With many Americans using the holiday season to rest and recharge, broadcasters should do the same but not forget that January is a busy month for complying with several important regulatory deadlines for broadcast stations. These include dates that regularly occur for broadcasters, as well as some unique to this month. In fact, with the start of the lowest unit rate windows for primaries and caucuses in many states, January is a very busy regulatory month. So don’t head off to Grandma’s house without making sure that you have all of your regulatory obligations under control.
One date applicable to all full-power stations is the requirement that, by Friday, January 10, 2020, all commercial and noncommercial radio and television stations must upload to their online public file their quarterly issues/programs list for the period covering October 1 – December 31, 2019. The issues/programs list demonstrates the station’s “most significant treatment of community issues” during the three-month period covered by each quarterly report. We wrote about the importance of these reports many times (see, for instance, our posts here and here). With all public files now online, FCC staff, viewers or listeners, or anyone with an internet connection can easily look at your public file, see when you uploaded your Quarterly Report, and review the contents of it. In the current renewal cycle, the FCC has issued two fines of $15,000 each to stations that did not bother with the preparation of these lists (see our posts here and here on those fines). In past years, the FCC has shown a willingness to fine stations or hold up their license renewals or both (see here and here) over public file issues where there was some but not complete compliance with the obligations to retain these issues/programs lists for the entire renewal term. For a short video on the basics of the quarterly issues/programs list and the online public inspection file, see here.
On January 1, 2020 and January 16, 2020, radio stations in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi must air pre-filing announcements tied to their license renewal filing date of February 3, 2020. Radio stations in Alabama and Georgia must air post-filing announcements about their license renewals that were due by December 2, 2019. Stations are required to air pre-filing announcements in the two months prior to the month in which their license renewal application is due, and to air post-filing announcements in the three months after their renewal application is due.
One of the biggest changes of the last year to the broadcast regulatory landscape is the modification of the programming and reporting requirements for children’s television programming. Stations are no longer required to submit quarterly reports documenting their compliance with the children’s TV rules. Instead, reporting will now be done annually, and stations must file their first annual report—FCC Form 2100, Schedule H—electronically through LMS by Thursday, January 30, 2020. For a deeper look at how to comply with the new programming and reporting changes, see our posts here, here, here, and here. We are still waiting for further guidance from the FCC about the quarterly certifications regarding compliance with commercial limits and websites during children’s programming. Unless the FCC staff issues guidance to the contrary, stations should probably plan on uploading those certifications by January 10, 2020.
By Friday, January 31, 2020, commercial and noncommercial stations must complete and submit through LMS their Biennial Ownership Report (Form 323 for commercial stations; Form 323-E for noncommercial stations). The reports were originally due by December 1, 2019, but the FCC extended the deadline to the end of January to update LMS. The information in the report needs to reflect the licensee’s ownership as of October 1, 2019. Don’t wait until the last minute to file these reports, as there can be technical slowdowns in the LMS system when there are major filing dates. The January 31 deadline is already an extended one and unlikely to be further extended, so make sure that you meet the FCC’s deadline.
The repacking of the broadcast TV band, made necessary by the FCC’s broadcast incentive auction, continues across the country. Stations assigned to Phase 7 must complete the transition to their new channels by January 17, 2020. One day later, on January 18, 2020, stations assigned to Phase 8 of the repack may begin testing and operating on their new channels.
As we wrote earlier this week, Presidential primaries and caucuses are right around the corner, including the election-heavy day in March often dubbed Super Tuesday. This means stations in more than two dozen states will soon find themselves within the 45-day primary/caucus political window, which brings with it special obligations like lowest unit rates for candidates. With lowest unit charge windows opening on December 20, 2019 (Iowa), December 28, 2019 (New Hampshire), January 8, 2020 (Nevada), January 15, 2020 (South Carolina), January 18, 2020 (Alabama, American Samoa, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia), January 23, 2020 (Puerto Rico), January 25, 2020 (Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington State), January 27, 2020 (U.S. Virgin Islands and West Virginia), and January 29, 2020 (Guam, N. Mariana Islands and Wyoming), stations should plan ahead to be sure station employees understand the requirements that go along with political advertising, including lowest unit charge and the expanded public file disclosure obligations issued by the FCC in mid-October. For more guidance on navigating election season, see our Political Broadcasting Guide for Broadcasters.
Speaking of the expanded public file disclosures, earlier this month, we wrote about the FCC seeking comment on a petition for reconsideration of those new requirements filed by the National Association of Broadcasters and a group of TV station owners. The petition asks the FCC to reconsider imposing the political issue ad disclosure rules that it clarified following complaints against 11 TV stations by two public interest groups. The clarified rules require broadcasters who accept ads on federal issues of national importance to disclose in their public file each and every federal issue and federal candidate mentioned in the ad, many times requiring the identification of multiple candidates and issues for each ad. Additionally, broadcasters must now specifically reach out to the organization sponsoring an issue ad or the agency who placed the ad for the names of any additional officers or directors, if the organization only submitted one name as constituting the entire board in its initial disclosure. Comments in this proceeding are due by Monday, December 30, 2019, with the FCC just yesterday issuing an order extending the reply comments deadline to January 28, 2020.
Those looking to file for one of the 130 new FM channels due to be auctioned off by the FCC in April 2020 can begin to file the “short-form” applications needed to participate in the auction in the window opening on January 29 and closing at 6 PM Eastern Time on February 11. We wrote about the upcoming auction here and here. The FCC will impose a filing freeze on all FM minor changes during this short-form window, so plan accordingly if you need to file a minor change application in the near future.
Commercial and noncommercial (note that special rules apply to public radio) stations that stream music programming must pay the minimum fee to SoundExchange by Friday, January 31, 2020. For commercial stations, the minimum fee is $500 per station/channel, not to exceed $50,000. For noncommercial stations, the minimum fee is $500 per station/channel, which covers the first 159,140 aggregate tuning hours per month. For more information on the minimum fee, including how to pay it, and other 2020 rate information, visit the SoundExchange website here.
Looking ahead on the calendar to early February, we mentioned above the February 3 license renewal filing deadline for radio stations (including LPFMs) in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Station employment units (a station employment unit is a station or group of commonly owned stations in the same market that share at least one employee) with five or more full-time employees in several states have EEO reports due Saturday, February 1, 2020. Stations must place their EEO report in their public file on the anniversary of their license renewal filing deadline. So stations in Kansas, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma must have the reports in their files by Saturday, February 1, 2020.
As always, we have just highlighted some of the upcoming regulatory deadlines for January. Check with your own station’s counsel for more information about deadlines that may apply to your operation.