Emergency Communications

With more and more states, municipalities, and other authorities issuing shelter-in-place warnings or other restrictions on travel, and with more station facilities likely to be closed temporarily because of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, broadcasters need to be planning on how to continue to operate their facilities in the new world we are all facing.  I participated in an online conference last week with over 100 college broadcasters who are perhaps on the front lines of this problem, as so many operate from campus buildings that were closed early after (and in some cases before) the declaration of the pandemic.  We’ve had calls from many other broadcasters about the issues that they are facing in their operations, as communities take actions to enforce the personal distancing urged by medical organizations.  Many commercial broadcasters may be seeing in the upcoming days greater restrictions on unnecessary travel, perhaps impacting access to their facilities and studios.  Planning and coordination among broadcasters – and with broadcasters and local officials – is already underway in many cities and with many state broadcast associations.  But it also needs to be considered by individual broadcasters everywhere.

One of the most basic questions is one of access.  Questions are arising every day as to whether local officials can block access to broadcast stations or to the coverage of news events during the emergency.  Will broadcasters be shut down like so many other businesses?  There has been much written in the trade press and elsewhere about broadcasters being “essential services” that should be allowed access to their facilities and to news events during any crisis.  There is in fact statutory language in the US code to that effect (see, for instance, this section that tells federal officials not to limit access or facilities to radio and TV broadcasters in an emergency).  But that statute restricts the actions of federal officials to block broadcaster access and is silent as to actions by state and local officials.  Even if state laws have similar provisions, those provisions are only helpful if someone in a position of authority has the time and inclination to look at the legal niceties that apply to a given situation.  Coordination with state and local officials is paramount in a situation like the current one that affects everyone, everywhere.  Stations should already be in touch with state and local authorities to see how they can help in the current crisis.  At the same time, they should also be discussing and planning with these officials to ensure access to studios and transmitter sites, and exemptions from travel restrictions for news coverage, so that they can continue to provide their important services to the public.
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While many of us were trying to enjoy the holidays, the world of regulation kept right on moving, seemingly never taking time off.  So we thought that we ought to highlight some of the actions taken by the FCC in the last couple weeks and to also remind you of some of the upcoming January regulatory deadlines.

Before Christmas, we highlighted some of the regulatory dates for January – including the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists due to be placed in the online public file of all full-power stations by January 10.  Also on the list of dates in our post on January deadlines are the minimum SoundExchange fees due in January for most radio stations and other webcasters streaming programming on the Internet.  January also brings the deadline for Biennial Ownership Reports (postponed from their normal November 1 filing deadline).

In that summary of January regulatory dates, we had mentioned that the initial filing of the new Annual Children’s Television Programming Report would be due this month.  But, over the holiday week, the FCC extended that filing deadline for that report until March 30 to give broadcasters time to familiarize themselves with the new forms.  The FCC will be doing a webinar on the new form on January 23.  In addition, the FCC announced that many of the other changes in the children’s television rules that were awaiting review under the Paperwork Reduction Act had been approved and are now effective.  See our article here for more details.
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Several years ago, the FCC mandated that broadcasters utilize not only the traditional over-the-air “daisy-chain” broadcast EAS alerting system where emergency alerts are passed from one station to another but also utilize an Internet-based Common Alerting Protocol (“CAP”) system where warnings can be sent directly to stations (see, for example, our articles here and

The FCC yesterday announced that the due dates for Biennial Ownership Reports, which had been December 1 of this year, will now be January 31, 2020. The Order announcing that action is available here.  The FCC notice says that this additional time is needed to make updates to the ownership forms in

On the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, we should all be thankful for the work of the nation’s first responders. Broadcasters and other members of the electronic communications industries play a part in the response to any emergency – including through their participation in the Emergency Alert System (EAS). In recent weeks, the FCC has been aggressively prosecuting parties who it has found to have transmitted false or misleading EAS alerts. This was exhibited this week through the Notice of Apparent Liability issued to CBS for an altered and shortened version of the EAS tones used in the background of a “Young Sheldon” episode, leading to a $272,000 proposed fine. Consent decrees were announced two weeks ago with broadcasters and cable programmers for similar violations (see FCC notices here, here, here and here), with payments to the US Treasury reaching $395,000. These follow past cases that we have written about here, here, here, here, and here, where fines have exceeded $1 million. The CBS case raised many interesting issues that have received comment elsewhere in recent days, including the First Amendment implications of restrictions on the use of EAS tones in programming, and whether an altered tone in the background of an entertainment program, where audiences would seemingly realize there was no actual emergency, should really be the subject of an enforcement action. But the question that has not received much attention is one raised by the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory released last month addressing the improper use of EAS alert tones and the Wireless Emergency Alert tones used by wireless carriers (known as WEA alerts), and simulations of those tones. That advisory raises questions of just how far the FCC’s jurisdiction in this area goes – could it reach beyond the broadcasters and cable programmers to which it has already been applied and extend to online programming services?

This question arises because the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory addresses not only EAS tones used by broadcasters and cable systems, but also the WEA alert tones voluntarily deployed by most wireless providers. The advisory makes clear that the use of either EAS or WEA tones without a real emergency is a violation of the FCC rules. The Advisory states:

The use of simulated or actual EAS codes or the EAS or WEA Attention Signals (which are composed of two tones transmitted simultaneously), for nonauthorized purposes—such as commercial or entertainment purposes—can confuse people or lead to “alert fatigue,” whereby the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.

The FCC goes on to state:

the use of the WEA common audio attention signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency, authorized test, or except as designed and used for PSAs by federal, state, local, tribal and territorial entities, is strictly prohibited.
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Last week, the FCC issued Public Notice reminding all broadcasters and other EAS participants of the obligation to file their ETRS Form Three report by September 23. That form provides details about a station’s participation in the August 7 Nationwide EAS Test (see our article here about the test and the required ETRS filings)

With the summer winding down, you can expect that come September, like everywhere else, Washington will leap back to life and the government will try to accomplish what they can before the end of the year. That will no doubt mean some regulatory actions (and potentially court actions and legislative actions) affecting broadcasters this Fall, though what they are remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is plenty to keep broadcasters busy. While September is one of those months in which there are few of the normally recurring filing deadlines (no EEO reports, renewal filings or quarterly reports need to be submitted during the month), there is one big deadline that no commercial broadcaster should forget – the filing of annual regulatory fees.

We understand that there is an order circulating at the FCC right now to set the final amount of the regulatory fees for the year. As these fees must be paid before October 1 when the government’s new fiscal year begins, we can expect that order shortly, with fees due at some point in September. As the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposed significant unexplained increases in the fees paid by radio, and a change to the methodology used to compete TV fees, moving from a DMA-based fee to one calculated based on an individual station’s predicted coverage (which had the effect of raising some fees, especially for high-powered VHF stations, while lowering others), a number of broadcasters and the NAB complained about those proposals. Watch for the FCC’s decision in the coming days to see how it addresses these complaints about the proposed fees, and to see when the fees will be due.
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Once upon a time, August was a quiet month in Washington, when everyone went on vacation. Sure, there are plenty of vacations that will happen this coming month, but it seems that regulatory activity no longer takes a break. For example, August 1 is the due date for the filing with the FCC of license renewals for all radio stations (including translators and LPFM stations) in North and South Carolina, and the filing of associated EEO forms for all full power radio stations in those states. With the renewal filing comes the obligation that these stations start airing, on August 1 and August 16, their post-filing announcements informing the public about the submission of the license renewal applications. Radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, who filed their renewals on or before June 2, also need to keep running their post-filing announcements on these same dates. Radio stations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who are in the next license renewal group with their renewal applications to be filed by October 1, need to start broadcasting their pre-filing announcements this month, also to run on the 1st and 16th of the month. See our post here on pre-filing announcements.

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 that are part of an employment unit with five or more full-time employees must place their annual EEO public inspection file reports in their online public file. Links to those reports should also be placed on the home pages of these station’s websites, if they have a website. The effectiveness of these EEO public file reports, and the EEO programs of which they are a part, are being reviewed by the FCC in a proceeding started by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about which we wrote here. Comments on this notice asking for suggestions about how to make the EEO rules more effective are due August 21, with reply comments due by September 5.
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Last year, as we wrote here, the FCC adopted a number of new rules regarding its emergency communications practices using the EAS system. At that time, soon after all the attention that had been given to the EAS alerts about the false Hawaii missile attack, the FCC adopted rules requiring stations to report to the FCC if they participated in an EAS alert about a fake emergency. Also, the FCC authorized EAS officials to conduct EAS tests using the real event codes for particular emergencies, but only after taking precautions to warn EAS-participating stations and the public that these tests were only tests, and not real emergencies. The effective dates of those new rules were put on hold pending review of the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act. According to a Federal Register publication this week, they have now been approved, and thus these rules are now in effect.

The FCC also approved a requirement for state emergency coordinators to file with the FCC in a new electronic database all Statewide EAS plans and any updates to those plans. The OMB also approved the data collection requirements of that rule but the rule will not become effective until one year after the FCC announces that it has created the electronic database to receive these updated plans. We recently noted that the FCC last month published links to statewide plans, and we urged state coordinating committees and participating broadcasters to review these plans to make sure that they have not become out of date with the passage of time. Given the upcoming new filing obligations, it would appear that this review is even more important.
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