As Washington reacts to the coronavirus, there are certainly regulatory implications to broadcasters and other media companies. The FCC Thursday announced that its headquarters is closed to visitors and that its employees should begin to telework. Many FCC employees regularly took advantage of telework options before the current situation, so it can be expected that many routine application processing activities (particularly those involving electronically filed applications) should be able to proceed with relatively minimal delays. What remains to be seen is the ability of the FCC to handle more complex matters that often involve meetings with stakeholders and among FCC staff before decisions are made. While these too can be handled electronically and telephonically, the speed of FCC actions may well be slower than normal as technological issues are worked out and as the FCC may be called on to address telecommunications matters related to combatting the virus.
The FCC’s Audio Division, on Friday, released a Public Notice describing some special processes it will use in light of the teleworking policy. First, college and university stations can rely on the FCC rules that exempt these stations from the FCC’s minimum operating schedule during recess periods without the need for a special temporary authority. The current college shutdowns will be treated as recess periods.
The Public Notice also provides contact information for FCC staff members to handle applications that cannot be filed through the FCC’s online filing systems. These applications include tolling requests on construction permits, AM license applications, extension of time requests to respond to pleadings in both rulemaking and application proceedings, and certain STA requests. Consult the Public Notice for details on who to electronically mail copies of these requests so that they can be processed.
Also affecting media companies are actions at other government agencies. The Library of Congress, which houses the Copyright Office and Copyright Royalty Board, has also closed to visitors. The trial on webcasting royalty payments for 2021-2025 was scheduled to begin on Monday, March 16 and to run through much of April. That trial has now been postponed for six weeks, with the parties scheduled to have routine status calls to discuss how matters may change in the future. Broadcasters, streaming companies, and SoundExchange are all part of the proceeding to set the rates that are scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2021.
Other government agencies that deal with media issues are taking similar actions. Congress itself has closed to non-employees. Congress appears to be focusing on little but a package of measures to deal with the virus and may adjourn for an indeterminate time once that is resolved. Even if reconvened, Congress may well be focused on the virus and its impact, so any legislative issues related to media will likely be on hold. The Federal Trade Commission has not yet issued a press release stating that it is closed to visitors, but reportedly employees are allowed to liberally telework. The FTC has also cancelled certain large meetings this week, and it provided for electronic filing of HSR notifications required before large mergers can occur – filings before now done on paper. FTC headlines note many actions against fraudulent or unproven advertising claims about cures for the virus, so it would seem that issue is high on its list of priorities. The Department of Justice’s website is thus far silent as to actions that it is taking with respect to the virus.
It appears that the government will be taking efforts to continue to carry out as much routine work as possible while dealing with the effects of the virus. Certainly, these efforts may test communications systems. While many federal employees already telework at times, having much of the federal workforce using these systems has rarely if ever been tried for prolonged periods. For weather events, when the headquarters buildings are closed for such events, the FCC and some other agencies consider the day a holiday for purposes of filing deadlines and agency actions. It appears that is not the plan in this case, but final action on how FCC rules will be enforced in the current environment is unknown – but you can be sure that more guidance will be issued in the coming days. We’ll be watching what occurs, as should all media companies wondering about their regulatory obligations.