Almost every broadcaster and other media company uses digital and social media to reach their audiences with content and information that can be presented in ways different than those provided by their traditional platforms.  Whether it is simply maintaining a website or streaming audio or video or maintaining a social media presence to reach and

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.
Continue Reading August 2020 Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters:  TV and Radio License Renewals, EEO Reporting, FCC Open Meeting, Broadcast Internet Comments and More

The FCC this week announced consent decrees with six large radio groups over problems with the political files maintained by these groups.  The consent decrees included very specific compliance plans for each company to ensure that it met all FCC political file obligations in the future.  And it suggested that the penalties were mitigated by the current economic conditions caused by the pandemic – but emphasized the importance to the FCC of the political file obligations and suggested that industry associations take steps to educate all broadcasters about their public file obligations when they run political advertising.  Based on these decisions, we thought that we would republish an updated version of an article that we ran two years ago about those political file obligations so that broadcasters can review their own files to ensure that they have in their files the documents that the FCC wants to see.

Our article from two years ago looked at the political file obligations not too long after the FCC required that all of these documents be made available online, as part of the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the globe has made the required documents much more visible than when they could be reviewed only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. Not only can these documents be reviewed by the FCC in Washington, DC, but they can be reviewed by candidates, their agencies, and political ad buyers across the country.  In fact, we understand that some political ad buyers have online “bots” that scan these files routinely to keep track of political ad buying across the country.  Plus, with the license renewal cycle ongoing, the FCC reviews the political file as part of their review of a commercial station’s license renewal application (where licensees need to certify as to whether they have kept their public files complete in a timely fashion).
Continue Reading FCC Enters Consent Decrees with Six Big Radio Groups – Looking at What the FCC’s Political File Rules Require

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

  • The FCC released a Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration regarding Next Gen TV (ATSC 3.0). The Report and Order provides guidance on how the Commission will evaluate petitions for waiver of the local simulcasting rules for broadcasters deploying ATSC 3.0 who cannot find a partner station to broadcast its signal in the current transmission standard, declines to allow broadcasters to use vacant in-band channels for voluntary ATSC 3.0 deployment, and clarifies that the “significantly viewed” status of an ATSC 3.0 station will not change when that station moves its ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel to a host facility.  The Order on Reconsideration denied petitions challenging aspects of the Commission’s 2017 Next Gen TV order, including issues dealing with the local simulcast requirement, the application of retransmission consent rules, patent licensing issues, and sunset of the obligation to use the current transmission standard for ATSC 3.0 (that sunset allowing the new transmission mode to evolve over time without the need for FCC action).  (Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration)
  • The Commission granted a waiver to a Jacksonville, Florida TV station, allowing it to complete its post-incentive auction move to a new channel by September 8, beyond the current July 3 end of Phase 10 of the repacking of the television band when all TV stations were to have moved to their post-transition facilities. Because of issues related to COVID-19 and other technical matters, the Commission granted this extension and authorized its Media Bureau to grant similar relief to other stations suffering from similar delays (Order)
  • Two members of Congress wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging the Commission to “halt any increases to annual regulatory fees due in 2020 for broadcast licensees.” Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) and Chris Stewart (R-UT) wrote in their letter that this action requires no congressional action and would help alleviate some of the economic hardship suffered by stations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Members noted that broadcasters are a critical component of the pandemic response by, among other things, informing and educating Americans about public health guidance.  (Letter).  The NAB, as well as a group of state broadcast associations, also filed comments at the FCC opposing the FCC’s proposal to increase broadcast regulatory fees, arguing that broadcasters’ fees should not increase in relation to the fees paid by other industries regulated by the FCC, particularly as broadcasters have been so hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic. (NAB Comments and State Association Comments)
  • Last Monday, the reply comment period closed in the FCC’s Significant Viewing proceeding. Designation as a significantly viewed station has implications for determining whether a cable or satellite TV system will carry a TV station in an area that is not part of its home market.  For an in-depth look at what the FCC seeks to resolve through this proceeding, see this post at the Broadcast Law Blog.  (Reply Comments)
  • On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing considering the re-nomination of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to a new five-year term. The Commissioner, in response to a question, noted that he believes the FCC’s and DOJ’s current media competition rules are “problematic,” and that he hopes to work with DOJ to shift its narrow view of the competitive marketplace where it does not recognize that broadcasters  don’t just compete with other broadcasters, but instead directly compete with a wide range of other media companies, including digital media outlets.  (Opening Statement and Archived Video)(see Broadcast Law Blog articles here and here on the competition between broadcasters and other media and how the assessment of the definition of the marketplace is important to the evaluation of broadcast ownership limits)
  • The Enforcement Bureau acted last week against two pirate radio operations, one in Pennsylvania and one in Arkansas. These actions are reminders that broadcast operators must hold a valid license to operate and that the FCC will pursue illegal operations.
    • In the first case, the Enforcement Bureau shut down a station that was broadcasting on 90.7 MHz and 91.5 MHz from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The operator, as part of a consent decree, admitted to the unauthorized operation of the station, agreed to pay a $1,500 civil penalty, and agreed to not operate an unauthorized station in the future.  The PIRATE Act, signed into law in early 2020, gives the FCC authority to fine pirate radio operators up to $100,000 per violation (with a $2 million cap), but, in this case, the operator claimed an economic hardship, which persuaded the FCC to lower the fine to $1,500.  (Order and Consent Decree)
    • In the second case, the Enforcement Bureau issued a $10,000 fine to an operator for the unauthorized operation of a radio station on 103.1 MHz in Alma, Arkansas. (Forfeiture Order)
  • The US Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order throwing out a rule adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services that would have required all TV advertising for prescription drugs to state the wholesale price of the drug. Based on these court decisions, this additional information will not need to be added to the disclaimers that these ads already contain. (Court Decision)(Broadcast Law Blog article on the decision)


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: June 13, 2020 to June 19, 2020

It appears that there will be no requirement imposed on television and cable ads to include disclosures revealing the wholesale prices of prescription drugs in any advertising for those drugs.  We wrote about the decision from the US Department of Health and Human Service to impose such a requirement on television ads here, and

The question about what to do with the protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act took another turn this week, when Joe Biden suggested that online platforms needed to take responsibility for the content posted on them and correct misinformation in those ads.  That position is seemingly the opposite of the President’s Executive Order about which we wrote here and here, which seemingly suggests that no censorship should be applied against political speech on these platforms – or certainly no censorship against certain kinds of speech that is not applied against speech from all other parties on that platform.  Facebook almost immediately posted this response, defending its position not to censor candidate’s speech and analogizing it to the position that television and radio broadcasters are forced by Congress to take – where by law they are not allowed to refuse to run a political ad from a candidate because of its content and they are shielded from liability because of their inability to censor these candidate ads.  Facebook took the position that, if Congress wants to regulate political speech, it should pass laws to do so, but that Facebook would not itself be a censor.  That position reminded us of an article that we wrote back in January when there were calls to make Facebook stop running political ads comparing the regulatory schemes that apply to political ads on different platforms.  Given its new relevance in light of the sudden prominence of the debate over Section 230, we thought that we would rerun our earlier article.  Here it is – and we note how we seemingly anticipated the current debate in our last paragraph:

[In January], the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of fact.  We have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.
Continue Reading Facebook Defends Not Censoring Political Ads – Looking at the Differences In Regulation of Political Speech on Different Communications Platforms

In recent weeks, with so many government officials looking to get messages out about the coronavirus pandemic, we have received many questions about issues that arise when political candidates appear on public service-type announcements – either free PSAs provided by the station or paid spots purchased by some governmental entity.  While such announcements can be run by stations, if a legally qualified candidate personally appears in the spot (their recognizable voice in a radio ad or their voice or picture in a TV ad), stations need to note the advertising purchase in their FCC Online Public Inspection File, as these spots constitute a “use” by a candidate, and they can also give rise to equal opportunities by opposing candidates.

If the use is in a spot on which the candidate appears is a paid-for spot, then any equal time to which opposing candidates are entitled would be on a similar paid-for basis.  This is the same situation as if a commercial advertiser who voices or appears in their own ads decides to run for office (see our article here).  But if the spot is a free PSA, then the appearance of a legally qualified candidate, even if the PSA says nothing about their campaign, can trigger the requirement to give free equal time to any opposing candidates who make any equal opportunities request within seven days.
Continue Reading Reminder:  PSAs Featuring Candidates Can Give Rise to Equal Time and Public File Obligations

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

  • The FCC released the agenda for its June 9 Open Meeting announcing that it will consider an

Political “issue advertising” – advertising run by groups like PACs and political parties rather than a candidate’s authorized campaign committees – is a rough and tumble world in which broadcasters can often find themselves in the middle.  We’ve written extensively (here, here and here) about how issue advertising can impose additional public file obligations on broadcasters under FCC policy that has recently been clarified.  Plus, there is beginning to be a body of state law seeking to regulate these ads (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  But where the middle perhaps becomes the most uncomfortable for broadcasters is when they find themselves in a dispute over whether an issue ad that they are asked to broadcast is true.  As we wrote here and here, there are certain common procedures that broadcasters need to follow if they have reason to believe that an ad is false, as running an ad that is in fact false, if the station has reason to believe that it is false (e.g. when they are put on notice that the ad is false by a party being attacked in the ad) could lead to liability for defamation.  While claims brought against broadcasters for running these third-party ads are infrequent, it does happen, as is evident from the recent lawsuit by the Trump campaign against a Wisconsin TV station owned by Northlands Television arguing that a portion of a Priorities USA ad attacking the President for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic was false.  Recently, the TV station filed its response to the Trump suit, and the Motion to Dismiss that was filed is instructive on the issues to consider in any defamation lawsuit.

The Trump claim attacks a Priorities USA ad containing a montage of audio clips of President Trump’s words, including the phrase “coronavirus, this is their new hoax.”  The Trump Campaign claimed that the ad and the way that the clips were edited together misrepresents President Trump’s “hoax” comment by falsely claiming that he stated that the coronavirus is a hoax, when the hoax to which he was referring was “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  The complaint cited several “fact checkers” who supported the claim that the reference to the hoax was to the Democratic reaction, not the virus itself.
Continue Reading The Law of Defamation and Political Advertising Argued in Trump Suit Against Wisconsin TV Station

The responses by the major record labels to Commissioner O’Rielly’s inquiry into allegations of payola practices (see our article here) were published last week while we were all distracted with pandemic issues.  While the responses (available here on the Commissioner’s twitter feed) were perhaps not surprising – saying that the record labels do not engage in any on-air pay-for-play practices where the payment is not disclosed – they nevertheless highlight some practices that should be observed at every radio station.  As I have said in many seminars to broadcasters around the country when talking about FCC sponsorship identification requirements, if you get free stuff in exchange for promoting any product or service on the air, disclose that you got that free stuff. As made clear in these responses, when the record companies give free concert tickets or similar merchandise to a radio station for an on-air giveaway to promote a concert or the release of new music by one of their artists, they agree with the station to reveal on the air that the record company provided the ticket or merchandise that is being given away.

The responses also indicate that these record companies do not provide musical artists to play at station events with any agreement – explicit or implicit – that the station will play those artists more frequently because of their appearance.  While that might happen naturally, it also might not (if, for instance, the band is one of many acts participating at some station-sponsored festival).  The record companies state that their contracts with stations for such events make clear that there is no agreement that any artist appearance is tied to additional airplay for that artist.
Continue Reading Record Companies Respond to FCC Commissioner on Payola – What Should Broadcasters Learn from the Responses?