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.

With election results still being tabulated in many states in close political races, we thought that it is worth reminding broadcasters of the advice given by the FCC in 2020, when it issued a public notice stating that Lowest Unit Charges (or lowest unit rates as they are often called) do not apply to post-election

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 issued a Forfeiture Order imposing a penalty of $518,283 against Gray Television, Inc., for violating the FCC’s prohibition

There is but a week to go before the mid-term elections, and political ads blanket the airwaves across the country.  From discussions that I have had with many attorneys, broadcasters and other campaign observers, the ads this year have been particularly aggressive.  Some publications have even suggested that, in the waning days of the campaign, the ads may become even worse as desperate campaigns look for some last-minute claim that could turn the tide in an election.  In this rush to election day, broadcasters need to be on the alert for allegations that an attack ad from a non-candidate group is false or defamatory, because in certain instances, the ad could result in a claim against the broadcaster.

As we have written before, broadcasters (and local cable companies) are forbidden from censoring the message of a candidate (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  Section 315 of the Communications Act forbids a broadcaster or a local cable operator from censoring a candidate ad.  Because broadcasters cannot censor candidate ads, the Supreme Court has ruled that broadcasters are immune from any liability for the content of those ads.  (Note that this protection applies only to broadcasters and local cable companies – the no censorship rule does not apply to online distribution – see our articles here and here – so other considerations need to be considered when dealing with online political ads).  But some have taken that to mean that broadcasters have no fear of liability for any political ad.  As I explained in a recent interview with a Detroit television station, that is not true – broadcasters do theoretically have the potential for liability if they run an ad from a non-candidate group either knowing that ad to be false, or by continuing to run a false ad after being put on notice that the ad was false and ignoring that notice (see also this article about this distinction between candidate and non-candidate ads, and how the media’s coverage of campaigns can overlook these distinctions).  In 2020, President Trump’s campaign brought a lawsuit against a Wisconsin television station alleging that a PAC ad run on the station was false and defamatory (see our articles here and here on that suit).  In this election cycle, there are press reports of a lawsuit by Senate candidate Evan McMullin against a political party’s campaign committee and three local TV station owners for running an ad that had allegedly edited remarks by McMullin to make it seem like he said all Republicans were racist (see articles here and here).  Even Roy Moore, the defeated Senate candidate from several years ago in Alabama, successfully pursued a defamation suit against the sponsor of an ad that Moore claimed falsely accused him of improper conduct (this decision was not against a broadcaster, but instead against the ad’s sponsor, see report here).

Continue Reading With A Week to Go Before the Midterm Elections, Watch for Last Minute Unfounded Attack Ads – The Potential Liability of Stations for False Claims in Ads from PACs, Parties and Other Noncandidate Groups

November lacks the usual set of deadlines for routine FCC filings, but there are nevertheless a number of regulatory dates that warrant attention.  And come the first of December, those regular filing deadlines return to the calendar.

November brings comment deadlines in at least two FCC proceedings relevant to broadcasters.  On November 7, reply comments are due with respect to the FCC’s Order and Sixth Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (on which we previously reported) to delete or revise analog rules for Low Power TV and TV translator stations that the FCC believes no longer have any practical effect or that are otherwise obsolete or irrelevant after the transition of these stations to digital operation.  November 25 is the deadline for reply comments in the FCC’s request for comment on the methodology that it uses to allocate its employees to determine annual regulatory fees (see article here).  Broadcasters have felt that their fees have increased more than their fair share – but other regulated services likely complain about their share of the fees as well.  Because the FCC allocates the fee obligation based on the number of its employees who spend time on regulatory duties regarding a particular regulated industry, this proceeding looking to allocate how employees are allotted is very important.

Another rulemaking proceeding will likely be concluded in November.  The FCC last week announced that the agenda for its November 17 regular monthly open meeting will include consideration of a Report and Order (a draft of which was released last week) that would update the FCC’s rules to identify a new publication for determining a television station’s designated market area (“DMA”) for satellite and cable carriage purposes.  Current FCC rules direct commercial TV stations to use Nielsen’s Annual Station Index and Household Estimates to determine their DMA, and stations rely on these determinations when they seek carriage on cable and satellite systems.  Nielsen, however, has replaced the Annual Station Index and Household Estimates with a monthly Local TV Station Information Report (“Local TV Report”).  The Order, if adopted as drafted, would (i) revise the FCC’s rules to eliminate references to the Annual Station Index and Household Estimates and instead direct broadcasters to the Local TV Report – specifically, the October Local TV Report published two years prior to each triennial carriage election; and (ii) conclude that the Local TV Report should be used to define “local market” in other statutory provisions and rules relating to carriage (e.g., retransmission consent, distant signals, significantly viewed, and field strength contour).  For further background regarding this proceeding, see our article here.
Continue Reading November Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Rulemaking Comments, Political Obligations, Daylight Savings Time and More

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.

  • On October 17, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced the Identifying Propaganda

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.

With regulatory fees due today, September 30, 2022 (extended from September 28 because of the effects of Hurricane Ian and some other technical issues with fee payment by this FCC Public Notice, with the date for waiver requests similarly extended by this Public Notice), it is time to look ahead to October and some of the regulatory dates and deadlines that broadcasters have coming in the month ahead.

October starts with the TV license renewal deadlines for Television, Class A, LPTV, and TV Translator Stations in Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, N. Marianas Islands, Oregon and Washington State.  The deadline for filing is October 3 as the 1st of the month falls on a Saturday, thus extending the deadline to the next business day.  As we have previously advised,  renewal applications must be accompanied by FCC Form 2100, Schedule 396 Broadcast EEO Program Report (except for LPFMs and TV translators).  Stations filing for renewal of their license should make sure that all documents required to be uploaded to the station’s online public file are complete and were uploaded on time.  Note that your Broadcast EEO Program Report must include two years of Annual EEO Public File Reports for FCC review, unless your employment unit employs fewer than five full-time employees.  Be sure to read the instructions for the license renewal application and consult with your advisors if you have questions, especially if you have noticed any discrepancies in your online public file or political file.  Issues with the public file have already led to fines imposed on TV broadcasters during this renewal cycle.
Continue Reading October Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Renewals and EEO Obligations, Quarterly Issues Programs Lists, Rulemaking Comments and More

In a recent state court decision, a King County judge in Washington State concluded that Facebook violated state political disclosure rules by not publicly providing information about the sale of political ads relating to state elections and ballot issues, as required by state law.  While there does not yet appear to be a written decision in the case, according to trade press the judge’s ruling rejected motions by Facebook parent Meta to have the law declared unconstitutional and to have penalties asserted by the State attorney general thrown out (see attorney general’s statement here).  We have written much on this blog about FCC regulations relating to political advertising and have noted how those rules do not apply to online platforms.  This case is but one example of how state laws are filling in some of the gaps in the regulation of political advertising.

As we wrote several years ago, the Federal Election Commission has only general rules requiring that paid online political advertising for federal offices have some identification of the sponsors of the advertising.  The FEC in 2018 started a rulemaking proceeding to determine if the “stand by your ad” certifications required in most federal broadcast and cable candidate advertising (the requirement which obligates the federal candidate to say “I’m X and I approved this message”) should carry over into the online world.  That proceeding has never been resolved – likely held up both because of the difficulty of resolving sensitive political issues at the FEC, and because of the inherent difficulty of adopting one-size-fits-all disclosure obligations for online media, where ads can range from TV-style videos to short tweets and textual messages to images displayed in virtual reality worlds.  Carrying over broadcast-style regulation to these diverse platforms is a tricky fit.
Continue Reading As More Political Advertising Moves Online, State Laws Provide the Regulatory Framework for Disclosures and Recordkeeping

We kicked off our summary of last week’s regulatory actions for broadcasters with the news of several millions of dollars in fines imposed on over 100 television stations for apparent “program-length commercials” in children’s programming.  Last week’s Notice of Apparent Liability, a unanimous decision by all four FCC Commissioners, stemmed from a Hot Wheels Super Ultimate Garage ad that was aired a total of 11 times during a Team Hot Wheels TV program which ran 8 times during November and December of 2018.  The same programming was provided by Sinclair Broadcast Group to both commonly owned stations and stations owned by other companies.  Two years ago, the same program was the subject of a $20,000 fine on a station in Baltimore, apparently when the issue was first discovered and reported to the FCC (see our article about that fine here).  Given the number of stations on which the proposed fines were imposed last week, and the number of issues discussed in the Notice, we thought that we should give the Notice a more extensive look.

First, it is worth discussing the FCC’s concerns with what they term “program-length commercials.”  The Commission has, for almost 30 years, had a policy against “program-length commercials” – programs that feature characters who are also featured in a commercial that runs during the program.  The FCC has been concerned that children may not perceive the difference between a program and a commercial that runs in that program if both feature the same characters.  The entire program can be perceived as a commercial for the product.  If the whole program is perceived as promoting the product, then the program would exceed the commercial limits in children’s programming as set by Congress and incorporated in Section 73.670 of the rules – 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.
Continue Reading A Closer Look at Multi-Million Dollar Proposed Fines for Program-Length Commercials in Children’s Television