While we are approaching the end of summer in this most unusual year, the regulatory dates keep coming, though perhaps a bit slower than at other times of the year. One of the big dates that broadcasters should be looking for is the announcement of the Annual Regulatory Fees that will likely be paid sometime in September. This year, there has been much controversy over those fees, with the FCC proposing that broadcasters’ fees should go up even though the FCC’s budget is flat, while the NAB has argued that they should remain flat or decrease. And many broadcast groups have argued for liberal waivers of the fee requirement in this year of the pandemic when so many stations were hit so hard by the economic downturn. Watch for this decision – likely toward the end of the month.
The license renewal cycle continues in August for both radio and TV. Full-power TV, Class A TV, TV translator and LPTV stations in North Carolina and South Carolina and full-power AM, FM, FM translator, and LPFM radio stations in Illinois and Wisconsin should be putting the finishing touches on their license renewal applications—due to be filed on or before August 3 (the deadline being the 3rd as the 1st of the month is a Saturday). While stations are no longer required to air pre-filing announcements, the requirement to air post-filing announcements remains. Those announcements must begin airing on August 1 and continue through October. See our article about how to prepare for license renewal here.
If they are part of a station employment unit (commonly owned stations serving the same area) with 5 or more full-time employees, commercial and noncommercial full-power TV, Class A TV, LPTV, full-power AM and FM whose license renewal filing date is August 1 in any year are required to upload to their FCC-hosted online public file their Annual EEO Public File Report. This report is to be uploaded on or before August 1 (no carry-over to August 3 as this report is not actually “filed” with the FCC). This report details the station employment unit’s hiring outreach in the preceding year, as well as its supplemental, non-vacancy specific efforts to educate the community about broadcast employment opportunities and to train their staff to assume greater employment responsibilities. Stations with August 3 renewal deadline dates this year (that is, TV stations in North Carolina and South Carolina and full-power radio stations in Illinois, and Wisconsin) must also file a Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Program Report (FCC Form 396) even if they have fewer than 5 full-time employees. The license renewal application requires the Form 396 file number, so that form must be filed before finalizing the renewal application. If you’re looking for a refresher on EEO compliance, see the slides from a presentation we did on the topic here.
The FCC will hold its next Open Meeting on August 6. The FCC included two media modernization items on the August agenda that are relevant to broadcast operations. If adopted, the first item would eliminate the radio duplication rule for AM service. Currently, the rule prohibits two commonly-owned (or operated through a Time Brokerage Agreement) radio stations operating in the same service (AM or FM) where 50% of either station’s city-grade contour overlaps the other commonly-controlled station’s contour from duplicating more than 25% of their weekly programming. Eliminating the rule would permit two overlapping AM stations to duplicate up to 100% of their weekly programming. The FCC saw AM duplication as a possible way to preserve economically challenged AM stations, while also allowing AMs that may be allowed to convert to full-time digital operations (if the FCC allows such conversions) to continue to serve audiences that have not yet bought digital receivers. The draft FCC decision would not eliminate the rule for FM service, on the theory that FM does not face the same economic problems as AM, while noting that FM stations that need additional flexibility can apply for a waiver. We wrote in more detail here about what elimination of the rule means for AM broadcasters.
The second media modernization item to be considered would eliminate a seldom-used rule that forced TV and FM licensees to share a unique tower sites with other licensees, if no other comparable site was available in the area. This rule was adopted to prevent a licensee from restricting competition by not allowing other licensees to use a unique tower site. As a party seeking to invoke the rule needed to show that a site was unique, and as the rule could only be invoked to deny the license renewal of the licensee of a station controlling a unique site and blocking its competitive use, the FCC has never found that a licensee violated its provisions. The FCC also points to the increase in the number of antenna sites as a reason for getting rid of the rule. See our brief writeup of this item here.
Comments are due by August 17 and reply comments by August 31 in the Broadcast Internet (ATSC 3.0 datacasting) proceeding. This rulemaking seeks comment on industry’s ideas for Commission’s rule changes needed to speed deployment and adoption of the datacasting capabilities of this NextGen Television transmission standard. See our articles about the declaratory ruling and the rulemaking here and here.
Without another extension past August 31, the sponsorship identification waiver issued by the Media Bureau in April and extended in June will expire. The waiver allowed stations to air PSAs related to the pandemic, using time donated by commercial entities to organizations involved in the pandemic relief effort, without identifying the commercial entities paying for the time. Such sponsorship identification would otherwise be required by the rules as the commercial sponsors paid for the time. As there was fear that some of the commercial sponsors would not want their products associated with the pandemic, the FCC waived the sponsorship identification rules in this limited circumstance. We wrote about the waiver here and here.
Consult your own attorneys and advisors to determine what other important dates may apply to your stations. And stay tuned to our blog for updates and commentary on regulatory developments throughout the month.