July is usually a month of family vacations and patriotic celebrations.  While the pandemic has seen to it that those activities, if they happen at all, will look different than they have in years past, there are plenty of regulatory obligations to fill a broadcaster’s long, summer days.  Here are a few of the dates and deadlines to watch for in July, and a quick reminder of some of the significant filings due right at the beginning of August.

On or before July 10, all TV and radio stations must upload to their public file their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for the 2nd quarter (April, May and June).  Stations that took advantage of the FCC’s extension of time to file their 1st quarter (January, February and March) list must also by July 10 upload that list to their public file.  As a reminder, the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists are a station’s evidence of how it operated in the public interest, demonstrating its treatment of its community’s most significant issues.  The FCC has shown (see here and here) that it takes this requirement seriously and will fine stations, hold up license renewals, or both if it finds problems with a station’s compliance.  For a short video on complying with the Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirement, see here.
Continue Reading July Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: End of the TV Repacking, Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Reporting, EEO, Carriage Election Public File Information Deadline, LPTV Settlement Window, Rulemaking Comments and More

Should broadcasters be able to originate programming on FM translators?  Playing off the proposal to allow limited amounts of programming on FM boosters – basically the insertion of local ads, news, or emergency alerts – in the zonecasting proposal on which the FCC took comments earlier this year (see our summary here), a group of broadcasters has taken the proposal one step further, and asked if translators (including those FM translators rebroadcasting AM stations) should not have the same rights proposed for boosters.  Comments on this proposal (available here) are due July 23.

These comments were originally filed in connection with the zonecasting proceeding (see our summary of the comments here).  But they go beyond the zonecasting proposal for limited amounts of origination programming on boosters, and seek to expand the amount of time that translators can originate programming different than their primary stations.  The advocates propose not just the substitution of short messages, but to allow translators to originate as much as 40 hours per week of programming different than that offered on their primary stations.  And the proposal also suggests that translators be allowed to be located within the primary station’s 45 dbu contour, rather than within the 60 dbu contour of an FM primary station as now required (playing off the 45 dbu contour now being used as the one in which primary FM stations can claim protection from interference from FM translators – see our article here).
Continue Reading FCC Seeking Comment on the Origination of Programming by FM Translators

The FCC yesterday released another of its regular EEO audit notices (available here), this time targeting only about 35 radio stations.  Those stations and the station employment units (commonly owned stations serving the same area) with which they are associated must provide to the FCC (by posting the information in their online public inspection file) their last two year’s EEO Annual Public File reports, as well as backing data to show that the station in fact did everything that was required under the FCC rules.

Audited stations must provide copies of notices sent to employment outreach sources about each full-time vacancy at the stations as well as documentation of the supplemental efforts that all station employment units with 5 or more full-time employees are required to perform (whether or not they had job openings in any year). These non-vacancy specific outreach efforts are designed to educate the community about broadcast employment positions and to train employees for more senior roles in broadcasting. Stations must also provide, in response to the audit, information about how they self-assessed the performance of their EEO program. Stations that are listed in the audit notice have until July 24, 2020 to upload this information to their online public file.
Continue Reading FCC Releases EEO Audit for 35 Radio Stations – A Good Reminder to Review Your EEO Compliance

An intense national conversation on racial justice and equity has been thrust upon the country by the events of the last week.  While our focus here on this blog is narrow, it is certainly worth looking at some of the issues that are within our broadcast world that are relevant to this conversation.  In recent days, for instance, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks promoted more diversity in broadcast ownership, and an article in Radio Ink by the President of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters called for a revival of the minority tax certificate – a program ended decades ago over concerns about its cost to the government.  The tax certificate offers perhaps the most meaningful route to the goals sought by the Commissioner and is worth examination as, since its abolition so many years ago, its revival has been discussed so many times that it has become almost a cliché, with many not really understanding what it did and why it was effective.

The minority tax certificate was a program designed to provide broadcasters with an economic incentive to sell their stations to minority owners.  Rather than directly subsidizing the potential owners, the certificate instead gave a tax break to sellers that incentivized them to sell to the minority-owned business even if there were multiple bidders for their properties.  If the seller sold to a minority-owned business, the seller could take the proceeds from the sale and roll those proceeds over into a new media property without recognizing the taxable gain from the sale.  Unlike the typical like-kind exchange where the roll-over into a new property has to proceed within a few months of the sale, the tax certificate treated the sale as an involuntary sale (like the sale of a property because of a government’s exercise of eminent domain) under Section 1033 of the tax code, giving the seller several years to roll the proceeds over into a new purchase.  At that point, the new property would have the same tax basis as the old – meaning that no gain would be recognized until the sale of the new property.  This spurred many sales to minority companies by broadcasters looking not to get out of the business, but instead looking to realign their holdings or to move up into larger markets.  Several hundred radio and TV stations were purchased under this program in the last 20 years of the program’s existence.  Why was this seemingly successful program abandoned?
Continue Reading Understanding the Minority Tax Certificate and its Potential for Promoting Diversity in Broadcast Ownership

Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions of the last week—and some obligations for the week ahead—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 comment cycle was set in the FCC’s annual regulatory fee proceeding. On or before June 12, the Commission wants to hear from interested parties about the fees that it proposes to impose on the companies that it regulates – including broadcasters.  The FCC proposes to complete the implementation of its change to computing fees for television stations based on population served rather than on the market in which they operate, a move it began last year (see our Broadcast Law Blog article here on the FCC decision last year to initiate the change in the way TV fees are allocated).  The FCC also asks for ideas about how the Commission can extend fee relief to stations suffering COVID-19-related financial hardship.  Reply comments are due on or before June 29.  (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Chris Krebs, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, wrote to the nation’s governors asking them to, among other things, declare radio and TV broadcasters as essential to COVID-19 response efforts and to afford broadcasters all appropriate resources and access. (News Release)
  • In a good reminder to broadcasters that transactions involving the sale or transfer of control of a broadcast station must be authorized in advance by the FCC, the Media Bureau entered into a consent decree with two companies that sold an FM station and FM translator without getting approval from the Commission. The parties mistakenly believed filing license renewal applications that reflected the assignment was sufficient approval.  The consent decree includes an $8,000 penalty.  (Consent Decree).  See this article on past cases where the FCC has warned that even transactions among related companies that change the legal form of ownership of a broadcast station without changing the ultimate control need prior FCC approval.
  • The Commission granted approval to Cumulus Media, Inc. to exceed the Commission’s twenty-five percent foreign ownership threshold. The Commission will allow Cumulus to have up to 100 percent aggregate foreign investment in the company, although additional approvals will be needed if any previously unnamed foreign entity acquires 5% or more of the company or if any foreign entity desires to acquire control.  (Declaratory Ruling).  This decision shows the process that the FCC must go through to approve foreign ownership above the 25% threshold and the analysis needed to issue such approvals.  See our articles here and here about the evolving FCC policy in this area.
  • President Trump signed an executive order that seeks to, among other things, address online censorship and rollback certain protections afforded to online platforms, which include social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, but which also protect any site that hosts content created by users – which could include the Internet platforms of many broadcasters. Under federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, these online platforms generally enjoy legal immunity for what users post on their platforms.  The President directed the Department of Commerce to ask the FCC to open a rulemaking to review this immunity and asked the FTC to review whether platforms were adhering to their terms of use when commenting on or limiting third-party content.  Other government entities, including state attorneys general and the Department of Justice, were also asked to review online platforms.  For his part, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “This debate is an important one. The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce.”  (Executive Order).  Watch for an article on the Broadcast Law Blog this coming week on implications of this order for broadcasters and other media companies.
  • Anyone looking to hand deliver documents to the FCC needs to learn a new address, and it is not, as you might expect, the address of the FCC’s future headquarters. Deliveries by hand must now be brought to 9050 Junction Drive, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701.  The address change is to enhance security screening and is part of winding down operations at the current 12th Street headquarters.  (Order)


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: May 23, 2020 to May 29, 2020

With many people now entering their third month of complying with stay-at-home orders and social distancing and summer being right around the corner, it would be easy for broadcasters to look past their regulatory obligations to focus on the day when they can ramp up operations and profits.  As you can read below, however, June is a busy month with important obligations for many stations.

June brings the start of summer and the start of the license renewal cycle for television stations.  By June 1, full-power TV, Class A TV, TV translator, and LPTV stations in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia and full-power AM and FM stations and LPFM and FM translators in Michigan and Ohio must file their license renewal applications. Those stations should already be close to completing their renewal applications, looking to file them on or before the June 1 deadline.  See our article here on the FCC’s announcement of the newly-revised procedures for filing TV license renewal applications.  On June 1 and again on June 16, stations filing renewals need to broadcast their post-filing announcements informing their audiences of the filing of the renewal application.
Continue Reading June 2020 Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: License Renewals, EEO Reports, Broadcast Internet Consideration, and Comments on Significant Viewing, DTS, White Spaces, Regulatory Fees, and Video Description

When a broadcaster files certain types of applications with the FCC, the public must be informed.  Last week, the FCC issued an Order which will change the rules regarding the public notice that must be given – consolidating what was a confusing process with different language and timing for notice about different types of applications into one providing standardized disclosures and scheduling for all public notices.  The decision (once it becomes effective) will eliminate obligations for the newspaper publication that was required for some public notices and also ended the obligation of broadcasters to give a “pre-filing public notice” before the submission of a license renewal application.  It will also require the inclusion of an “FCC Applications” link on the homepage of each commercial station’s website, whether or not they have any applications pending.  Let’s look at some of the changes adopted in last week’s Order.

First, the FCC did not change the requirements as to what applications require notice to the public.  Public notice is required for applications for new stations and major technical changes, for assignments (sales) or transfers of station licenses (except for pro forma changes where there is no real change in control over the station), for license renewal applications, minor change technical applications that involve a city-of-license change, and certain applications involving international broadcast stations or the export of programming to foreign stations to be rebroadcast back into the US.  Notice of designation for hearing of any application is also required.  We will concentrate here on the more common applications for changes to US stations, sale and license renewals.
Continue Reading Looking at Changes to the FCC’s Public Notice Requirements for Broadcast Applications

Comments on the proposal of GeoBroadcast Solutions to allow FM boosters to originate limited amounts of programming different from that carried on their primary stations were due to be filed by this past Monday.  We wrote about the GeoBroadcast proposal for “zonecastinghere. The comments as filed at the FCC fell principally into three categories.  GeoBroadcast Solutions and its supporters argued that the FCC should move forward with the limited rule changes that it seeks, changing the FM booster rules from requiring 100% duplication of the primary station to one which only requires substantial duplication of the main station – thus allowing for limited inserts of localized content including localized news, advertising and emergency information.  A second set of comments asked whether the technology had really moved forward sufficiently to warrant a notice of proposed rulemaking now – particularly as the system had not yet been fully tested for digital broadcast operations (commonly referred to as “HD Radio”).  Finally, there were proposals looking to expand the scope of the proceeding beyond GeoBroadcast’s limited technical proposal, to allow for other systems to provide the service and even to expand the proposal to also allow FM translators to originate programming.  Let’s look at each of these sets of comments.

Those supporting the GeoBroadcast proposal covered both the technology and business/operational aspects of the proposal.  Comments by GeoBroadcast’s engineer and the GatesAir, Inc., which developed the MaxxCasting technology for boosters to minimize interference between the boosters and their primary station, argued that the technology already works for analog broadcasts and was promising for HD Radio operations.  Support for the business case came from advocates for minority organizations (arguing that the technology would allow better targeting of these audiences), media brokers (arguing that the value of stations would increase), ad buyers (looking at the targeting prospects of the technology) and emergency communications experts (looking at the ability to target emergency information).
Continue Reading Looking at the Comments on FM “Zonecasting” – What’s Next for This Proposal?

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?

Taking a station off the air is often the last resort of a broadcast company in desperate financial times.  While Payroll Protection Act loans have helped many small broadcasters avoid that action even in light of the dramatic decrease in broadcast advertising revenue in the last two months, and some relief may come in areas of the country looking at some reopening of business in the coming weeks, we have still heard of some stations that just can’t manage continued operations in this period of turmoil – either for financial or operational reasons caused by the current health crisis.  If this action is in the cards for your station because of the pandemic or for any other reason including technical failures, do not forget about the FCC requirements for taking a station silent.

When a broadcast station goes silent, it must notify the FCC of that status within 10 days of going off the air.  If the situation will continue for a longer period, a request for Special Temporary Authority providing the reasons for going off the air must be filed within 30 days of going silent.  These STAs are granted for no more than 6 months at a time, so that date should be noted for the filing of any extension that may be needed.  But be careful, as if a station is silent for a full year, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act provides that the license will be cancelled unless the FCC makes an affirmative finding that there are special public interest reasons for not taking that action (a finding made in very rare cases).  When stations resume operations, they must notify the FCC that they are back on the air.  But to be considered back on the air, there must be programming – running a test pattern is insufficient (see the case we wrote about here).  Even with authority to remain silent, there are risks.
Continue Reading Broadcast Stations Going Silent – What You Need to Do