When do noncommercial stations stray from permissible acknowledgment of those local businesses that provide funding for its operations to impermissible commercials?  That question was addressed in a Notice of Apparent Liability issued by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau on Thursday, proposing a $15,000 fine for a low power FM station whose underwriting announcements were deemed too commercial.  The decision, which includes examples of the announcements deemed problematic, is must-reading for all noncommercial licensees who want to avoid fines from the FCC in connection with their underwriting acknowledgements for commercial entities.

The decision breaks down into four categories the reasons for finding the announcements in this case to be too promotional.  The first category is one that often arises in connection with these announcements – the underwriting announcement uses terms that make qualitative claims about the sponsor.  You can’t talk about a commercial sponsor being voted the “best” or being the “most experienced.”  Talking about mechanics who are “experts” in working on certain cars, or decorators who have “an exceptional eye for the perfect arrangement” are all examples of announcements that cross the line.  In this case, some of the examples of impermissible qualitative claims include a car repair shop with “certified master technicians” who use “state of the art equipment.”  Another was for a new real estate company that was characterized as being “one of the fastest growing real estate companies in the country” having “23 agents and a combined experience of over 300 years” and being a “national company with a local flair” having “recruited some of the most well-known agents.”  Another for a computer repair company was perhaps closer to the line but still was deemed too promotional, saying “don’t waste your time when you have a professional nerd to help make your life run easier” and “we’re not your average nerds.”  In some cases, like the last one, had it been the only identified issue, the FCC may have just determined that it was an exercise of licensee judgement about what was too promotional and let it go.  But in a case like this one, with so many other issues, it was identified as being a problem. Continue Reading $15,000 FCC Fine Proposed for Underwriting Announcements that Were Too Commercial

Here are some of the FCC actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into negotiated settlements with two Boston-area pirate radio operators who admitted to illegal operations and agreed to pay civil fines, to dispose of their broadcast equipment and to not commit—or help anyone else commit—acts of radio piracy for twenty years. In one case, the FCC last year initially proposed a fine of $151,005 fine for the illegal operation.  After examining the operator’s finances, the Bureau agreed to a $4,000 fine now, with a penalty of $75,000 should the operator violate the law again (Radio Concorde).  In the second case, the FCC had proposed a $453,015 fine last year, but agreed to take $5,000 now, with penalty of $225,000 if the operator violates the terms of the consent decree (Radio TeleBoston Consent Decree).  Last year, we wrote on the Broadcast Law Blog about the fines initially proposed for these two operators.
  • The Enforcement Bureau also issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for $15,000 to an LPFM licensee for violating FCC rules prohibiting non-commercial educational broadcast stations from airing commercial advertisements. The Bureau alleges that more than 1,600 advertisements improperly promoted the products, services, or businesses of at least 14 financial contributors.  The Bureau said the announcements were “clearly promotional” by referring to qualitative claims about the underwriters and their products, by providing price information or an overly extensive list of the products or services provided by the companies, or by providing underwriting acknowledgments that were more than 30 seconds long. Noncommercial licensees looking to make sure their announcements comply with FCC rules should read the full FCC decision, which includes the text of the prohibited announcements.  (Notice of Apparent Liability).  Look for more on this decision next week in the Broadcast Law Blog.
  • The FCC this week told its staff that it will not be returning to the building that has been its headquarters for the last 20 years and that they will continue to telework until at least August 27, when the move to the new headquarters building should be complete. See the Broadcast Law Blog for more details on the FCC’s move.

Looking ahead, last week we posted on the Broadcast Law Blog our look at broadcast regulatory dates and deadlines for July.  There is a lot to stay on top of this month, including the July 10 deadline for Quarterly Issues Programs lists for the first and second quarters of this year to be uploaded to the public file of all radio and TV stations, the end of the TV repack, Children’s Television reports due dates, EEO reporting, a new deadline for uploading information about MVPD carriage election information to the public file, an LPTV settlement window, and due dates for rulemaking comments in various proceedings.

Multiple press reports yesterday said that the FCC has circulated a memo to its employees announcing that the FCC will not be resuming in-person operations at least until August 27 – and if work resumes then, it will be from the FCC’s new headquarters building.  The FCC has been planning for several years a move from its current headquarters at “the Portals,” where it has resided for over 20 years.  According to press reports, employees will continue to telework at least until the new building is ready in late August.  Employees will be returning to the current building only with individual appointments to clear their current offices. Starting in mid-August, the FCC will pack up and move furniture, equipment and other items from the Portals to the new building which is supposed to be ready for work by August 27.  The reports also note that the FCC will likely continue to allow telework to some extent even once the new building is ready.

The FCC sent all its employees home to telework in mid-March due to the pandemic (see our article here), and has been remarkably efficient in adapting to the new work environment – continuing to routinely process applications and to also work on the big policy decisions with which the agency must grapple.  We have written about many of the issues that the FCC has tackled on this blog and, from the list of regulatory dates in July about which we wrote yesterday, that pace of work does not appear to be slowing down at all.  While we outsiders won’t get our last visit to the Portals to bid it farewell, we look forward to when the time comes that we can visit the new building at 45 L St NE, just a few blocks from Washington’s Union Station and near to NPR’s current headquarters.

July is usually a month of family vacations and patriotic celebrations.  While the pandemic has seen to it that those activities, if they happen at all, will look different than they have in years past, there are plenty of regulatory obligations to fill a broadcaster’s long, summer days.  Here are a few of the dates and deadlines to watch for in July, and a quick reminder of some of the significant filings due right at the beginning of August.

On or before July 10, all TV and radio stations must upload to their public file their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for the 2nd quarter (April, May and June).  Stations that took advantage of the FCC’s extension of time to file their 1st quarter (January, February and March) list must also by July 10 upload that list to their public file.  As a reminder, the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists are a station’s evidence of how it operated in the public interest, demonstrating its treatment of its community’s most significant issues.  The FCC has shown (see here and here) that it takes this requirement seriously and will fine stations, hold up license renewals, or both if it finds problems with a station’s compliance.  For a short video on complying with the Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirement, see here. Continue Reading July Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: End of the TV Repacking, Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Reporting, EEO, Carriage Election Public File Information Deadline, LPTV Settlement Window, Rulemaking Comments and More

Here are some of the regulatory actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations:

  • FEMA announced that it has canceled the 2020 test of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which is the technical infrastructure that delivers EAS messages to radio and TV stations. FEMA noted the “unusual circumstances and working conditions” brought on by the pandemic and acknowledged that post-test reporting would place additional burdens on station personnel already stretched thin to keep their operations on the air.  (Broadcast Law Blog)  (News Release)
  • Through a Public Notice, the FCC announced July 13 as the effective date for certain technical rules for LPFM stations. Though some of the new rules, like changes to the waiver process regarding interference between Channel 6 TV stations and noncommercial FM stations operating on the reserved band and use by LPFM stations of FM boosters become effective next month, other rules, like changes regarding the use of directional antennas and a revision to the definition of a minor change will not be effective until a later date, as yet unannounced.  See the Broadcast Law Blog post here for more detail.  (Public Notice)  (Report and Order)
  • The FCC announced in April that, in light of the shifting economic situation facing many broadcast advertisers, it would allow stations to air certain PSAs, using time donated by commercial entities to organizations involved in the pandemic relief effort, without identifying the commercial entities paying for the time as would otherwise be required by the sponsorship identification rules (see our Broadcast Law Blog article on that decision).  The waiver was to expire on June 30, but this week it was extended through August 31, 2020. (Order)
  • The FCC denied an Application for Review submitted by a West Virginia LPTV operator making clear that the Communications Act and FCC rules do not require mandatory carriage of LPTV stations on satellite television systems. (Memorandum Opinion and Order)
  • In a reminder that stations must file an application whenever there is a change in control of a broadcast station, even one caused by the death of a controlling shareholder, the Commission upheld the Media Bureau’s decision to dismiss an application for license renewal of a Mississippi FM station because it failed to do so, which effectively terminated its right to operate. (Order on Reconsideration)
  • Comments were due this week in the FCC’s video description proceeding. Video description refers to the provision on a subchannel of spoken narration describing what is happening on screen in TV programming to aid blind or visually impaired persons.  The Commission sought comment on expanding the video description rules to require more TV stations to provide this service. In the first round of comments filed this week, the National Association of Broadcasters urged the Commission to delay the effective date of the proposed expansion of the video description requirements by 9 months (from January 1, 2021 to October 1, 2021).  NAB cites the difficulty for stations that are already deep into budgeting for 2021 to accommodate this new financial outlay, especially as many stations are trying to recover from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.  (MB Docket 11-43)  (Broadcast Law Blog)
  • The FCC dismissed an application to deliver Chinese programming from a studio in the US to a Mexican station which places a signal back into the United States. Federal law (Section 325(c) of the Communications Act) requires FCC approval for US-produced programming to be exported to a foreign station with significant US coverage.  This procedural decision suggests that all parties producing the programming need to be co-applicants.  (News Release)  (Order)
  • The five FCC Commissioners visited Capitol Hill to participate in a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing. The statements, questions and answers focused mostly on non-broadcast matters, but the Commissioners reiterated their support for press freedom, discussed Broadcast Internet services, the C4 radio station class and the minority tax certificate.  (Commissioner Prepared Statements and Archived Video)

We recently wrote about a case where a Judge in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York found that the website Mashable had a license to use a photo accessible from its site that was actually an embedded photo coming from the servers of Instagram.  In that decision, the Court found that, under Instagram’s Terms of Use, the photographer, by posting photos on Instagram, gave it the right to sublicense the photo to others, which included Mashable who embedded it using an API from Instagram.  This week, the Court issued an Order reconsidering its decision – based on it being pointed out that, for the claim of a sublicense to be sustained, it had to be clear that a license was in fact being issued.  The Court reviewed Instagram’s Platform Policy which made general statement about it helping “publishers discover content, get digital rights to media, and share media using web embeds.”  The Court concluded that, without further evidence, it was unclear that this language alone granted a sublicense to Mashable, and therefore reconsidered its decision to dismiss the photographer’s infringement claim.

This case will go on to look at whether Instagram in fact intended to give Mashable a sublicense to use the photo through the use of the API.  But it does suggest that sites that use embedded media from a social media platform on the assumption that the social media site, by providing other sites the ability to embed their content are in fact sublicensing that content, should proceed with caution.  Those companies looking to post embedded content on their sites should carefully review the terms of use of the social media site to see if a sublicense is in fact being conveyed.  In our last article on the case, we noted that this decision was contrary to another decision in another case (see our article here on that other case) that found a site owner could be liable for embedded content that was accessible from its site.  We noted that there were factual differences in the two cases.  This reconsideration requires even more caution in the use of embedded content from social media sites, particularly in light of the conflicting precedent. Continue Reading Court Reconsiders Decision About Website Getting License to Embedded Photo from Instagram Terms of Use

Should broadcasters be able to originate programming on FM translators?  Playing off the proposal to allow limited amounts of programming on FM boosters – basically the insertion of local ads, news, or emergency alerts – in the zonecasting proposal on which the FCC took comments earlier this year (see our summary here), a group of broadcasters has taken the proposal one step further, and asked if translators (including those FM translators rebroadcasting AM stations) should not have the same rights proposed for boosters.  Comments on this proposal (available here) are due July 23.

These comments were originally filed in connection with the zonecasting proceeding (see our summary of the comments here).  But they go beyond the zonecasting proposal for limited amounts of origination programming on boosters, and seek to expand the amount of time that translators can originate programming different than their primary stations.  The advocates propose not just the substitution of short messages, but to allow translators to originate as much as 40 hours per week of programming different than that offered on their primary stations.  And the proposal also suggests that translators be allowed to be located within the primary station’s 45 dbu contour, rather than within the 60 dbu contour of an FM primary station as now required (playing off the 45 dbu contour now being used as the one in which primary FM stations can claim protection from interference from FM translators – see our article here). Continue Reading FCC Seeking Comment on the Origination of Programming by FM Translators

The year of the pandemic claimed another victim – this one being what has become a regular event – the nationwide test of the EAS system (see our articles here and here about the last two tests – tests which are required to assess the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System – IPAWS – at least once every 3 years).  In an announcement yesterday, FEMA decided that, with all that is going on in the world at the current time, and with many stations operating with limited employees in their buildings now, this was not the best time to be conducting a test of a system meant to alert listeners to emergencies and requiring the attendant paperwork reporting on the results of the tests.  It seems a wise choice not to send any unnecessary emergency attention signals over broadcast stations and the facilities of other EAS participants to a public already tired of emergency messages.  In its notice, FEMA states that over 360 emergency messages have been sent related to COVID-19 matters from emergency officials across the country.  So this test is one more thing that broadcasters can cross off their list of things to worry about in the last half of 2020.

Here are some of the legal and regulatory actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC released a Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration regarding Next Gen TV (ATSC 3.0). The Report and Order provides guidance on how the Commission will evaluate petitions for waiver of the local simulcasting rules for broadcasters deploying ATSC 3.0 who cannot find a partner station to broadcast its signal in the current transmission standard, declines to allow broadcasters to use vacant in-band channels for voluntary ATSC 3.0 deployment, and clarifies that the “significantly viewed” status of an ATSC 3.0 station will not change when that station moves its ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel to a host facility.  The Order on Reconsideration denied petitions challenging aspects of the Commission’s 2017 Next Gen TV order, including issues dealing with the local simulcast requirement, the application of retransmission consent rules, patent licensing issues, and sunset of the obligation to use the current transmission standard for ATSC 3.0 (that sunset allowing the new transmission mode to evolve over time without the need for FCC action).  (Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration)
  • The Commission granted a waiver to a Jacksonville, Florida TV station, allowing it to complete its post-incentive auction move to a new channel by September 8, beyond the current July 3 end of Phase 10 of the repacking of the television band when all TV stations were to have moved to their post-transition facilities. Because of issues related to COVID-19 and other technical matters, the Commission granted this extension and authorized its Media Bureau to grant similar relief to other stations suffering from similar delays (Order)
  • Two members of Congress wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging the Commission to “halt any increases to annual regulatory fees due in 2020 for broadcast licensees.” Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) and Chris Stewart (R-UT) wrote in their letter that this action requires no congressional action and would help alleviate some of the economic hardship suffered by stations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Members noted that broadcasters are a critical component of the pandemic response by, among other things, informing and educating Americans about public health guidance.  (Letter).  The NAB, as well as a group of state broadcast associations, also filed comments at the FCC opposing the FCC’s proposal to increase broadcast regulatory fees, arguing that broadcasters’ fees should not increase in relation to the fees paid by other industries regulated by the FCC, particularly as broadcasters have been so hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic. (NAB Comments and State Association Comments)
  • Last Monday, the reply comment period closed in the FCC’s Significant Viewing proceeding. Designation as a significantly viewed station has implications for determining whether a cable or satellite TV system will carry a TV station in an area that is not part of its home market.  For an in-depth look at what the FCC seeks to resolve through this proceeding, see this post at the Broadcast Law Blog.  (Reply Comments)
  • On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing considering the re-nomination of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to a new five-year term. The Commissioner, in response to a question, noted that he believes the FCC’s and DOJ’s current media competition rules are “problematic,” and that he hopes to work with DOJ to shift its narrow view of the competitive marketplace where it does not recognize that broadcasters  don’t just compete with other broadcasters, but instead directly compete with a wide range of other media companies, including digital media outlets.  (Opening Statement and Archived Video)(see Broadcast Law Blog articles here and here on the competition between broadcasters and other media and how the assessment of the definition of the marketplace is important to the evaluation of broadcast ownership limits)
  • The Enforcement Bureau acted last week against two pirate radio operations, one in Pennsylvania and one in Arkansas. These actions are reminders that broadcast operators must hold a valid license to operate and that the FCC will pursue illegal operations.
    • In the first case, the Enforcement Bureau shut down a station that was broadcasting on 90.7 MHz and 91.5 MHz from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The operator, as part of a consent decree, admitted to the unauthorized operation of the station, agreed to pay a $1,500 civil penalty, and agreed to not operate an unauthorized station in the future.  The PIRATE Act, signed into law in early 2020, gives the FCC authority to fine pirate radio operators up to $100,000 per violation (with a $2 million cap), but, in this case, the operator claimed an economic hardship, which persuaded the FCC to lower the fine to $1,500.  (Order and Consent Decree)
    • In the second case, the Enforcement Bureau issued a $10,000 fine to an operator for the unauthorized operation of a radio station on 103.1 MHz in Alma, Arkansas. (Forfeiture Order)
  • The US Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order throwing out a rule adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services that would have required all TV advertising for prescription drugs to state the wholesale price of the drug. Based on these court decisions, this additional information will not need to be added to the disclaimers that these ads already contain. (Court Decision)(Broadcast Law Blog article on the decision)

Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: June 13, 2020 to June 19, 2020

It appears that there will be no requirement imposed on television and cable ads to include disclosures revealing the wholesale prices of prescription drugs in any advertising for those drugs.  We wrote about the decision from the US Department of Health and Human Service to impose such a requirement on television ads here, and we wrote here about last year’s determination of a federal District Court throwing out the requirement, finding that HHS had no statutory authority to impose that requirement.  This week, the US Court of Appeals rejected an HHS appeal of the District Court decision.  The decision found that it was not reasonable for HHS to determine that Congress had given HHS authority, based simply on the authority to administer Medicare and Medicaid programs, to impose such an obligation on the commercial speech of advertisers in advertising their prescription drugs.  As HHS could not show how this ban was necessary for the administration of these programs, or would even necessarily lead to the cost savings given as the justification for the requirement, the appeals court upheld the lower court decision striking down the price disclosure obligation.

NAB and NCTA, on behalf of the broadcast and cable industries, filed briefs supporting this outcome.  Based on this decision, television advertisers will not be obligated to disclosure any wholesale pricing information absent some future intervention by Congress.