The FCC yesterday issued a Public Notice announcing that it will in fact be opening a window for the filing of applications for new reserved-band noncommercial FM stations (those stations operating in the portion of the FM band below 92.1 FM, which is reserved for noncommercial educational broadcasters).  We anticipated that this window was coming in our articles here and here.  In yesterday’s Public Notice, the FCC asked for comments on its proposal to limit any applicant to ten applications nationwide in the upcoming window.  The window will open probably next year, after the FCC resolves this question on the maximum number of applications in which one party can have an interest.

The ten-application limit has been used by the FCC in the past to limit the number of applications filed in the window to hopefully speed processing times and avoid some situations where applications end up being mutually exclusive with each other (i.e., where some of the applications filed cannot be granted without creating destructive technical interference to each other, causing the FCC to have to use their point system analysis to determine which application to grant – see our articles here and here on the point system).  Of course, limiting the number of applications could have the unintended impact of preventing some parties from filing applications in smaller markets and rural areas, saving their applications for areas in which they are likely to reach the most people.  In the Public Notice, the FCC asks for comments as to the impact of a ten-application limit and whether some other number (or no maximum at all) would be more appropriate.  Comments on this proposal will be due 15 days after this Notice is published in the Federal Register and Reply Comments will be due 25 days after that publication.

Here are some of the regulatory developments 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 set the comment dates for its proposal for changing the cost to file various broadcast applications. The new schedule of fees the FCC has proposed are meant to better reflect the actual legal and engineering labor resources spent processing the applications.  Because of this, some applications that take up more resources to process see a proposed fee increase, while other applications that are easier to process see a proposed fee decrease.  Interested parties should review the fee schedules and submit their comments and reply comments by November 16 and November 30, respectively.  (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
  • Chairman Pai announced his intention to open a rulemaking to clarify the meaning of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This provision grants broad immunity to online platforms for civil liability (including defamation claims) that arises from content that users post on those platforms.  In the last few months, Section 230 has become a hot-button issue following President Trump’s Executive Order calling for the examination of Section 230’s liability shield.  Nathan Simington, the President’s nominee for FCC commissioner, is said to have played a role in the advancing that order.  We wrote here and here about Section 230.  (News Release)
  • The FCC this week proposed that three VHF stations be allowed to move to channels in the UHF band. Each waiver contains a waiver of the current filing freeze on changes to the television Table of Allotments.  More than nine years ago, the Commission put in place a channel change freeze while it worked through the mechanics of the incentive auction and repack.  These waivers indicate at least some thawing of the freeze as the auction and repack are substantially complete.  The waivers note that VHF transmissions can sometimes be difficult for viewers to receive due to VHF’s signal propagation characteristics and thus allowed these channel change proposals to move forward.  (Channel change proposals for Portland, Oregon; Mesa, Arizona; and Minneapolis, Minnesota)
  • With only a couple of days left until the November Election, we wrote on the Broadcast Law Blog about the importance of compliance with the online political file rules and the steady stream of consent decrees that have been issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau over the last few months. (Broadcast Law Blog)
  • It’s official: The FCC, though its workforce is still largely working remotely, has moved to its new headquarters. The new headquarters, at 45 L Street NE, is close to Union Station and steps from NPR headquarters.  (Public Notice)
  • It was announced this week that Nathan Simington, the President’s nominee to fill Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s seat at the FCC, will have a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on November 10 in the next step in the Senate’s consideration of his nomination. (Nominations Hearing)
  • On the Broadcast Law Blog, we also wrote about the apparent heightened interest of the recording industry in music used in podcasts, where demand letters from an industry association have recently resulted in the shutdown of two podcasts. Anyone making available music on-demand (including in a podcast or in any video production) needs to clear the rights directly from copyright holders – ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange licenses are not enough.  (More details available in this article on the Broadcast Law Blog).

As the campaign enters its final weeks, the FCC has begun to send out the next round of proposed consent decrees to radio broadcasters unable to certify in their license renewal applications, because of perceived deficiencies in their political file, that that every document was placed into their FCC-hosted online public inspection file on a timely basis (see, for instance, this decree released yesterday).  The certification of public file compliance is required of every applicant for license renewal.  As with any other certification, a licensee must review its records and truthfully answer the application’s question, either certifying that it has complied with all of the public file obligations or disclosing any deficiencies.  As we wrote last year, in cases of substantial noncompliance, the FCC has fined stations that essentially ignored the public file rules.  But, until recently, in cases where a station had made a good faith effort to comply but had some minor deficiencies in the public file (as is natural over an eight-year renewal period), the FCC has generally been granting renewals, acknowledging that minor violations do not signal that a broadcaster is not operating in the public interest.  However, in August, the Commission initiated a new policy for stations that reported deficiencies in the political portion of the public inspection file, sending draft consent decrees to virtually all stations unable to certify full public file compliance because of any political file issue.

These consent decrees were modeled on the ones that were sent in July to six large radio broadcast groups as a result of an earlier FCC review of their political files (see our article here on those consent decrees, which also provides a review of a broadcaster’s political file obligations).  The difference is, of course, that the July decrees went to large radio groups for what the FCC described as hundreds of violations at many radio stations.  The new renewal-driven consent decrees were sent to all stations that did not certify political file compliance, even to stations that had only a handful of political advertising sales if those stations determined that they could not certify that all required documents went into the file in a timely fashion.  While the decrees carry no monetary fine, they do require that the signing station enter into a compliance program – appointing a compliance officer, having a written compliance plan, reporting any violations to the FCC as they occur, and providing a report to the FCC at the end of each calendar year for two years cataloging all political sales and when the required documents went into the political file. Continue Reading More FCC Consent Decrees for Political File Violations – Issues to Watch in the Last Weeks of the Election

The use of music has long been an issue for those looking to provide music-oriented podcasts to the public.  As we have written before (see, for example, our articles here and here), clearing rights to use music in podcasts is not as simple as signing up with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (or even adding GMR or SoundExchange to the mix).  These organizations simply cover public performance rights for music when, as our prior articles make clear, podcasts require additional rights to use music in ways not fully covered by the licenses that are offered by these organizations.  The rights to the use both the underlying musical composition and the actual recording of that composition by a band or singer must be obtained on an individual basis from the copyright holders.  That can often mean a search for both the publisher and record company who usually own those copyright in the musical composition and the sound recording, respectively.  This can often be a difficult search, especially if there are multiple songwriters of a composition (and hence multiple publishing companies which likely own the copyrights) or where the rights to the songs have been assigned over time from their original owners.  Plus, as we have written before, there is no easily accessible universal database yet in existence that provides up-to-date and complete records of who owns those copyrights.  All this combines to make the clearance of music for use in podcasts an arduous process – and almost prohibitive for any small podcaster who wants to use more than one or two pieces of music in connection with their show.

In an article in the radio industry newsletter Inside Radio this week, it appears that at least two music-oriented podcasts have attracted the attention of the music industry, receiving demands from the RIAA which has led to their ceasing of operations.  It appears that these cases demonstrate both the difficulty of clearing music for podcasts, and perhaps that, as podcasting is growing in attention, the legal issues associated with the use of music in those podcasts is coming to the forefront of the attention of the music industry. Continue Reading Music in Podcasts – As Podcasts Shut Down Following Infringement Notices, Looking at the Required Music Rights

Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions and developments 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 the agenda and items to be considered at its October 27 Open Meeting.
    • After issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the spring, the FCC will vote on finalizing changes to its rules for video description (the insertion in TV programming of spoken narration of what is happening on the screen to aid blind or visually impaired persons). If the item is adopted, it will, among other things, rename video description as “audio description” and extend the audio description requirements to television markets 61-100 at a rate of ten markets per year.  Stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC in markets 61-70 will have to start complying on January 1, 2021 or on the effective date of the Order, whichever comes later.  We covered this proceeding on the Broadcast Law Blog, here.  (Report and Order)
    • As part of the Commission’s AM revitalization efforts, it will consider allowing AM stations to convert to all-digital broadcasting on a voluntary basis. Currently, AM stations are authorized for either analog or hybrid (combined analog and digital) transmission.  This rule change would allow AM stations to transition fully to digital, which would help those stations overcome some of the problems that affect analog AM signals, like interference and lower-quality audio. We took a deeper look at the Report and Order, here.  (Report and Order)
    • In the latest step in the multi-year effort to increase unlicensed wireless operations in TV “white space,” the Commission will consider an item that allows fixed unlicensed devices operating on channels 2-35 to operate at higher power in “less congested” rural and unserved areas and allow greater antenna heights for these devices. Unlicensed device operators must still cease operations if their operations interfere with an authorized service like, for example, television stations.  See our blog post, here, from March where we looked at the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  (Report and Order)
  • The window is closing for TV stations repacked after the incentive auction to submit their invoices for reimbursements. Stations in Phases 1 to 5 have until October 8, 2021 to submit invoices for reimbursement.  Stations in Phases 6 to 10 have until March 22, 2022.  All other entities eligible for reimbursement, including FM and LPTV/translator stations, have until September 5, 2022 to submit their documentation.  (Public Notice)
  • If you want to start filling in your 2021 calendar, the FCC has released the dates for its 2021 Open Meetings. While the Open Meetings since March have been held remotely, the 2021 meetings are scheduled to be held at the Commission’s new Washington headquarters.  (Open Meetings Calendar)
  • A low power FM station was hit with a consent decree and $15,000 fine for airing announcements for for-profit entities that violate the non-commercial underwriting rules, violating the cross-ownership rules that prohibit a party from holding an interest in a radio station while also holding an attributable interest in an LPFM, violating the rule that requires LPFMs to file with the FCC when more than 50% of the station’s governing board changes suddenly, and violating the rule against transferring or assigning an LPFM license within three years of issuance. (Order)
  • The FCC has named a new point person to oversee its field offices. Axel Rodriguez, the Commission’s new Field Director, will supervise the 13 field offices and its agents and lead efforts to combat pirate radio and other unauthorized spectrum uses and support efforts to restore communications services after disasters.  Rodriguez has a background in electrical engineering and served as a cyber warfare officer in the military.  (News Release)

The FCC this week released its agenda for its October 27 open meeting.  At that meeting the FCC will consider a number of issues of relevance to broadcasters, including enhanced white space use in the TV band and an expansion of the requirement for audio description of video programming.  It also plans to adopt an order authorizing licensees of AM stations to voluntarily transition to all-digital AM operations.  A draft order setting out the FCC’s decision and the rules that it intends to adopt for all digital AM operations was released yesterday.   We wrote previously about this proceeding on all-digital AM as it has progressed through the FCC (see our articles here and here).

The draft order on all-digital AM contains a discussion as to whether the Commission should put limits on the ability of AM licensees to transition so as to not take away service from existing listeners who do not have digital AM radios.  The conclusion set out in the draft order is that there should not be restrictions on the ability of licensees to convert to all-digital operations.  The FCC noted that as long as there are a substantial number of listeners without digital AM receivers, some AM licensees will have an economic incentive to continue to broadcast an analog signal.  Thus, these analog listeners will not be left without service.  The FCC also noted that its recent order abolishing the prohibition on radio stations duplicating the programming of commonly-owned stations serving the same area (see our articles here and here) would allow one owner to put the same programming on two AMs in the same area – one providing a digital program stream while the other continued analog operations.  Thus, the FCC’s tentative decision is that there is no need to restrain stations from making the conversion. Continue Reading FCC Announces Plans to Authorize All-Digital AM Radio at October 27 Open Meeting

The 2017 deregulatory changes to the FCC’s ownership rules have been on hold since December 2019, when the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, overturning those rule changes, became effective (see our post here).  The court’s decision has put any broadcast ownership changes on hold (including potential changes in the radio ownership rules which were not part of the 2017 FCC decision) while the FCC contemplated how to deal with the fallout from the Third Circuit’s decision.  The potential for another way forward arose last week when the Supreme Court decided to hear the appeal of the Third Circuit decision – granting a petition for “cert” (a petition asking the Court to hear the appeal) – the announcement of that grant coming out on Friday.

As we wrote here, the Third Circuit rejected the FCC’s 2017 ownership rule changes, finding that the FCC had done an inadequate job of assessing how prior ownership relaxations had affected the ability of minorities and other potential new entrants to break into the ranks of broadcast ownership.  Despite arguments from the FCC that it had already analyzed the impact of changes on new entrants and taken steps to mitigate any adverse impact, the Court seemed to be directing the FCC to do a more searching analysis of the historical impact of the relaxation of ownership restrictions on new entrants.  Because this analysis would affect any ownership rule change, including those proposed for radio (see our article here), the decision effectively froze further FCC consideration of all broadcast ownership rule changes. Continue Reading Supreme Court to Hear Appeal of Third Circuit Rejection of FCC Changes to Broadcast Ownership Rules

Here are some of the regulatory developments and legal 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 U.S. Supreme Court decided to consider the appeals by the FCC and industry groups of the Third Circuit’s decision overturning the FCC’s 2017 ownership order. The FCC’s 2017 decision, among other things, abolished the newspaper-broadcast and radio-TV cross-ownership bans and allowed common ownership of two TV stations in the same market even when there were not 8 independent operators and, in some cases, even allowed combinations of two of the top 4 rated TV stations in a market.  For years, the Third Circuit has blocked the FCC’s attempts to reform its ownership rules.  In the cases which the Supreme Court will now review, the Prometheus Radio Project cases, the Third Circuit said that the Commission’s analysis of the media marketplace lacked evidence of the impact that changes in the rules have had and will have on the diversity of new entrants into media ownership.  Briefs are likely to be submitted to the Supreme Court this fall with oral arguments to follow early in the new year.  A decision is expected before the end of this term of the Supreme Court at the end of June or beginning of July of 2021.  Get caught up with the issue in these cases, here.  (Supreme Court Order List)
  • The FCC relaxed its rules regarding the notifications cable companies must provide to their subscribers about retransmission consent blackouts. The change from 30-day advance notice of a blackout to “as soon as possible” notification is an acknowledgement that retransmission negotiations sometimes continue until the hours before the deadline and that 30-day notice is, in many cases, not a reliable indicator that a blackout will occur.  (Report and Order)
  • The FCC released an order that will bring more structure to the Team Telecom process which reviews proposals for foreign ownership in the telecommunications industry. Any broadcast deal that would lead to more than 25% foreign ownership is subject to Team Telecom review. Team Telecom brings together telecommunications and national security officials from throughout the government to examine these transactions.  The changes are designed to give applicants more transparency into the process and make reviews more predictable.  The FCC also hopes to reduce the amount of time it takes for an application to make it through the review process.  (News Release)  (Report and Order)
  • FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly published a blog post detailing what he thinks should be included in the next slate of media modernization items the Commission considers. O’Rielly suggests lifting the freeze on technical upgrades and modifications that was put in place to conserve staff resources devoted to the incentive auction and repack, updating the criteria by which stations are considered to be failing for ownership waiver purposes, allowing waivers for LPFM stations to make in-market moves, updating the rules for VHF channels to move to the UHF band, and updating the rules to make easier certain changes to communities of license of TV stations.  As Commissioner O’Rielly is expected to leave the Commission at year’s end (or sooner if his replacement is confirmed), his time to work on these issues from within the Commission is limited, so his blog post can be seen as a roadmap of media modernization items for the next group of Commissioners to consider.  (Blog Post)
  • We published in our Blog our monthly look at the regulatory dates and deadlines for October. Next up is October 10, which is important for all licensees of full-power stations as it is the deadline for stations to post to their online public files their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists detailing the issues facing their communities and the programming that they broadcast to address those issues during July, August, and September.  (Broadcast Law Blog)

Back in August, we highlighted some of the many issues in computing lowest unit charges (or “lowest unit rates”) for political candidates which are in effect during the window for the November elections that went into effect on September 4.  In this last month before the election, as political advertising ramps up and each party fights over those few undecided viewers, we wanted to bring to your attention a video that I did for the Indiana Broadcasters Association discussing the various issues that arise in determining lowest unit rates.  That video summarizes many of the issues that we wrote about back in August and is available here:

At the end of this article, we provide links to other videos produced by the Indiana Broadcasters discussing other political broadcasting issues, and to other articles that we have written on other political broadcasting issues.

As we wrote back in August, lowest unit charges (or “Lowest Unit Rates”) guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, legally qualified candidates get the lowest rate for a spot that is then running on the station within any class of advertising time running in any particular daypart. Candidates also get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e., the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right. Continue Reading A Video Summary of the Rules on Lowest Unit Rates and Other Political Broadcasting Resources

In many parts of the country, the air is turning crisp, the leaves are changing color, and kids are back in school (in some form), making it the perfect time to get caught up with regulatory dates and deadlines coming in October.  This is an unusual month where there are several routine regulatory deadlines – renewals, EEO filings, Quarterly Issues Programs Lists, and the must-carry/retransmission consent deadline, but no significant broadcast rulemaking comment deadlines, perhaps as we are nearing the end of the current administration which might not be around to finish any proceeding started now.

The routine deadlines include those for radio stations in Iowa and Missouri and TV stations in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who should be putting the finishing touches on their license renewal applications, to be filed on or before October 1, along with the accompanying EEO program report.  Stations should also have their post-filing announcements ready and scheduled to begin airing on October 1.  Those announcements continue through December 16.  Stations are no longer required to air pre-filing announcements.  The schedule for post-filing announcements and sample announcement language is here for radio stations and here for TV stations. Continue Reading October Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: License Renewals, EEO Reports, Carriage Elections, Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists and More