Broadcast Law Blog

Broadcast Law Blog

FCC to Investigate Steven Colbert? – Much Ado About Nothing

Posted in FCC Fines, Indecency

Several articles published at the end of last week suggested that the FCC, based on a statement by FCC Chairman Pai on a radio show, would be investigating comments made by Stephen Colbert on a program last week. The comments, suggesting a sexual act between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, has raised much controversy and apparently resulted in the filing of a number of complaints at the FCC. However, just because the statement was controversial does not mean that the FCC has any jurisdiction to do anything about it consistent with its precedent and constitutional protections which governs speech generally. The Chairman’s statement was no doubt nothing more than an acknowledgement that the FCC would deal with complaints that were filed, rather than any implication that there was likely to be any penalty for the statements of the TV host. Why?

The Colbert Show starts at 11:30 PM on the east and west coasts. Even in the rest of the country where it runs earlier, it begins at 10:30. Under the FCC’s policy on indecency, programs airing after 10 PM and before 6 AM are considered to be in the “safe harbor” where children are unlikely to be in the audience, so indecent programming – programming that “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium” – is not prohibited. In other words, during these overnight hours, stations can run material that is sexually oriented and which would normally not be acceptable on television – allowing more adult oriented content to run even on broadcast stations. As the Colbert program ran during this safe harbor, the FCC’s indecency rules would not apply. But what about obscenity? Continue Reading

Update: Comment Dates Set on Prometheus Petition for Reconsideration of Relaxation of Siting Rules for FM Translators Rebroadcasting AM Stations

Posted in AM Radio, FM Translators and LPFM

Earlier this week, we wrote about a number of proceedings affecting FM translators, including the Petition for Reconsideration (available here) of the FCC decision relaxing the rules governing the locations at which AM stations using FM translators to rebroadcast their signal can locate those translators (see our summary here). Notice of that Petition has now been published in the Federal Register, setting May 19 as the date for formal oppositions to the petition, with replies due May 30. As many AM stations with FM translators have already filed applications relying on the new rules, there are bound to be oppositions to this petition.

Prometheus argues that the Commission, when it decided to allow AM stations to locate FM translators so that their signals did not exceed the greater of 25 miles from the AM site or the 2 mv/m contour of the AM station, whichever is greater (instead of the lesser of those contours, as had been the prior rule), had not given proper notice of its proposed rule change, as the rule as adopted did not contain an absolute limit on the distance from the AM station that the FM translator could reach, when the FCC had initially proposed a 45 mile limit. Prometheus also claims that LPFM stations that are displaced by new FM stations could be blocked in their site selection by this greater latitude in site selection afforded to AM licensees (though, as we wrote here when Prometheus asked for a stay of the new rules, it is impossible to prove such an assertion, as it is possible that, in any particular case, a translator site closer to the AM station could actually be more preclusive to a particular LPFM filing than one further from the AM site). In any event, broadcasters can voice their opposition to the Prometheus petition by the May 19 deadline.

Reminder – FCC Political Rules Apply to Off-Year Elections for Vacant Congressional Seats, and for State and Local Offices

Posted in Advertising Issues, Political Broadcasting

In odd years like 2017, most broadcasting stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – both for special elections to fill open seats in Congress, and for state and local political offices.  Recently, I have received a number of calls about elections to fill seats in Congress that were vacated by Congressmen appointed to positions in the Trump administration. For instance, the race in Georgia to fill HHS Secretary Tom Price’s seat has received much national attention. But there is also a race being fought now to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s seat in Montana. Obviously, for Federal elections like these, broadcast stations serving these districts need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities. But in other parts of the country where there are no special Congressional elections, there are all sorts of political races taking place in this off year and, as we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.

Some of these races will be high-profile, like the governor’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey and several big-city mayoral races. Some races may be much more locally focused on elections to school boards or town councils. Stations need to be prepared. Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that Federal candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules applyContinue Reading

FM Translators Still Contentious – New Filing Window, Suggestions for Resolving Interference Complaints and a Request for Reconsideration of Relaxation of Rules on the Location of FM Translators for AM Stations

Posted in AM Radio, FM Radio, FM Translators and LPFM

For well over a decade, since the FM translator filing window of 2003, translators have been a controversial subject. While they have become more important to the broadcast ecosystem – especially as they now rebroadcast AM stations and HD-2 channels of FM stations – their use continues to be controversial, both because of the interference to other stations that is sometimes caused by new translators, and because of their perceived conflicts with LPFM applicants. With the recent announcement from FCC Chairman Pai that the first window for applications for new translators to serve AM stations that did not benefit from last year’s 250-mile waiver window will be accepted this summer, translators will only become more important to broadcasters (see the Chairman’s comments in his NAB speech, the text of which is here). Several recent actions indicate that policy issues dealing with translators will continue to be debated for at least the foreseeable future.

Two recent filings attempt to address the issue of interference between new or relocated translators and full-power stations. Issues arise from time to time, including some high-profile disputes in major markets, where new translators create, or are alleged to create, interference to full-power stations. Under the current FCC rules, any time a new or relocated translator creates interference to any regularly used FM signal, even outside of the usually protected contour of the full-power station, the translator is required to cease operations unless the interference can be remedied. In such situations, the translator licensee acknowledges the interference and changes facilities or channels to remedy it. But there are other cases where the reported interference objections have been challenged by the translator operator, as the alleged interference will occur far from the station claiming the interference, in areas where the translator operator suggests that no reliable FM signal from the protected station could really be received. Continue Reading

May Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Incentive Auction, ATSC 3.0 and Broadcast Deregulation

Posted in Broadcast Auctions, Digital Television, General FCC, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

May is one of the few months without the normal list of quarterly filings and EEO public file reports.  But, just because there are none of these regular filings due, that does not mean that the month will be a quiet one for broadcasters on the regulatory front.  In fact, far from it.  There are obligations for television broadcasters in connection with the incentive auction and the subsequent repacking of the TV spectrum, an FCC meeting that will start two proceedings that could dramatically reduce the regulatory burdens of broadcasters, and comments due on the FCC’s proposal for the next generation of television broadcasting.

In connection with the incentive auction, on May 11, stations that are relinquishing their channels in exchange for compensation from the FCC must file an FCC Form 1875 detailing where payments for that relinquishment will go.  After that information is received and processed, the FCC will send an email to the payee asking for bank account information that must be entered into the “CORES Incentive Auction Financial Module.”  Stations looking for their auction payouts need to observe these details so the FCC knows where to send their money. Continue Reading

Making Good on Deregulation – FCC Proposes to Eliminate Main Studio Rules and Review All Other Broadcast Regulatory Requirements

Posted in AM Radio, FCC Fines, FM Radio, General FCC, Low Power Television/Class A TV, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

In his speech at the NAB Convention (available here), Chairman Pai promised to pursue a broadcast regulatory regime that made sense in today’s competitive media environment. He promised to move quickly to eliminate a number of the unnecessary broadcast rules, and specifically to repeal the main studio rule (see our articles here and here about the current requirements for the operation and staffing of the main studio).  Yesterday, the FCC took its first steps to quickly fulfill those promises, releasing two draft orders to be considered at its May 18 meeting, one to repeal the main studio rule and the second announcing the opening of a proceeding to review all of the other rules that govern broadcasters except the ownership rules that are already under consideration in other proceedings (see our posts here and here about some of the ownership rules already under review).

The draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking to eliminate the main studio rules asks a number of questions seeking support for the FCC’s tentative conclusion that the elimination of the main studio rule is in the public interest.  The NPRM asks questions and seeks information including:

  • how much money the elimination of the main studio rule would save stations,
  • the public interest benefits that would result from any monetary savings (e.g. better programming),
  • information about how often the main studio is currently visited by community members and why they visit,
  • information about how community members communicate with broadcasters with complaints or suggestions about broadcast operations,
  • whether stations can still serve the issues faced by their communities without having a physical presence,
  • whether abolition of the main studio rules in any way abrogates the station’s obligation to serve its local community that would undermine the FCC’s obligations under Section 307(b) of the Communications Act to allocate stations to communities that need service,
  • how the elimination of the rule would work in connection with the requirement that radio stations move their public file online (e.g. should an online public file be a precondition of abolishing the studio or can the paper file be maintained somewhere else if the studio rule is abolished before next March when the online public file is mandatory for all stations),
  • whether to continue to require that stations have a local phone number accessible to residents of their community of license, and
  • specific inquiries as to how Class A TV stations would meet their obligations to air local programs if they have no main studio.

Assuming the FCC adopts the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking at the May 18 meeting, public comments on the proposal and the questions asked by the FCC will be 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register.  That would likely put comments in late June or early July, with reply comments 15 days later. Continue Reading

Update: Bill to Make Register of Copyrights a Presidential Appointee Approved by House of Representatives

Posted in Intellectual Property, Internet Radio, Music Rights

We wrote here about the Congressional proposal to make the Register of Copyrights a Presidential appointee subject to Congressional approval, rather than a selection of the Librarian of Congress. That bill, HR-1695 (an updated version of which is available here), despite some expressed concerns from certain advocacy groups about the potentially making that position more partisan and political, was approved this week by the House of Representatives on a 378 to 48 vote. The next stop for this reform effort will be the Senate, where thus far legislation to accomplish that end has not been approved. Watch for further action there in coming months.

FTC Puts “Influencers” on Notice:  Disclose Marketing Relationships in Social Media Posts

Posted in On Line Media, Payola and Sponsorship Identification, Website Issues

Broadcasters and advertisers should take note of the more than 90 warning letters that the FTC sent out this week as a reminder of the need to disclose material sponsorship connections in social media promotions and endorsements.  The FTC has since 2009 announced a policy that any online content for which anything of value has been received must disclose that consideration – even social media posts (see our article here about that policy).  This is in the nature of the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules for broadcast content.   That same policy statement addressed the need for those making personal endorsements to make these sponsorship disclosures.  The recent warning letters are notable not only for their sheer number, but also because the warning letters were addressed to marketers and social media “influencers” – the individuals whose social media followings make their endorsements valuable.  To date, the FTC has only named marketers (Warner Brothers Home Entertainment and Lord & Taylor) in its social media endorsement cases.  Although the FTC did not say who received warning letters, its press release noted that the letters were “informed by petitions filed by Public Citizen and affiliated organizations” in September 2016.

By directing warning letters to marketers and influencers, the FTC is sending a firm reminder that both sides of a sponsorship arrangement need to disclose their connection, “unless the connection is already clear from the context of the communication containing the endorsement.”  Specifically, the FTC advises influencers that they must “clearly and conspicuously” disclose any material connection with a marketer; and marketers, in turn, should ensure that the influencers they sponsor disclose their material connections. Continue Reading

FCC Finds Online Sources Satisfy EEO Requirements for Wide Dissemination of Job Openings by Broadcasters and MVPDs

Posted in EEO Compliance/Diversity

The FCC on Friday released a declaratory ruling making it significantly easier for broadcasters and MVPDs to meet their EEO obligations imposed by FCC rules.  These rules for broadcasters and MVPDs (cable and satellite TV providers) requires that these businesses, when filling job openings, widely disseminate information about the openings in a manner that is expected to reach members of all community groups in the area from which employees are likely to be found.  In the past, under the rules adopted in 2002, the Commission has not allowed recruitment to be conducted solely through online sources.  Instead, the 2002 order suggested that the daily newspaper would, in many communities, be an outlet that would reach the diverse groups within a community – though most broadcasters supplemented newspaper publication with notifications to numerous schools, community organizations, educational institutions and others who might possibly refer employee candidates.  Stations that relied solely on online sources faced substantial fines from the FCC (see the cases we summarized here and here).

The decision on Friday recognized that we are in a different world than when these rules were adopted almost 15 years ago.  Now, most recruiting is done online.  Thus, in response to a petition I filed on behalf of clients (summarized here), the FCC determined that a broadcaster or MVPD can rely solely on online sources in its recruiting.  It no longer needs to use the newspaper, reach out to community groups community groups or even use its own airwaves to give notice of job openings to satisfy the wide dissemination obligation.  The FCC encouraged stations to continue to use some of these outreach methods, but it is no longer required.  The broadcaster or MVPD needs to be reasonable in picking online sources that are likely to reach the members of various groups within its community – though the decision as to exactly which online employment sources to use will be left to the good-faith discretion of the broadcaster or MVPD.  The Commission went so far as to say that, depending on the circumstances, a single online source could reasonably be found to be sufficient. Continue Reading

FCC Appoints Regional Coordinators for TV Post-Auction Repacking Process

Posted in Digital Television, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, Low Power Television/Class A TV, Television

With the FCC last week announcing the results of the reverse auction portion of the incentive auction and setting the timetable for the repacking of the TV spectrum, the next question on everyone’s mind will be how successful the television industry will be in adhering to the schedule established by the FCC for clearing the TV spectrum above Channel 37. The FCC yesterday released a Public Notice showing how it will be doing its part to monitor and assist in that repacking. The FCC announced that it is appointing 10 Commission employees to serve as “Regional Coordinators” to help ensure a “smooth and efficient post-auction transition.” These coordinators will each have a geographic region to which they are assigned. They will keep in touch with the television stations affected by the repacking in their area to assess them stations progress in complying with the required channel moves and to assist where possible in smoothing issues that may arise in that process.

The Public Notice provides the names and contact information for each of these coordinators and a list of the stations to which they are assigned. The coordinators will be reaching out to stations to introduce themselves in the near future. The notice also provides the names of FCC contacts for LPTV stations that will be affected by the repacking. As we all know that applications can at times get bogged down at the FCC, and unexpected regulatory issues can from time to time arise in connection with any broadcast construction project, it would seem like a good idea for station personnel to get to know their coordinators so that stations can feel comfortable in seeking the coordinators aid should such issues pop up during the transition process.