Yesterday, the FCC released two public notices reflecting its attempts to assist broadcasters coping with the COVID-19 crisis. The first public notice deals with the attempts of several broadcasters to support their advertisers while at the same time filling advertising inventory holes that have been created by the cancellation of other advertising schedules. Broadcasters who we represented requested that they be permitted to schedule no-charge advertising for some of their clients where those spots were not part of negotiated advertising packages, without those spots affecting lowest unit charges in the political windows (likely to be opening in many states in the coming weeks). The FCC agreed that free spots provided to merchants that are not part of an existing commercial contract or otherwise are not provided as a bonus tied to any contract would not affect lowest unit rates. This is a limited ruling for broadcasters to use to build up good will with advertisers, and to provide them with assistance in this time of crisis. It is a limited, nuanced ruling that you should discuss with your counsel – but it does provide broadcasters with the opportunity to be creative in helping support their advertisers in this most unusual time.
In addition to the lowest unit rate issue, the FCC issued another public notice about TV Local Marketing Agreements and similar agreements. In TV (as in radio), if one broadcaster programs more than 15% of the programming time of another station in their market, the station to which they provide programming becomes “attributable” for multiple ownership purposes, i.e., it counts in determining compliance with the ownership rules. In markets where one owner cannot own an additional station, news-sharing agreements where one station provides news to another are permissible, as long as those agreements do not constitute more than 15% of the programming time of the second station. The notice released yesterday indicated that, if the brokering station wants to expand news coverage on the brokered station during this crisis time, the FCC will be liberal in granting waivers to permit the agreement to exceed 15% of the airtime of the brokered station – though prior FCC approval is required. The waiver will be limited to the period of time that the COVID-19 outbreak remains a national emergency. The public notice provides email addresses to which such requests should be sent. These two decisions provide more evidence of the welcome flexibility and relief that the FCC is providing broadcasters in helping to deal with this current crisis.