There are so many legal issues that facing broadcasters that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with them all. This Blog and many other activities that those at my firm engage in are meant to help our clients and other broadcasters keep up to date on all of the many regulatory challenges with which

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler yesterday used a blog post to announce that the Commission’s pending rulemaking concerning its retransmission consent rules is ending without the adoption of any additional rules.  This proceeding was to review the “totality of the circumstances” test in determining whether TV stations and MVPDs (cable and satellite television systems) were negotiating in good faith to reach a retransmission consent agreement.  In last year’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in this proceeding, the FCC proposed a number of possible negotiating tactics that could be declared to be per se violations of the good faith standard – including items such as ending retransmission consent before a major television event (like the Super Bowl) or blocking access to online streams of programming to Internet subscribers who were affiliated with the MVPD involved in the retransmission dispute (see our summary of the proceeding here).  Many broadcasters and industry analysts feared that there would be regulations adopted that could restrict TV stations’ ability to negotiate favorable retransmission consent deals.  But the Commission seems to have reached the conclusion that they can already, under existing rules, cajole parties to reach a deal if the need arises and that no more specific regulations are needed.

In his blog post, Chairman Wheeler stated that after FCC staff had conducted an extensive review of the record, “it is clear that more rules in this area are not what we need at this point.”  He noted that the FCC has an existing nine-point test to judge the compliance of parties with the good faith requirement, plus the broader “totality of circumstances” standard that can be used to find a party in violation even when none of the specifically prohibited conduct has occurred.  While little enforcement action has actually been taken in this area, it has often been threatened to bring parties to the table and encourage a voluntary settlement.  The Chairman seemed to think that the existing remedies were enough to act in extreme cases, and trying to decide in more specificity which practices were prohibited and which were permitted “could limit future inquiries.”    In other words, adopting more specific prohibitions could make it more difficult to rely on the broader “totality of circumstances” test in any particular case that did not involve a specifically prohibited activity. 
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While TV broadcasters can enjoy an incentive auction respite in July as attention shifts to the “forward auction” where we will see whether wireless carriers come up with enough money to fund the $86,422,558,704 (plus $1.75 billion for repacking costs, plus auction-related administrative costs) needed for the buyout of TV stations who agreed to surrender their spectrum, radio broadcasters will get some of their own attention as, at the end of the month, the second window for the filing of 250-mile waiver applications opens for Class A and B AM stations. We wrote about these waivers here, which allow an AM licensee to acquire an FM translator and file an application to move it up to 250 miles and operate it on any commercial frequency that does not create interference in their market. That window for Class A and B AM stations opens July 29 and runs through October 31 (and remains open for any other AM that has not already filed one of these waivers in the first window which opened back in January).

In addition to the AM window, there are routine filing deadlines for all TV stations – required to file their FCC Form 398 Children’s Television Reports by the 11th of the month (because the 10th of July is a Sunday) demonstrating the educational and informational programming they broadcast directed to children. By the 10th television stations also need to upload information into their online public files to demonstrate compliance with the limits on commercial time in children’s programs.
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May is one of those off months in which there are not the kind of routine filings that pop up in most other months – no EEO Public File Reports, no quarterly issues programs lists or children’s television reports, no Biennial Ownership Reports for noncommercial stations (which will soon disappear anyway when noncommercial stations transition to the same biennial report deadline as commercial broadcasters – see our articles here and here). Clearly, the big event for TV will be the likely start of the bidding in the “reverse auction” part of the TV incentive auction. For radio, the big activity will be around the continuing window for AM stations to buy FM translators to move to their communities (see our article here). And, as we wrote in our Broadcasters Calendar here, there are also a number of lowest unit rate windows in the states in which the final Presidential primaries are being held.

There are not even that many comment dates in proceedings of importance to broadcasters. Perhaps the most important is the preliminary comments on the proposed ATSC 3.0 transmission standard for the next generation of television (see our articles here and here). These initial comments are due on May 26.
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Last week was a busy one for the FCC, with decisions or proposals on a number of issues that can affect broadcasters, including changes to the EAS rules and proposals for the expansion of video description – the requirements that TV stations carry a certain amount of programming that is accompanied by audio descriptions to explain the visual action to TV station viewers who are blind or otherwise visually impaired. Today, we’ll look at the proposals for expanding the required amount of “video description” required by TV stations.

Under current FCC rules, television stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and which are located in the Top 60 US TV markets must carry a minimum of 50 hours of video programming per quarter that is described by accompanying audio descriptions of the on-air visual action. These descriptions are usually broadcast on the station’s secondary audio programming (“SAP”) channel, often used for foreign language translations of programming. These SAP channels are also used for the required audio transmission of video alert warnings that occur outside of news programs (see our article about that requirement for emergency information, like video crawls during entertainment programming, to be translated into audio and broadcast on these SAP channels, here and here). Qualifying programming must either be in prime time or programming addressed to children. The rules also require that TV stations in all markets pass through network programming with such audio descriptions if those stations are technically able to do so. The FCC notes that, given the requirement for emergency information on SAP channels, all TV stations should now have that ability to pass through network programming with audio description of the video programming. The FCC now proposes to further expand the obligations of TV broadcasters to do audio descriptions of video programming that they air.
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April brings the whole panoply of routine regulatory dates – from the need to prepare EEO Public File and Noncommercial Ownership Reports in some states, to Quarterly Issues Programs lists for all full-power broadcast stations and Quarterly Children’s Television Programming Reports for all TV stations.  So let’s look at some of the specific dates that broadcasters need to remember this coming month.

On the first of the month, EEO Public Inspection File Reports should be placed in the Public Inspection files of all stations in employment units with five or more full-time employees in the following states: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.  In addition, EEO Mid-Term Reports on FCC Form 397 need to be submitted to the FCC by radio stations that are part of employment units of 11 or more full-time employees in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.  For more on the EEO Mid Term Report, see our article here.
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FilmOnX, that Aereo copycat service that seeks to deliver the signals of over-the-air television stations to consumers’ computers for a fee, has lost another round in its attempt to be recognized as a cable system. Ever since the Aereo decision of the Supreme Court (which we summarized here), finding that services like Aereo and FilmOn did involve a public performance of television programming for which they permission of program owners, FilmOn has been seeking to be declared a cable system. Why? Because cable systems have a “statutory license” under Section 111 of the Copyright Act allowing them to rebroadcast television programming without explicit permission of the copyright owners simply by paying a fee – a fee which is very small when rebroadcasting a television signal in its own television market. The decision released last week by the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois joined courts in New York and DC (see our article about the DC court decision here) in determining that FilmOn did not qualify for that license. Only a lone court in California has thus far agreed with FilmOn’s position (see our summary here), and that decision is on appeal.

In reaching its decision, the Illinois court looked at the definition of a cable system in the Copyright Act. The Copyright Act states that a cable system is “a facility” that “receives signals transmitted or programs broadcast by one or more television broadcast stations” and “makes secondary transmission of such signals or programs by wires, cables microwave or other communications channels” to subscribers. In looking at that definition, the Court found that the FilmOn system was not a facility that made secondary transmissions (meaning a rebroadcast or retransmission of the original signal) of the television signals that it received. While it received those signals, rather than transmitting those signals to the public, as does a traditional cable system or even an unwired “wireless cable system,” FilmOn instead simply transmitted those signals to the Internet, and the Internet was the mechanism that delivered the signals to the customers. In essence, the Court adopts the requirement for a “facilities based” transmission system in order for a system to be considered a cable system for purposes of qualifying for the statutory license – meaning that it must be one that owns or controls the means of communication of the television signals to the company’s customers. As FilmOn does not own or control the Internet, it is not such a facilities-based carrier.
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The FCC today adopted rules to require that the public inspection files of radio stations (and of cable television systems and operators of satellite radio and television companies) to put their public inspection files online.  While, thus far, the FCC has only released a public notice summarizing its decision and not the full text explaining its reasoning, what is clear is that the new rule will go in to effect later this year for commercial radio stations with 5 or more full-time employees which are located in the Top 50 markets.  Other radio stations will have two years to come into compliance with the new requirements.

The rules, like the TV rules adopted several years ago (see our Q and A about the TV online file requirements, here), require that stations upload their files into an FCC-maintained database that will display the contents of each station’s file to the public.  According to today’s public notice, political broadcasting material only needs to be uploaded on a going forward basis upon the effective date of the new rules (i.e. only new documents created after the effective date of the new rules needs to be uploaded – existing documents would be maintained in the station’s paper file until the two-year retention period for political documents has expired).  It appears that all other documents not already in FCC databases will need to be fully uploaded by licensees within 6 months of the effective date of the new rules.  The documents that will need to be uploaded within that 6 months would include Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and the Annual EEO Public Inspection file report back to the beginning of the station’s current license term – documents not normally filed with the FCC.  Ownership Reports, FCC applications and similar documents filed with the FCC will be automatically uploaded to the station’s public file by the FCC’s own systems. 
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In the last week, copyright audits have been in the news.  Several broadcasting publications noted the recent announcements by the Copyright Royalty Board that SoundExchange has decided to audit several companies that pay it royalties, including webcasters (including Pandora and a number of broadcasters in connection with their webcast operations), business establishments services (those who provide music for stores and other businesses – DMX and Muzak) and music services provided by cable and satellite video providers (e.g. DMX and Muzak).  It was also just announced in the Federal Register that the sports leagues plan to audit a number of MVPDs to determine if the MVPDs have been accurately paying the royalties owed the sports league for the sports programming on TV stations carried on certain satellite and cable systems.  What are these audits, and why are they being announced by publication in the Federal Register?

When media companies buy a piece of equipment, or a building in which to house their operations, they usually know in advance how much their purchase is going to cost, and in the vast majority of cases, they get a bill specifying the price.  Even the purchase of some programming is easily quantifiable – either as a fixed fee per month, or some barter arrangement or other set fee.

But, in many other licensing transactions, the fees are not as easily quantifiable.  For certain movie packages or other syndicated video programming, the number of times that a program is played is not necessarily clear in advance.  For music, it is even more complicated, as a digital music service never knows how much music it is going to use when it enters into a licensing agreement.  In the case of programming carried by an MVPD on a distant signal basis pursuant to the compulsory copyright licenses under Sections 111 and 119 of the Copyright Act, the MVPD in advance won’t know how many subscribers it will have or exactly what programming the stations that it carries will program.  So in all of these cases, the user of the copyrighted material does not get a bill.  Instead, the user has to tell the “seller” of the rights (or its representative) how much they owe.  Because the buyer is reporting how much they think that they owe, the rights organizations usually have the right, by contract or by law, to audit the user to decide if the user paid the right amount.
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It’s that time of the year when we need to dust off the crystal ball and make predictions about the legal issues that will impact the business of broadcasters in 2016.  While we try to look ahead to identify the issues that are on the agenda of the FCC and other government agencies, there are always surprises as the regulators come up with issues that we did not anticipate. With this being an election year, issues may arise as regulators look to make a political point, or as Commissioners look to establish a legacy before the end of their terms in office.  And you can count on there being issues that arise that were unanticipated at the beginning of the year.

But, we’ll nevertheless give it a try – trying to guess the issues that we will likely be covering this year.  We’ll start today with issues likely to be considered by the FCC, and we’ll write later about issues that may arise on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the maze of government agencies and courts who deal with broadcast issues.  In addition, watch these pages for our calendar of regulatory deadlines for broadcasters in the next few days.

So here are some issues that are on the table at the FCC.  While the TV incentive auction may well suck up much of the attention, especially in the first half of the year, there are many other issues to consider.  We’ll start below with issues affecting all stations, and then move on to TV and radio issues in separate sections below. 
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