Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.

The FCC will also have to complete the digital transition of TV translators and LPTV stations, which are not bound by the February 2009 conversion deadline. The FCC will need to set a digital conversion deadline – a conversion that many translator and low power licensees are not looking forward to paying for, but which may be necessary to preserve their over-the-air viewership as the analog tuner becomes an historical relic.


Radio, too, has its own technical issues to deal with. The Commission will be faced with resolving proposals for increased power for HD Radio operations (In-Band On Channel or IBOC digital radio), which some broadcasters have opposed as holding the potential for adjacent channel interference. The Commission will also be faced with resolving proposals for making the measurement of AM antenna patterns easier but, on a most fundamental level, it has also been asked to recapture some of the television spectrum, including Channel 6 and possibly Channel 5, and to use that spectrum for new radio stations. While some worry about the increased competition that new radio channels could bring, others see the expanded FM band as a way to eliminate congestion on the current band – giving LPFM stations places to operate without restricting FM upgrades or endangering FM translators – and others have even suggested that some or all AM stations could be moved onto these channels. This is likely to be a long-term project, but one that may get serious consideration this year.


Programming, too, may come in for more review this year. The Commission’s rules, adopted a full year ago, requiring TV stations to document in minute detail their public interest programming on Form 355, has never been implemented, as the form has never been approved by the Office of Management and Budget as being in compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act. As this form required so much new information, for no appreciable purpose, it seems unlikely that it could survive such a review. Thus, the Form may be revised before being implemented, or it may wait for new FCC programming rules to be adopted as part of the FCC’s localism proceeding, mandating some form of public interest programming, which could then be used to justify the collection of some data requested by the questions on Form 355.


Other aspects of the localism proceeding seem likely to be resolved in 2009. The proposal for a fully manned main studio during all hours of operation, located in the station’s city of license, seems to be less likely to be adopted as regulators realize the costs that such a requirement would impose. Yet requirements for some form of mandatory ascertainment of community needs, plus some enhanced disclosure of public interest programming, seem more likely. Some of the proposals rumored to be on the table include requiring that broadcasters be judged by whether they perform certain tasks set out on a menu of options by which they would demonstrate their service of the public interest. One would hope that any set of menu options would be broad enough to recognize all the diverse ways that broadcasters serve their communities, and not so restrictive as to make every station meet the public interest in the same cookie-cutter way, and thus eliminating diversity in approaches that has allowed the broadcast industry to flourish.


The return of the Fairness Doctrine, which many conservative pundits have predicted, is unlikely because of the constitutional and practical problems of implementation. Yet some fear that  mandated political coverage and issue-responsive programming, which is more likely,  may effectively take the place of the Doctrine. Restrictions on violent programming could also be at the top of the Congressional agenda, as Senator Rockefeller, the new head of the Senate Commerce Committee, has supported such regulation in the past. . 


In the advertising world, the FCC will be resolving its embedded advertising and product placement proceeding, where some “public interest” groups have advocated a total ban on such advertising, while others have suggested immediate sponsorship identification, through a crawl or superimposed caption, of any product for which consideration has been paid for its inclusion. The related issue of video news releases – whether stations have to identify on-air anything given them at no charge (e.g. a script, video footage, etc.) before its inclusion into a news report – will also likely be resolved. Some have also suggested that the Commission may be planning some adjustments to its payola rules, though what those changes would be, and how they would improve on the current rules, is hard to fathom.


There is also real concern that the Congressional committees which oversee the FCC may well push proposals for limits on prescription drug advertising. The new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Henry Waxman, has favored a moratorium on such advertising while the industry works out rules that restrict various perceived abuses. If industry voluntary agreements don’t satisfy Congress, new restrictions on advertising directed to children are also possible, especially in connection with ads for food considered unhealthy (however that may be defined).


Copyright issues could also impact the broadcast industry this year – perhaps in ways more fundamental than any of those other issues listed above. For radio, we may see the webcasting royalties issue be resolved one way or the other. Congress has given webcasters and the recording industry until February 15 to settle the webcasting royalty issues and, if that doesn’t result in a resolution of the issue, the pending appeals will be argued this year and perhaps resolved by the end of the year. 


2009 will also bring about a renewed attempt by the recording industry to impose a performance royalty on broadcasters for their over-the-air signals, the “performance tax” as it has been labeled by the NAB. That performance royalty would require broadcasters to pay the recording industry and recording artists royalties for the use of music over the air – in addition to the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties that are already paid to the composers. The recording industry was able to get that proposal through the House Judiciary Committee last year, and will make a renewed attempt to have it adopted by Congress. If such an attempt is successful, this could potentially result in the transfer of billions of dollars from broadcasting to the recording industry.


TV has its own copyright issues, as the law permitting Dish and DirecTV to import local broadcast stations into local markets must be renewed, and some have suggested that this might be the time to reexamine the must-carry and retransmission consent process for both cable and satellite. While nothing firm is on the table, this issue could arise just as retransmission consent fees are beginning to offer television broadcasters a meaningful new revenue stream.


All of these issues seem like plenty – but we haven’t even discussed the resolution of the indecency cases currently pending before the Supreme Court that should come this year.  The Commission ended 2008 with several large EEO fines, and this year may bring the resolution of long-pending petitions for reconsideration of the current EEO rules, as well as resolution of whether the Form 395 Annual Employment Report  will make its reappearance and whether the information on the form should be available to the public to judge the EEO performance of broadcasters or should the information be used simply for industry profiling.  Commissioner Adelstein suggested that the information should be public in his concurring opinion on these recent fines.  The FCC’s change in its multiple ownership rules to allow some broadcast-newspaper combinations is still on appeal as it becomes increasingly irrelevant (as newspaper companies don’t have the money to buy broadcast station, and broadcasters probably don’t want to buy newspapers), and other issues as to the local radio ownership rules and the attribution of TV JSAs are still pending and may be resolved one day – perhaps this year.  Even political rules may be revisited in 2009 – as the Commission has never issued rules implementing the BCRA requirements, and it also has a long-pending proceeding to determine how to assess spots sold by on-line auctions for lowest unit rate purposes. 


With these (and other) possible changes in the regulatory landscape, one can only hope that the government regulates with a light touch. While the Democrats who have been on the FCC during the Bush years have advocated tough, detailed regulatory mandates, the Obama administration has offered the hope of a less doctrinaire, more inclusive regulatory process. Given the economic outlook for the coming year, and the costs and likely disruptions of the digital transition, an administration that promises hope should deliver some to broadcasters simply by taking a break from excessive regulation to give everyone a chance to adjust to the new realities of 2009. But stayed tuned to these pages to see what develops in this new year.