The FCC announced on Friday that it will be hosting a symposium on the state of the broadcast industry on November 21.  On that day, there will be a panel in the morning on the state of the radio industry and one in the afternoon on television.  The Public Notice released Friday lists a diverse group of panelists, but says little beyond the fact that the forum will be occurring.  What could be behind the Commission’s decision to host this session?

The FCC is working on its Quadrennial Review of its ownership rules (see our articles here and here).  There were many who expected that review to be completed either late this year or early next, with relaxation of the radio ownership rules thought to be one of the possible outcomes.  Of course, quick action may have been derailed by the decision of the Third Circuit Court of the Appeals to vacate and remand the Commission’s 2017 ownership order.  The court’s decision unwinds the FCC’s 2017 order which included abolition of the broadcast newspaper cross-ownership rule and the rule that limited one owner from owning two TV stations in the same market unless there were 8 independent television operators in that market – see our article here on the 2017 decision and our article here on the Third Circuit’s decision.  The basis of the Third Circuit decision was that the FCC did not have sufficient information to assess the impact of its rule changes on minority ownership and other potential new entrants into broadcast ownership.  If the FCC did not have enough information to justify the 2017 decisions, many believe any further changes in its rules are on hold until the FCC can either satisfy the court’s desire for more information on minority ownership or until there is a successful appeal of that decision.  Even though FCC changes to its ownership rules may be in abeyance, the November 21 forum can shed light on the current state of the industry and why changes in ownership rules may be justified.
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The broadcast trade press was abuzz this morning with a report that an Arizona AM station currently simulcasting its programming on an FM translator has asked the FCC for permission to conduct a test where it would shut down its AM for about a year and operate solely through the FM translator. To grant this request, the FCC would need to waive its rule (Section 74.1263(b)) which prohibits an FM translator station from operating during extended periods when the primary station is not being retransmitted.

This idea of turning in an AM station to operate with a paired FM translator (though, in this case, the licensee promises to return the AM to the air within a year) is not a new one and has in fact been advanced in the AM Revitalization proceeding. The proposal offers pros and cons that the FCC will no doubt weigh in evaluating this proposal, and also raises many questions about the future of the AM band.
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Next Wednesday, July 25, I will be speaking at the Podcast Movement Conference in Philadelphia, as part of the Broadcasters Meet Podcasters Track, discussing legal issues that broadcasters need to consider as they move some of their content into podcasts. One of the topics that I will be discussing will be the music royalty obligations of podcasters who use music in their programs. A month ago, we wrote about how broadcasters’ streaming royalties are affected by smart speakers like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, as these speakers play the digital streams of a radio station’s programs where SoundExchange royalties must be paid, as opposed to the over-the-air signal of the station, where no such royalties are owed. These smart speakers may have an impact on podcasters royalties, affecting who needs to be paid in connection with the use of music in podcasts.

When I initially started to write about issues of music use in podcasts, my emphasis was on the need to secure direct licenses from performers and composers (or their record companies and publishing companies) for the rights to make reproductions and distributions of music in podcasts. When digital content is downloaded, it triggers rights under copyright law implicating the reproduction and distribution rights of copyright holders (see our article here), as opposed to their public performance rights – the rights with which broadcasters are most familiar as those are the rights that they obtain when paying Performing Rights Organizations ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR in connection with their over-the-air broadcasts and those PROs plus SoundExchange in connection with noninteractive digital streaming. When podcasts were something that were downloaded, just like the purchase of a download of a song from the iTunes music store, it was the reproduction and distribution rights that were triggered, and conventional wisdom was that the PROs had no role to play in the licensing of downloaded media. As technology has changed, the analysis of what rights you need to use music in podcasts may well be changing too. The direct licensing of music for your podcast is still needed – but a public performance right may well also be necessary.
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Last week, Aaron Burstein of our law firm and I conducted a webinar for several state broadcast associations on legal issues in digital and social media advertising. As broadcasters become more active in the digital world, whether it be through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or by posting their content online through

In an article posted on the FCC’s blog yesterday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler listed four actions that would soon be coming out of the FCC to address broadcast issues. For TV, these include looking at what constitutes “good faith negotiations” in the retransmission consent context, and whether to do away with the FCC’s network nonduplication protection rule. For radio, the long-delayed AM revitalization docket will apparently soon be considered by the FCC. And, finally, the FCC may modernize the contest rules for all broadcasters by allowing more online disclosure of contest rules. What are these proceedings all about?

The retransmission consent proceeding grows out of Congress’ adoption of STELAR, which authorized the continued retransmission of broadcast signals by satellite television operators. As part of that legislation, which we summarized here, the FCC was directed to start a proceeding to determine whether it should adopt new rules to define what constitutes “good faith negotiation” of retransmission consent agreements. There has already been significant lobbying on this issue by both sides. Right now, good faith negotiation really has not been an area where the FCC has intervened beyond using its bully pulpit to urge parties to retransmission consent disputes to reach a deal. It is commonly recognized that failing to deal with a MVPD at all would be a violation of the good faith standard, but many MVPDs now want the FCC to become more involved, putting limits on TV channel blackouts, especially just before big televised events (like the Super Bowl or the Oscars), limiting the blackout of web-based programming to subscribers of an MVPD that is involved in a dispute, limiting the bundling of Big 4 network programs with programming from other channels provided by the TV broadcaster, and similar limits. The Chairman’s blog is short on specifics, but does suggest that, while some specific prohibitions may be suggested, the FCC would also be able to look at the totality of the circumstances to determine if a broadcaster and an MVPD were negotiating in good faith (note that these rules apply to broadcast retransmission consent negotiation, not those between MVPDs and cable channels not shown on broadcast TV).
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Yesterday, it was announced that the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) settled its lawsuit with SESAC (see the press release here, and the full agreement here), where the RMLC had charged that SESAC’s practices in collecting its music royalties from the radio industry violated the antitrust laws (we wrote about the filing of the lawsuit here). While there was no admission of guilt by SESAC, it did agree that, between now and 2037, it will negotiate royalties with RMLC on an industry wide basis (up to now, SESAC could negotiate on a station-by-station basis). If RMLC and SESAC can’t agree to a royalty, the royalty rate will be set by an arbitrator – and past SESAC royalties would not have any precedential value in such proceedings (broadcasters have contended that past SESAC rates are far more, in comparison to those charged by ASCAP and BMI, then would be warranted based on the percentage of music from SESAC writers that is played on most radio stations). In subjecting SESAC to industry-wide negotiations and potential arbitration, the settlement is very similar to the deal reached in antitrust litigation between SESAC and the TV Music License Committee (about which we wrote here).

The settlement also tracks the structure of RMLC agreements with ASCAP and BMI (see our articles here and here) in that future SESAC licenses will cover broadcasters not only for their over-the-air programming, but also for their Internet streams and their HD channels (which were charged separately by SESAC for many stations). However, the agreement provides that the unitary license should not diminish the total royalties that would have been paid by the industry to SESAC if these rates were negotiated separately.   In other words, the effect of the unitary license is simply administrative convenience – everything is covered by a single license, so each station does not need multiple licenses from SESAC for its normal broadcast activities. However, unlike the ASCAP and BMI agreements, this agreement puts limits on this unified coverage for a broadcaster’s business that is outside the retransmission of the broadcaster’s over-the-air signals, excluding on-demand subscription services (presumably ruling out Rdio, in which Cumulus has an interest, from being covered by the radio license), and also excluding music-intensive custom radio, specifically ruling out Pandora and iHeartRadio from relying on this license for their online services. The agreement also says that other music users that are not primarily radio operators cannot get coverage for these other non-broadcast businesses simply by buying a radio station. What else does the agreement provide?
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Last month, we wrote about the FCC issues facing broadcasters in 2015.  Today, we’ll look at decisions that may come in other venues that could affect broadcasters and media companies in the remaining 11 months of 2015.  There are many actions in courts, at government agencies and in Congress that could change law or policy and affect operations of media companies in some way.  These include not just changes in communications policies directly, but also changes in copyright and other laws that could have a significant impact on the operations of all sorts of companies operating in the media world.

Starting with FCC issues in the courts, there are two significant proceedings that could affect FCC issues. First, there is the appeal of the FCC’s order setting the rules for the incentive auction.  Both Sinclair and the NAB have filed appeals that have been consolidated into a single proceeding, and briefing on the appeals has been completed, with oral arguments to follow in March.  The appeals challenge both the computation of allowable interference after the auction and more fundamental issues as to whether an auction is even permissible when there is only one station in a market looking to give up their channel.     The Court has agreed to expedite the appeal so as to not unduly delay the auction, so we should see a decision by mid-year that could tell us whether or not the incentive auction will take place on time in early 2016.
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This week, several notices of the intent to audit the records of several webcasters and other digital music services were published in the Federal Register, indicating that SoundExchange was planning on having the royalty payment records of these services reviewed.  Notices were sent to services including Live365, iHeartMedia and CBS).  Those notices have prompted several calls asking what this is all about.  We have written before about these audits (see our article here).  It is a somewhat routine process, where each year SoundExchange picks several webcasters whose records it will have reviewed.  Under the rules adopted by the Copyright Royalty Board, SoundExchange can elect to audit a webcaster (or other digital music service – and some of the notices this week were for services that were not webcasters – one to a background music provider or what is referred to as a “business establishment service”, here).  SoundExchange can, and usually does, elect to review three years of records.  They can only review any service once for the same time period, so effectively a service can be audited only once every three years.

Under the rules, an independent CPA is to do the audit.  Once the audit is complete, it must be provided to the music service for comment.  Then, it is up to SoundExchange and the service to work out what to do if there are discrepancies identified by the audit with which the service does not agree.  The rules do not provide for any independent adjudicator to referee what happens if there is a disagreement.  SoundExchange pays for the audit, unless the audit determines that the service underpaid by 10% or more, in which case the costs can be transferred to the service.
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This week brings news that a Virginia broadcaster has brought suit to have a court declare that broadcasters who stream their signal on the Internet, but limit the reception of the signal to within 150 miles of their transmitter site, should not have to pay royalties to SoundExchange.  As we have written before, when Congress adopted the digital performance royalty for sound recordings in the late 1990s, there was an absolute exemption from the sound recording performance royalty for broadcast transmissions, embodied in Section 114(d)(1)(A).  That exemption is not limited by the 150 mile rule.  However, there is another section of the law, Section 114(d)(1)(B), that also exempted from royalty payments retransmissions of broadcast transmissions.  The law exempted from the 150 mile limit those retransmissions done by other broadcast stations.  Thus, FM translators, for instance, can rebroadcast their primary station beyond the 150 mile rule without triggering a sound recording performance royalty.  So what was the section on the 150 mile zone for retransmissions intended to cover?

This issue was raised back in the early days of webcasting, when questions were raised as to whether simulcasting of broadcast transmissions were covered by the 150 mile rule.  There was some thought that it was in the early days of Internet radio.  In the first webcasting decision (the one conducted by a Copyright Arbitration Panel – or CARP, before the Copyright Royalty Board came into existence), evidence was cited that Yahoo! Music, growing out of Mark Cuban’s Braodcast.com which built its business on the retransmission of broadcast station’s over-the-air signals, had set up its royalty structure negotiated with the record labels to take into account that broadcast simulcasts would be exempt.  But the Librarian of Congress issued a ruling rejecting that premise for a number of reasons.  See the decision here.  These included that, because Internet retransmissions of broadcast signals could not be geographically limited, they could not be encompassed within the 150 mile exception of 114(d)(1)(B).  The Librarian read the exception as encompassing only retransmissions that could be limited to being wholly within the 150 mile zone.  The Librarian also looked at Section 112, and did not find a similar exception in that section which grants a statutory license for the ephemeral copies made in certain transmissions, and thought that such an exemption would be necessary for the retransmission of broadcast signals on the Internet. (We have discussed ephemeral rights before, see e.g. here and here). There the issue sat until the case filed last week.
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