The Commission today released yet another forfeiture for what has become an increasingly common oversight among broadcasters — the failure to timely file a license renewal application for a satellite earth station. What made today’s forfeiture unique, however, is the fact that the Commission proposed to double the amount of the forfeiture based on the size of the broadcast licensee and its presumed ability to pay such a fine. After balancing all the factors, the Commission ultimately ratcheted the fine down a bit, but in the end it assessed a $25,000 fine for the failure to timely file license renewal applications for two earth stations and for the continued operation of those facilities without proper authority. In light of today’s decision, broadcasters should be sure to review and track the expiration dates for all FCC authorizations.
The FCC’s decision in this case makes clear that in imposing a large fine in this case it is attempting to send a message that the Licensee will heed. Per the Commission’s decision: "This $16,000 forfeiture amount [the baseline forfeiture] is subject to adjustment, however. In this regard, we consider the size of the violator and ability to pay a forfeiture, as well as its prior violation of the same rule sections before us today. To ensure that forfeiture liability is a deterrent, and not simply a cost of doing business, the Commission has determined that large or highly profitable companies such as [Licensee] , could expect the assessment of higher forfeitures for violations, and that prior violations of the same or other regulations would also be a factor contributing to upward adjustment of apparent liability. Given [Licensee’s] size and its ability to pay a forfeiture, coupled with its previous violation, we conclude that an upward adjustment of the base forfeiture amount to $32,000 is appropriate." [Emphasis added.] In reaching its decision, the Commission noted that the Licensee in this case was a large broadcaster with "net yearly sales" of over $110 million.
This forfeiture should serve as a clear warning to broadcasters both big and small to review and track the expiration dates of any earth stations or other authorizations held by a broadcast station. Rarely (if ever) will the license term of an earth station authorization coincide with the renewal of the parent broadcast station, which means it is easy for the earth station to slip through the cracks.
The second lesson from today’s decision is that the bigger you are, the harder you might fall. So larger broadcasters in particular are on notice that the FCC might increase a proposed fine to make sure that it gets your attention. And as we all know, larger does not necessarily mean more profitable. So just because a broadcaster is large, doesn’t mean that it is any better positioned to absorb a large fine than a small broadcaster is to absorb a small fine. The adage about an ounce of prevention applies equally to both big and small.
That said, however, given the large number of licensees that seem to have missed the licensee renewal deadlines for earth stations in recent years, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the Commission to review its procedures for notifying licensees of the impending expiration of an earth station license. The length of earth station license terms, combined with the fact that the license terms are not in sync with the broadcast station renewal cycle has clearly resulted in numerous situations where licensees have missed the license renewal deadlines for their earth stations in recent years. While the Commission is obviously correct that it is incumbent upon licensees to be aware of the terms and expiration of their own licenses, ten years is a long license term, and, simply imposing larger and larger fines for an oversight that many broadcasters have tripped over may not be the solution. Perhaps better communication through renewal reminders, public notices, and the like could help licensees to avoid the problem entirely, which would ultimately save Commission resources and achieve the desired goal of ensuring that facilities are properly authorized.