Here are some of the regulatory developments of significance to broadcasters from the past week, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC’s Media Bureau designated for evidentiary hearing a series of applications that, if granted, would transfer control of TEGNA Inc. to SGCI Holdings III LLC.  TEGNA is the parent company of the licensees of 64 full-power television stations, two full-power radio stations, and other related Commission licenses.  In its Hearing Designation Order, the Bureau directs an FCC Administrative Law Judge to resolve questions regarding (i) whether the transactions are likely to trigger a cable or satellite rate increase harmful to consumers because of increases in retransmission consent fees, and (ii) whether the transactions will reduce or impair localism, including whether they will result in fewer employees and less local content at the stations.  In a news release, FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel stated that “[t]he additional review will allow us to make a more informed assessment on whether proposed safeguards [related to the transactions] are sufficient to protect the public interest, and we will take the time needed to address these critical questions.”  From the Republican side, Commissioners Carr and Simington issued a joint statement that was less enthusiastic: “[T]he FCC should be working to encourage more of the investment necessary for . . . local broadcasters to innovate and thrive. . .  After a protracted, nearly yearlong review, the Commission should be providing the parties with a decision on the merits—not an uncertain future.”
  • The FCC released a draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) that, if adopted as scheduled at the FCC’s March 16 open meeting, would formally propose to extend the FCC’s existing audio description requirements for broadcast television to DMAs below the top 100 (i.e., DMAs 101-210).  Audio description makes video programming more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired by inserting, using a secondary audio stream, narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements during natural pauses in the program’s dialogue. Audio description is already required in DMAs 1 through 90, and these requirements will go into effect in DMAs 91 through 100 on January 1, 2024.  In these markets, “Big Four” stations (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) are required to provide 50 hours of audio description per calendar quarter, either during prime time or in children’s programming, and 37.5 additional hours of audio description per calendar quarter between 6 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. local time.  The FCC proposes to extend these requirements to DMAs 101-210 by phasing in 10 DMAs per year starting on January 1, 2025, meaning that the bottom 10 DMAs would not be phased in until January 1, 2035.  The draft FNPRM asks for comment on, among other things, the cost implications of imposing audio description requirements on stations in DMAs below the top 100; the appropriate compliance deadlines for those stations; how the FCC’s proposals may affect advances in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; and the FCC’s legal authority to extend the audio description rules as proposed.  If adopted, comments and reply comments on the FNPRM will be due 30 days and 45 days, respectively, after its publication in the Federal Register.
  • The FCC recently released a new 2023 version of the EAS Operating Handbook.  A copy of the Handbook must be located at normal duty positions of station operators or at the location of EAS equipment where it can be immediately available to staff responsible for authenticating messages and initiating actions. The handbook provides duty operators information about what to do when EAS alerts (tests or real activations of the system) are received by the station.  The new handbook updates the old handbook in a limited fashion, but it also provides stations an opportunity to update their own practices as the Handbook requires that the broadcaster provide information in spaces provided as to the broadcaster’s specific equipment and procedures at their stations.  Stations should download this Handbook and make sure that it is available as required.
    • Stations are reminded that the deadline for filing EAS Test Reporting System (ETRS) Form One is February 28, 2023.  Filing instructions are provided in the Public Notice issued by the FCC earlier this year.  All EAS Participants – including Low Power FM stations (LPFM), Class D non-commercial educational FM stations, and EAS Participants that are silent pursuant to a grant of Special Temporary Authority – are required to register and file in ETRS, with limited exceptions.  See our recent Broadcast Law Blog article for more information. 
  • The Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a noncommercial low power FM (LPFM) station to resolve the licensee’s admitted failure to comply with Section 73.850(d) of the FCC’s rules, which requires a station to notify the FCC within ten days that it has gone silent and request special temporary authority (STA) to remain silent for more than 30 days.  The licensee admitted that the station had discontinued operations for 61 days (from May 26, 2021, to July 25, 2021), that it failed to comply with the 10-day notice rule, and that it failed to request an STA after 30 days of silence.  The licensee also inaccurately certified in its renewal application that it had complied with Section 73.850(d), thus violating the FCC’s rule prohibiting inaccurate certifications.  The Bureau directed the licensee to pay a civil penalty of $500 to the U.S. Treasury and to adopt a compliance plan to ensure future compliance with the rules that it violated.  The Bureau also rejected a third-party objector’s claims relating to the station’s ownership, the station’s alleged unauthorized operation as a translator for another LPFM station, the station’s alleged airing of commercial advertising, and the station’s alleged failure to air local programming, finding that the objection did not provide specific allegations sufficient to support the claims made.
  • The Bureau proposed to assess a fine of $13,500 against the licensee of nine digital television translator applications (i.e., $1,500 per station) because the licensee had without explanation filed the renewal applications for the stations over two months late.  The Bureau noted that the base fine under the FCC’s rules for this type of violation is $3,000, but that it was reducing it to $1,500 because the stations provide a secondary service and were providing important “fill-in” service to areas that otherwise may be unable to receive over-the-air television signals.
  • The Bureau continues to substitute UHF channels for VHF channels in local markets to improve reception of over-the-air television channels, the most recent example being its substitution of channel 27 for channel 11 at Yuma, Arizona.