Assignments and Transfers

The FCC this week announced the filing of two applications seeking broadcast acquisitions by non-US based companies. In one available here, a company controlled by Mexican citizens would go from 25% to 100% ownership and control of a company that owns 2 FM stations in California and Arizona. In another, available here, an

In addition to the elimination of the main studio rule (about which we wrote here), another media item is proposed for consideration at the FCC’s October 24 meeting. A draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was released earlier this week proposing two changes in FCC requirements – neither change, in and of itself, offering any fundamental modifications of significant regulation, but both showing that this Commission is looking to eliminate bothersome burdens on broadcasters where those burdens are unnecessary in today’s media world or where they do not serve any real regulatory purpose. One change proposes to limit the requirement for TV stations to file Ancillary and Supplementary Revenue Reports to those stations that actually have such revenue, and the other proposing to eliminate the obligation of broadcasters to publish local public notice of significant application filings in a local newspaper.

The first deals with the filing by TV stations of FCC Form 2100, Schedule G (formerly Form 317), which reports on the ancillary and supplementary services revenue received by the TV station. This revenue is received by data transmission and other non-broadcast uses of the station’s spectrum. The report is necessary as, by law, each station offering such services must pay a fee of 5% of that revenue to the Federal government. So, by December 1 of each year, under current rules, each TV station must file the form stating how much revenue they received from these non-broadcast services. As most TV stations have not monetized their excess digital capacity by making it available for non-broadcast “ancillary and supplementary” services, most stations dutifully submit a report each December saying that they have not received any such revenue. To minimize paperwork burdens, the FCC draft NPRM proposes to amend the rule so that the majority of stations need not file this report simply to say that they have no revenue – the obligation to file the report would apply only to those stations that actually have some revenue to report.
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The FCC on Friday announced that they were extending the deadline for filing Biennial Ownership Reports by broadcasters from December 1 to March 2, 2018 to be sure that the new version of the form in the FCC’s LMS database will be up and ready to be used. The FCC will open the window for

While most broadcasters are awaiting word of when the FCC’s annual regulatory fees will be due (an announcement that should be coming any day now as regulatory fees will be paid in September by all commercial broadcasters to offset the cost of being regulated), the FCC announced yesterday that its application fees are going up

The FCC yesterday announced a consent decree with Media General by which Media General agreed to pay a $700,000 “settlement payment” to the US Treasury to settle the investigation of its attempts to enforce the provisions of a Joint Sales Agreement with Schurz Communications.  Media General had tried to enforce the JSA when Schurz tried to terminate that agreement in order to sell its station to Gray Television.  Media General tried to get an injunction from a state court seeking to stop the sale, continue the JSA, and prevent Schurz or Gray from putting the station into the incentive auction.  As we wrote here when the case first arose, the FCC wrote to the court, contending that the injunction would not only violate the conditions placed on the sale by the FCC (that the Schurz station be sold before the Gray deal could close) but, more importantly for the general broadcast community, that the restrictions on the sale of the station, and its participation in the incentive auction, were improper restrictions on the control rights of the licensee.  Essentially, the FCC was saying the licensee’s right to sell the spectrum it had was not one that could be conveyed to a third party.  The FCC even stated its intention to initiate a proceeding to determine whether Media General’s FCC licenses should be revoked.

What we wrote when the case came out, and what we wonder now, is what the FCC considers the degree to which a licensee’s ability to sell its spectrum can be limited by contract or agreement.  Yesterday’s release provides no guidance, as it was simply a settlement agreement.  The consent decree recites what the FCC was initially concerned with, but Media General did not admit any liability, and the consent decree does not reach any conclusion as to the actual basis of the settlement payment.  So it is conceivable that the FCC was actually only worried about the attempts by Media General to require that the station be kept and the JSA stay in place, even though the FCC ordered that it end.  It may not have been a case dealing principally with control at all, but instead one dealing with grandfathered JSAs and whether those JSAs can stay in place after the sale of one of the television stations involved in the arrangement.  Otherwise, if the case was really about putting limits on the degree to which contracts can limit the ability of a licensee to sell its station, that issue could have had much broader implications than the FCC may have intended.
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In the last two days, the FCC has asked for public comment on two proposals for foreign ownership of US broadcast stations where that ownership would exceed 25% of the company – a limit that has for decades been seen as the upper end of ownership by foreign nationals.  While the FCC three years ago said that they would consider such ownership on a case by case basis (see our article here), up until this week, the FCC had considered only one case under this new flexible policy – and that was the case of Pandora, where the FCC took over a year to approve their acquisition of a broadcast station – and Pandora didn’t even think that their foreign ownership exceeded the 25% threshold, but they could not prove it because of the difficulty of assessing the citizenship of public companies (see our article here on the filing of the Pandora petition).  Now, the FCC seeks comments on two cases, one where an Australian husband and wife team seek to acquire 100% ownership of companies owning 29 radio and TV stations in Alaska, Arkansas and Texas.  The second involves Univision, which asks for FCC approval for foreign ownership of up to 49% of its stock, as it plans a public offering which would also involve the conversion to stock of warrants held by a Mexican company that already has a stake in the company.

While the FCC last year asked for comments on adopting new processing rules for these kinds of requests – especially those involving public companies – no order has come out of the FCC on that proceeding yet (see our summary here).  Last month, the FCC did adopt some new procedures for the streamlining of the consideration of foreign ownership requests for all services regulated by the FCC, not just broadcasting, but that proceeding did not deal with the substantive issues surrounding foreign ownership, but instead with the process by which the FCC interacts with other government agencies in assessing the national security concerns with foreign ownership of communications properties.  With this background, does the release of these two requests for comment signal any movement from the FCC on foreign ownership issues?
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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this week released a “fact sheet” setting out a summary of the draft order now circulating among the FCC Commissioners for review and possible approval. This order, if adopted, would resolve the Quadrennial Review of the FCC’s ownership rules. As we wrote here, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently pushed the FCC to quickly resolve this proceeding. The FCC had punted two years ago when it decided that it could not resolve its 2010 Quadrennial Review of the ownership rules and pushed consideration of most of the issues forward to this Quadrennial Review, preliminarily suggesting that few rule changes were necessary. The Chairman’s fact sheet seems to suggest that, in fact, few are being proposed.

  • With one exception, despite the proliferation of new media outlets that compete for the revenue and audience of over-the-air radio and television, the proposed changes set out in the fact sheet seem to make the ownership rules more restrictive – not less restrictive. In other words, traditional media is not given any significantly greater leeway to combine operations to compete with its digital competitors. The one exception is a very modest proposal to allow case-by-case waivers of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule (which some commentators, including us, have suggested may outlive the newspaper), but only where it can be shown that there are economically failing media entities looking to combine. The order addresses basic FCC ownership rules as follows:
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In an FCC decision fining a TV station $10,000 for failing to include 15 Quarterly Issues Programs lists in its public inspection file, the FCC refused to reduce the proposed liability based on an intervening “long-form” transfer of control followed by a short-form assignment of license of the station. Thus, even though the station was no longer controlled by the same individuals who controlled the station at the time of the violation, and even though the licensee company was different, the fine still applied.

The Media Bureau decision looked at precedent that has held that a transfer of control of a station, even a “long-form” application on FCC Form 315 that is subject to public notice and a 30 day waiting period during which the public can comment on the change in control of the licensee, does not excuse the licensee for violations of the FCC’s rules that occurred prior to the transfer. We wrote about a similar holding in another case last year. The FCC’s view is that, when you are buying the stock of a company, you acquire not only the assets of the company but also its obligations, including any potential FCC violations. This is different from an assignment of license filed on a Form 314 (also a “long-form” application subject to a 30-day public comment period) – where a buyer just buys the assets through a new company and does not assume the liabilities – a difference that the FCC has recognized in these cases. In the decision reached today, the licensee attempted to exploit that different treatment – but the FCC rejected the distinction.
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The potential perils of foreclosing on a radio station were evident in a Consent Decree released by the FCC’s Media Bureau yesterday, agreeing to an $11,000 penalty to be paid to the FCC U.S. Treasury before a station could be sold by a receiver to help pay off the debts of an AM radio station owner. The fine was imposed both for an unauthorized transfer of control of the licensee of the station, and because of the failure of the receiver appointed by the Court to keep the FCC fully appraised of the status of the control of the licensee company while FCC approval for the receiver’s control of the station was still pending before the FCC. What this case really shows is that in any foreclosure on a broadcast station where there are competing creditors, an uncooperative debtor or anyone else who could possibly contest the process, anyone attempting to collect obligations owed by a broadcaster needs to proceed very carefully, keep the FCC fully informed of the entire process surrounding the exercise of the creditor’s rights, and be advised by an attorney or advisor very familiar with FCC process in addition to counsel in the local court proceedings. Plus, local counsel and FCC counsel need to work together at each stage of the process to make sure that the proper approvals are obtained from the FCC before the local court actions are implemented.

This case demonstrates, like a case we wrote about last week, the complicated interplay between the actions of local courts enforcing private actions and the FCC enforcing the Communications Act. In this case, the orders of the local courts and other authorities dealing with the receivership of station assets and the stock of the licensee company changed over time. The failure to keep the FCC appraised of those changes really led to the $11,000 fine. The receiver initially asked that he be approved to become the “assignee” of the station, as the court order appeared to indicate that he would receive the assets of the debtor’s estate. In the FCC’s eyes, an “assignment of license” is when the assets and license of a station change hands, so that a new licensee is now the operator of the station. Here, later action of the local court changed the nature of the action to one where the receiver, instead of getting the assets of the debtor, would instead be receiving its stock. Where the licensee remains the same, but a new owner takes control, as was the case here where the receiver took control of the stock of the licensee, the FCC deems that to be a “transfer of control.” That was significant to the FCC in this case.
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How far can a court go in ordering broadcasters to comply with the terms of a contract?  By trying to get a court to enforce a contract signed with a broadcaster, is the suing party infringing on a licensee’s control over its broadcast station license? These questions are addressed in a letter that the FCC released this week, sent to a federal district court in connection with a dispute between two big TV companies over the termination of a Joint Sales Agreement between TV stations in Georgia.  In the case, Media General is seeking to enforce a JSA against a TV station in Augusta that had been owned by Schurz Communications, which was recently acquired by Gray Television.  As a condition of the sale of Schurz to Gray, to obtain FCC approval, the parties agreed to terminate the Augusta JSA.  Media General sued, and on February 26 it obtained an injunction from a Georgia state court barring Gray from operating the station or selling the station’s spectrum in the upcoming incentive auction.  The FCC’s letter states that it believes that the courts cannot order the relief that Media General seeks without infringing on the licensee’s rights to control the station.

While there have been procedural developments in the underlying dispute dealing with the court that will hear the case, it is the substance of the FCC’s letter that is important.  The FCC’s conclusion was based on two findings.  First, it found that Media General could not enforce the JSA because its termination was a requirement of the FCC in connection with the sale of Schurz – so a court cannot order the station to violate the FCC’s own order.  But more fundamentally, the FCC determined that Media General’s efforts infringed on the obligation under Section 310 of the Communications Act that the licensee (now Gray) maintain control over its station unless the FCC has approved a transfer of that control.  In the FCC’s eyes, control includes control over the programming of the station – which would be infringed by the JSA.  It also includes control over the ultimate disposition of the station, which would be infringed by any order forbidding its participation in the incentive auction.  According to the FCC, an element of control of a station is being able to decide whether or not to sell it.  While the FCC acknowledged that Gray and/or Shurz might be liable to Media General for monetary damages and penalties for any breach of the contract provisions, Media General could not get a court to make the station comply with these alleged obligations.  This is not the first time that the FCC has made such a pronouncement.
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