Children's Programming and Advertising

When is your website or app covered by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) and the FTC’s COPPA Rule?  Although there are gray areas under COPPA, one clear way to fall under this law is to know that you’re collecting information from children under the age of 13 online.  That’s part of what landed Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, in trouble with the FTC – including a record-setting COPPA fine of $5.7 million.  COPPA isn’t limited to the kinds of video social network apps that Musical.ly provides; broadcasters’ websites and apps may end up falling under COPPA.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Musical.ly knew that it was collecting information from children under 13 (COPPA doesn’t apply to anyone else) for several reasons.  For instance, press articles described the popularity of Musical.ly among under-13 users, the company received hundreds of complaints from parents trying to close their kids’ accounts, and the company itself provided guidance to parents regarding their children’s usage of the app. 
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The FCC this week launched an inquiry into whether the TV Parental Guidelines and the organization that oversees these ratings provide accurate information to viewers as to which TV programs are appropriate for children. The FCC released a Public Notice to initiate the inquiry at the direction of Congress in the recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Bill – the Bill which ended the threat of a second government shutdown. That Bill contained a number of provisions directing various government agencies to take specific actions, including a direction to the FCC to provide a report to Congress in 90 days on the “extent to which the rating system matches the video content that is being shown” and whether the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board (which oversees the ratings system) has the ability to address public concerns about the ratings. With the report due to be submitted to Congress by May 15, the FCC has asked for public comment on an expedited basis, with comments due March 12, and replies due just a week later on March 19.

The Board was established by a voluntary industry initiative approved by the FCC following a Congressional mandate for V-Chip technology in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. For the V-Chip to work, programs have to be rated. The ratings that resulted are familiar to most TV viewers and range from TV-Y programming appropriate for all children to TV-MA, appropriate only for mature audiences. Programs are also rated for Violence (“V”), Fantasy Violence in programming for older children (“FV”), Sexual Content (“S”), Suggestive Dialogue (“D”) and Strong Language (“L”). These ratings are applied to most TV and cable programming except news, sports, and ads. Based on the claims by interest groups that the ratings do not accurately describe the programming, Congress issued this directive to the FCC. What questions does the FCC ask in its request for comments from the public?
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In recent months, there have been many calls to regulate e-cigs, and potentially to regulate the marketing of all sorts of vaping products, including a call last week by an FCC Commissioner in an op-ed article in USA Today.  As we wrote several months ago, these suggestions have been based in the fear that increased promotion of vaping products have led to an increase in tobacco use among children.  While the FDA has been taking efforts to crack down on flavored vaping products to reduce their appeal to kids, the makers of e-cigs still advertise, including on radio and TV.  And those advertisements bring us frequent questions about whether the FCC has rules about advertising these products.  So far, the FCC has had no real role in regulating these products.  In fact, one wonders if it really has any authority to take action against the advertising of e-cigs without Congressional action.

So far, all the limits on e-cig advertising have been imposed by other agencies – principally, the FDA.  The FDA requires a tag on all vaping ads, stating that these products contain nicotine, which is an addictive substance (see our articles here and here for more details about that requirement).  And these ads should not claim health benefits for vaping.  Given the FDA’s concern about children, any ads should also stay out of programming with a large audience of children.  Could the FCC itself do more?
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With the reopening of the Federal government (at least for the moment), regulatory deadlines should begin to flow in a more normal course.  All of those January dates that we wrote about here have been extended by an FCC Public Notice released yesterday until at least Wednesday, January 30 (except for the deadlines associated with the repacking of the TV band which were unaffected by the shutdown).  So Quarterly Issues Programs lists should be added to the online public file by January 30, and Children’s Television Reports should be submitted by that date if they have not already been filed with the FCC.  Comments on the FCC’s proceeding on the Class A AM stations are also likely due on January 30 (though the FCC promised more guidance on deadlines that were affected by the shutdown – such guidance to be released today).

February will begin with a number of normal FCC EEO deadlines.  Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees need to include in their public files by February 1 the Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports.  TV stations in New Jersey and New York in Employment Units with 5 or more full-time employees also need to file their FCC Form 397 Mid-Term EEO Reports.  While the FCC appears ready to abolish that form (see our article here), it will remain in use for the rest of this year, so New Jersey and New York TV stations still need to file.  Note that the FCC considers an “employment unit” to be one or more commonly controlled stations serving the same general geographic area and sharing at least one common employee.
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We typically publish our article about upcoming regulatory dates before the beginning of each month, but this month, the looming FCC shutdown and determining its effect on filing deadlines pushed back our schedule. As we wrote on Friday, the effect of the shutdown is now becoming clear – and it has the potential to put on hold a number of the FCC deadlines, including the filing of Quarterly Children’s Television Reports due on January 10 and the uploading of Quarterly Issues Programs lists, due to be added to station’s public inspection files on January 10. The FCC-hosted public inspection file database is offline, so those Quarterly Issues Programs lists can’t be uploaded unless the budget impasse is resolved this week. Certifications as to the compliance of TV stations with the commercial limits in children’s television programs would also be added to the public file by January 10 – if it is available for use by then. While these and other dates mentioned below may be put on hold, there are deadlines that broadcasters need to pay attention to that are unaffected by the Washington budget debate.

We note that the FCC’s CDBS and LMS databases are up and operating, though most filings will be considered to be submitted the day that the FCC reopens. As the databases are up and operating, many applications can be electronically filed – so TV stations might as well timely upload their Children’s Television Reports on schedule by January 10, to avoid any slow uploading that may result from overloading of the FCC’s system as the FCC reopens. Other FCC deadlines are unaffected by the shutdown – most notably, as we wrote on Friday, those that related to the repacking of the TV band following the TV incentive auction. The FCC has money to keep its auction activities operating so staff are working to keep the repacking on track. Deadlines coming up for the repacking include a January 10th deadline for stations affected by the repacking to file their Form 387 Transition Progress Report. Auction deadlines proceed whether or not the FCC is otherwise open for business.
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While the holidays may be upon us, there is no rest in the broadcast regulatory world. December 1 brings routine EEO public file report obligations for radio and television station employment units with 5 or more full-time employees for stations located in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont. Stations in those states need to upload their EEO Public Inspection file report to their online public file by December 1, reporting on their outreach efforts for employment openings at their stations in the prior year, as well as their non-vacancy specific outreach initiative (i.e. the FCC’s EEO “menu options” where broadcasters report on efforts they have taken to educate the public about broadcast employment opportunities and to train their employees to assume more important employment roles at their stations). See our post here for more on the EEO obligations.

TV stations with 5 or more employees located in any of the New England states have the additional obligation to file their FCC Mid-Term EEO Report – due on December 3 as the 1st is a Saturday. This report, filed on FCC Form 397, provides the FCC with the last two years’ Public File Reports, and a contact person at your stations to be contacted with EEO questions. While the FCC is considering elimination of these reports as most of the required information is already in a station’s online public file (where you should have all EEO public inspection file reports back to the date of the station’s last license renewal filing), the form is still required.
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October is one of the busiest months on the broadcast regulatory calendar, as it includes a confluence of routine EEO filing requirements, quarterly filing requirements for Children’s Television Reports, public file uploading for all stations for their Quarterly Issues Programs Lists, a Nationwide EAS test, and comment dates in many FCC proceedings. Make sure that you are aware of these upcoming deadlines, particularly ones that may impact your station’s operations.

On October 1, Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports must be uploaded to the online public inspection filed by Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees. There is an additional obligation for Television Employment Units with five or more full-time employees in Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Oregon, and Washington which must file Mid-Term EEO Reports with the FCC by October 1.
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E-cig advertising has been one of those areas where broadcasters and other media companies have been looking warily at the potential for regulatory intervention. So far, as we wrote here, the FDA has only required general disclosures that “e-cigs contain nicotine and that nicotine is an addictive chemical” – an obligation that took

While September is one of those months with neither EEO reports nor Quarterly Issues Programs or Children’s Television Reports, that does not mean that there are no regulatory matters of importance to broadcasters. Quite the contrary – as there are many deadlines to which broadcasters should be paying attention. The one regulatory obligation that in recent years has come to regularly fall in September is the requirement for commercial broadcasters to pay their regulatory fees – the fees that they pay to the US Treasury to reimburse the government for the costs of the FCC’s operations. We don’t know the specific window for filing those fees yet, nor do we know the exact amount of the fees. But we do know that the FCC will require that the fees be paid before the October 1 start of the next fiscal year, so be on the alert for the announcement of the filing deadline which should be released any day now.

September 20 brings the next Nationwide Test of the EAS system, and the obligations to submit information about that test to the FCC. As we have written before (here and here), the first of those forms, ETRS Form One, providing basic information about each station’s EAS status is due today, August 27. Form Two is due the day of the test – reporting as to whether or not the alert was received and transmitted. More detailed information about a station’s participation in the test is due by November 5 with the filing of ETRS Form Three. Also on the EAS front, comments are due by September 10 on the FCC’s proposal to require stations to report on any false or inaccurate EAS reports originated from their stations. See our articles here and here.
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It may be time for summer vacations, but the FCC seemingly never rests, so there are a number of important dates of which broadcasters need to take note. By August 1, EEO Annual Public File Reports are due to added to the public files of Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, if those stations are part of an Employment Unit with five or more full-time employees. TV stations in California have the added requirement that they submit an EEO Mid-Term Report with the FCC by that same date. While the FCC last year simplified EEO recruiting, it still enforces the EEO rules, as evidenced by an admonition that was issued to a TV station at the end of last week, and the fines imposed on radio stations late last year. So don’t forget these obligations (especially as the enforcement of these rules will soon be handled by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, rather than the Media Bureau, suggesting that there will be more enforcement of those rules – see our article here).

On other matters, there are numerous open FCC proceedings in which broadcasters may want to participate. Comments are due on August 6 on the FCC’s rulemaking proposal to adopt simplified rules for processing complaints of interference by FM translators to full power stations. See our articles here and here for details on that proposal.
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