC may modernize the contest rules for all broadcasters by allowing more online disclosure of contest rules. What are these proceedings all about?

The retransmission consent proceeding grows out of Congress’ adoption of STELAR, which authorized the continued retransmission of broadcast signals by satellite television operators. As part of that legislation, which we summarized here, the FCC was directed to start a proceeding to determine whether it should adopt new rules to define what constitutes “good faith negotiation” of retransmission consent agreements. There has already been significant lobbying on this issue by both sides. Right now, good faith negotiation really has not been an area where the FCC has intervened beyond using its bully pulpit to urge parties to retransmission consent disputes to reach a deal. It is commonly recognized that failing to deal with a MVPD at all would be a violation of the good faith standard, but many MVPDs now want the FCC to become more involved, putting limits on TV channel blackouts, especially just before big televised events (like the Super Bowl or the Oscars), limiting the blackout of web-based programming to subscribers of an MVPD that is involved in a dispute, limiting the bundling of Big 4 network programs with programming from other channels provided by the TV broadcaster, and similar limits. The Chairman’s blog is short on specifics, but does suggest that, while some specific prohibitions may be suggested, the FCC would also be able to look at the totality of the circumstances to determine if a broadcaster and an MVPD were negotiating in good faith (note that these rules apply to broadcast retransmission consent negotiation, not those between MVPDs and cable channels not shown on broadcast TV). Continue Reading

TV Crime Watch Show is Bona Fide News Program Exempt from Equal Opportunities Requests from Political Candidates – Reviewing the Equal Time Rule

Posted in Political Broadcasting

The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling at the request of the producers of a new syndicated Crime Watch Daily TV show, a program that will give a daily rundown of crime stories including ongoing court trials from around the nation, declaring that the program would not give rise to equal opportunities claims from political candidates. As the producers expected that political candidates would be featured in the program’s daily coverage of crime news (e.g. sheriffs or district attorneys who may be running for reelection in local elections), they wanted to be sure that competing candidates would not have grounds to request equal time from stations carrying the program – which obviously would severely limit the attractiveness of the program. The FCC looked at the description of the nature of the program – where the producer is making editorial decisions about who will appear on the program based on determinations of newsworthiness in the exercise of their journalistic judgment, not based on an attempt to favor or highlight any political candidate. Based on these representations, the FCC concluded that the show was exempt from the equal opportunities obligations of Section 315(a) of the Communications Act.

We have written about the equal opportunities rules (or what many refer to as “equal time”) many times before (see, for instance, our article here). When a candidate makes a “use” of a broadcast station, opposing candidates are entitled to equal time on the station, if they request that equal time within 7 days. If the first candidate did not pay for that airtime, the second candidate gets the time for free. So, if an on-air employee of a station decides to run for public office, once that employee becomes a legally qualified candidate by filing the necessary paperwork for a place on the ballot or taking the steps to launch a write-in campaign, if the employee stays on the air, opposing candidates can request, and are entitled to, equal time on the station. And these opposing candidates don’t need to deliver the weather report or introduce the next song as the on-air employee may have been doing. Instead, the opposing candidates can use the time to promote their campaign, even if the on-air employee never mentioned his or her candidacy on the air (see our article on on-air employees running for office, here). However, where the candidate appears on the air as the subject of a news report, there is no “use” of the station under FCC rules and policies, and thus no need to give equal time. Continue Reading

How Broadcasters Could Have Big Liability For Texts And Calls under The FCC’s Recent Order on The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)

Posted in Advertising Issues, FCC Fines, General FCC, Privacy

The FCC recently issued a Declaratory Ruling and Order on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) – and that order highlights many issues with broadcasters who use texts or outbound automated calls to the mobile devices of viewers and listeners. In fact, today the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing to fine a travel marketing company $2,960,000 for robocalls to households on the Do-Not-Call list, without having any consent from the recipients of the calls. Certain practices of broadcasters could arguably come under TCPA prohibitions. Thus, Josh Bercu, an attorney in my firm, has prepared the following warning for broadcasters about their potential liability under the TCPA.

Last month, the FCC released a Declaratory Ruling and Order addressing 21 separate requests for clarification and other action regarding the TCPA, a law that restricts businesses and organizations from making calls and texts to consumers’ residential and wireless phones without having first received very specific permission from the recipient. Sending texts to broadcast station viewers or listeners who are contained in a station’s loyal listener or loyal viewer clubs can lead to liability if the proper releases are not obtained, and collecting text addresses from contest participants and adding them to station databases can similarly be problematic.   Because violations of the TCPA can result in civil liability of $500 to $1500 per call or text plus FCC fines, and as there have been a number of law firms around the country that have been active in filing class action suits against businesses to collect those potentially very high per-call damages, broadcasters need to ensure that their practices comply with the TCPA and the FCC’s rules which implement the Act.   While the recent Order provided some specific relief in limited circumstances to businesses, it leaves many well-intentioned companies, including broadcasters, at risk as they try to contact their viewers and listeners. Below we address some commonly asked questions about how the TCPA may apply to broadcasters. Continue Reading

FCC Sets December 2 Deadline for Filing 2015 Biennial Ownership Reports for Commercial Broadcast Stations

Posted in AM Radio, Digital Television, EEO Compliance/Diversity, FM Radio, General FCC, Low Power Television/Class A TV, Multiple Ownership Rules, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

The FCC today released an Order setting December 2 as the date for the filing of FCC Form 323 Ownership Reports by commercial broadcast stations. All commercial broadcasters must submit this report. While the report is technically supposed to be filed by November 1 every other year, that date has routinely been extended as the FCC form is far more complicated to complete for many licensees than are the normal ownership reports that are filed after station purchases and sales (see for instance, this article two years ago).

These reports require information as to each owner of a broadcast company as of October 1, 2015.  A unique identifier for each individual named in a report is also required as the FCC is looking to make all ownership information searchable by individual, so that interested persons can determine the interlocking broadcast interests of owners of broadcast stations. As we wrote here, the FCC has recently proposed a way to identify individuals who don’t want their social security numbers to be used to obtain the necessary FCC identification number – though that procedure has not yet been adopted but could quite well be acted on before the filing date. In addition, the form requires that the race, ethnicity and gender of individual owners be reported, so that minority ownership can be assessed and tracked by the FCC. To make all individuals and their interests searchable, the forms require separate fields for different blocks of information including other broadcasts interests of individual owners – making the form complex to complete for companies with multiple owners who have multiple broadcast interests. These reports need to be filed electronically, and can take time to complete, so don’t wait to start work on the biennial report. Continue Reading

When An FM Nondirectional Antenna is Really Directional – Round 2, The FCC Does Not Back Down

Posted in FM Radio

Whether an FM antenna that is purportedly nondirectional should be reclassified as a directional antenna, requiring that the station which uses it back down its power, was a question that the FCC addressed a few months ago in a case we wrote about here.  There, the FCC concluded that the antenna was in fact designed to radiate in certain directions far more than predicted from an omni-directional antenna, ordering the station that was using the antenna to show cause why it should not be forced to back down its power to protect stations in the direction of its maximum radiation. In a decision released yesterday (available here as a Word document, the PDF link appears to be broken) addressing the response to the Show Cause order – in a very quick action on a contested matter like this – the FCC rejected the showing offered by the licensee to defend its purported nondirectional antenna and ordered the station to reduce power. I was speaking at Georgia Association of Broadcasters annual convention this weekend, and the March decision came up in the discussion, which was of great interest to those interested in technical issues for FM broadcasters. Yesterday’s decision will certainly only fan the flames of discussion going on within the industry about this issue.

As we wrote back in March, the FCC initially found that the Texas station in question (KFWR) had effective radiated power levels almost three times those that would be predicted by its omni-directional antenna power. Looking at other evidence about the antenna, the FCC ordered the licensee to show why it should not be ordered to reduce power to bring its signal within that predicted service area – thus protecting a station that had complained of interference from the seemingly directional nature of the KFWR antenna. In response, the KFWR licensee suggested that all purportedly omni-directional antenna patterns have some degree of directionality, especially when side-mounted on a tower. The licensee argued that the FCC had never set standards for how much of such directionality should be allowed – and should not do so by singling out its application, but instead the FCC should look at this on an industry-wide basis. The licensee also offered to remount its antenna to eliminate anything that had been done to “optimize” its signal. The FCC rejected these proposals. Continue Reading

August Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – While Incentive Auction Dominates the News, Other Dates to Watch

Posted in AM Radio, Cable Carriage, Digital Television, EEO Compliance/Diversity, Emergency Communications, FCC Fees, FM Radio, General FCC, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, License Renewal, Noncommercial Broadcasting, Programming Regulations, Public Interest Obligations/Localism

With tomorrow’s FCC meeting to detail dates and procedures for the TV incentive auction dominating the headlines, there are other August regulatory dates that should not be overlooked. While we never can get to all of the relevant dates in our monthly highlight article, here are a few items worth your consideration. For one, we will soon be seeing details for submitting the regulatory fees that are due from all commercial broadcasters (and most other commercial entities regulated by the FCC) before the end of September. Last year, that notice came out right at the end of the month – immediately before the Labor Day weekend, somewhat later than in past years (see our article here). So be on the alert for that notice, to allow you to be ready to pay those mandatory fees before the applicable deadline.

Already, by the first of the month, commercial and noncommercial full-power and Class A television stations and all radio stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin that are part of an employment units with 5 or more full-time employees should have put into their public inspection files their annual EEO Public Inspection File Report, and posted those reports online so that they are accessible to visitors to their station websites. As part of the Mid-Term EEO reporting process we wrote about here, radio stations in the Carolina’s that are part of employment groups with 11 or more full-time employees should have also filed their Form 397 EEO Reports with the FCC by August 3. Noncommercial television stations in Illinois and Wisconsin should also have submitted their Biennial Ownership Reports by August 3, as should have noncommercial radio operators in both North and South Carolina and California. Details on all of these standard regulatory deadlines are available in our Broadcaster’s Regulatory Calendar, here. Continue Reading

Radio Music License Committee Settles Antitrust Suit Against SESAC – What Does it Mean for the Radio Industry?

Posted in AM Radio, Broadcast Performance Royalty, Digital Radio, FM Radio, Intellectual Property, Internet Radio, Music Rights

Yesterday, it was announced that the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) settled its lawsuit with SESAC (see the press release here, and the full agreement here), where the RMLC had charged that SESAC’s practices in collecting its music royalties from the radio industry violated the antitrust laws (we wrote about the filing of the lawsuit here). While there was no admission of guilt by SESAC, it did agree that, between now and 2037, it will negotiate royalties with RMLC on an industry wide basis (up to now, SESAC could negotiate on a station-by-station basis). If RMLC and SESAC can’t agree to a royalty, the royalty rate will be set by an arbitrator – and past SESAC royalties would not have any precedential value in such proceedings (broadcasters have contended that past SESAC rates are far more, in comparison to those charged by ASCAP and BMI, then would be warranted based on the percentage of music from SESAC writers that is played on most radio stations). In subjecting SESAC to industry-wide negotiations and potential arbitration, the settlement is very similar to the deal reached in antitrust litigation between SESAC and the TV Music License Committee (about which we wrote here).

The settlement also tracks the structure of RMLC agreements with ASCAP and BMI (see our articles here and here) in that future SESAC licenses will cover broadcasters not only for their over-the-air programming, but also for their Internet streams and their HD channels (which were charged separately by SESAC for many stations). However, the agreement provides that the unitary license should not diminish the total royalties that would have been paid by the industry to SESAC if these rates were negotiated separately.   In other words, the effect of the unitary license is simply administrative convenience – everything is covered by a single license, so each station does not need multiple licenses from SESAC for its normal broadcast activities. However, unlike the ASCAP and BMI agreements, this agreement puts limits on this unified coverage for a broadcaster’s business that is outside the retransmission of the broadcaster’s over-the-air signals, excluding on-demand subscription services (presumably ruling out Rdio, in which Cumulus has an interest, from being covered by the radio license), and also excluding music-intensive custom radio, specifically ruling out Pandora and iHeartRadio from relying on this license for their online services. The agreement also says that other music users that are not primarily radio operators cannot get coverage for these other non-broadcast businesses simply by buying a radio station. What else does the agreement provide? Continue Reading

Church Programming Not Exempt From Captioning Requirements – FCC Looks to Total Assets of Programmer in Denying Economic Exemptions, and Decides There are No Religious Freedom Constitutional Issues

Posted in Digital Television, Noncommercial Broadcasting, Programming Regulations, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

In several recent cases, the FCC has denied exemptions from the requirement that programming carried on TV stations and MVPDs have closed captions to serve the hearing impaired members of the viewing audience. While exemptions from these requirements are allowed if a programmer can demonstrate that the captioning would present an economic hardship, these waivers are difficult to receive as a programmer must show that, looking at its overall operations, there are insufficient financial resources to afford the captioning for the program (see our article here). In the recent cases, the FCC has looked beyond simply the net income of the programmer in deciding if the programmer is financially capable of paying for the captioning, and in cases released yesterday, the FCC also looked at the overall assets of the programmer to see if it has the capacity to caption the program. Even if funds must be diverted from other programs of the programmer, the availability of funds to the programming organization was enough for the FCC to deny the requested exemption. Specifically, in the three recent cases, religious organizations which produced a single program claimed that, in order to caption their programs, they would have to divert resources from other programs. The FCC found that, as long as the money is there, the programs need to be captioned even if other activities of the organization suffer.

The FCC made that clear in a case decided a few weeks ago. There, it decided that, if a church had sufficient income to pay for captioning, even if it had to divert resources from other “ministries” engaged in by the church, it could not escape the obligation to caption its program. That case was relied on in another decision released yesterday, where a religious organization had been operating at a close to break-even mark over the two years for which it provided its finances, as the FCC said that it had sufficient assets to pay for the captioning – not relying solely on the income of the organization. In another case involving a larger church with greater income and expenses (which were also roughly in balance in the last two years according to the financial statements provided), the FCC there too looked to the current assets of the church (including investments in securities, bank deposits and pledges receivable). The fact that these assets were significantly in excess of current liabilities, led to a determination that captioning was financially feasible for this church. The FCC also rejected an argument that its rules placed an unconstitutional burden on religious freedom – finding that the burden was one imposed on all programmers and was not directed to religious programmers, and was therefore constitutional. So what does it take to get an exemption? Continue Reading