In at least 7 decisions released last week, the FCC fined TV stations between $3000 and $18,000 for failure to timely file Form 398 Children’s Television Reports – reporting on the programming broadcast by the stations to address the educational and informational needs of children. In these cases, the fines were not for failing to file the reports at all, but instead for the failure to timely file the reports. All but one of the cases involved Class A television stations, which, as we’ve written before, are being subject to very strict scrutiny as the FCC looks to find some willing to give up their protected status before the upcoming incentive auctions (Class A stations being protected from being bumped off the air by new users – but subject to all the rules applicable to full power stations). In each of the cases involving Class A stations, the FCC has offered to forget the fines for noncompliance, if the station gives up its Class A status and becomes an LPTV station, which has no protections. If the station gives up its protected status, it will have no rights to receive compensation if it gives up its channel in the incentive auction, or if it is forced to change channels in the repacking of TV channels after that auction.
These cases all stem from the FCC review of the license renewal of the station. With the obligation to file a Form 398 only two weeks away – the quarterly report being due on July 10 – TV stations, especially stations that have not yet filed their renewals, need to pay attention now to make sure that they don’t miss the upcoming deadline. With public files now online, the FCC late-filing becomes more visible, and with the television renewal cycle in full swing, many TV stations are either now or soon to be under the scrutiny of the FCC. So meeting these obligations becomes important – as the failures can be costly. And, as set forth below, any time that there are multiple late filings – late by more than 10 days (which the FCC note that it might excuse as de minimis) – a fine is likely.
How much were the fines? For a station that missed the filing deadline 23 times, the FCC proposed a fine of $18,000. The smallest of the fines was $3000 for a station that missed 11 timely filings. In between, there were fines of $9000 for a station that was late on 14 of its 17 filings (some as little as a week late, one as long as a year late), $6000 for 3 late filings of its Form 398 (more than 30 days late, and apparently a few others that were less than 10 days late) plus three late-filings in its public file of certifications as to compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television programming, $9000 for 10 violations (all but 2 of which were over 30 days late), $15,000 for a licensee who missed 11 deadlines on one station and 13 on another (fining the first station $6000 and the second $9000), and, finally, $6000 for a full power station that had filed 16 late reports.
Up to this point, public file violations have been the big source of fines at license renewal time – especially dealing with Quarterly Issues Programs lists for radio stations. With these decisions, it looks like Children’s Television issues may well be added to list of common errors at renewal time. Costly mistakes – so stations need to pay attention to the upcoming deadlines.