Emergency Communications

It’s that time again.  If you are planning any on-air pranks on Monday for April Fools’ Day, think twice.  As we do every year about this time, we need to play our role as attorneys and ruin the fun by repeating our reminder that broadcasters need to be careful with any on-air pranks, jokes or other bits prepared especially for the day.  While a little fun is OK, remember that the FCC does have a rule against on-air hoaxes. While issues under this rule can arise at any time, broadcaster’s temptation to go over the line is probably highest on April 1.

The FCC’s rule against broadcast hoaxes, Section 73.1217, prevents stations from running any information about a “crime or catastrophe” on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused.  Public harm is defined as “direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties.”  Air a program that fits within this definition and causes a public harm, and expect to be fined by the FCC.
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November is perhaps the month with the lightest schedule of routine FCC regulatory filing obligations – with no requirements for EEO Public File Reports, Quarterly Issues Programs or Children’s Television Reports. Nor are there other routine obligations that come up in the course of any year, though during November of 2019, broadcasters will be preparing for next year’s December 1 Biennial Ownership Report deadline. So does that mean that there are no dates of interest this month for broadcasters? As always, there are always a few dates of which you need to keep track.

The one November date applicable to all broadcasters is the requirement for the filing of ETRS Form Three, which gives a detailed analysis of the results of the nationwide EAS test conducted on October 3. Stations should have filed Form Two on the day of the test reporting whether or not the test was received. They now need to follow up with the more detailed Form Three report by November 19. See our article here for more information.
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Late last week, the FCC issued a “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in its AM Revitalization Proceeding. The FCC has been taking steps over the last several years to attempt to restore AM radio to health. In last week’s Further Notice, the FCC followed up on ideas that it floated in 2016 in a prior order in the AM revitalization proceeding (see our articles here and here) suggesting that protections afforded to Class A AM stations be lessened in order to allow increased power by other more localized AM stations. Class A stations, often referred to as “clear channel” stations, are those 50 kW AM stations that are currently given interference protections both during the day and to their nighttime “skywave” signals (the signals heard hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from the station’s transmitter site after bouncing off the atmosphere). These protections allow these stations to cover large geographic areas, and were particularly important in the early days of radio when these stations provided the only radio services to vast portions of the country that did not have local radio stations. In the Further Notice released last week, the FCC questions whether such protections are still necessary given the proliferation of other sources of audio programming (including radio stations, satellite radio and the Internet), and advances specific proposals that would reduce the protections accorded to these stations to allow some power increases by local AM stations.

This proposal is not without controversy. Obviously, station owners who hold Class A licenses do not believe that the service provided by these stations should be impeded. In fact, they note that many of these stations are among the few profitable AM stations in the country, often providing unique programming and substantial programming diversity to rural residents. These stations have also always been a favorite of long-haul truckers and others driving at night for providing uninterrupted service over vast distances. Perhaps even more importantly, and a question specifically raised for comment by the FCC, is the impact that any loss of service from these stations would have on the EAS network. Many of these stations serve as the primary stations for relaying national emergency messages to the EAS network. In fact, many of these stations have been provided funds by FEMA to improve their facilities to insure that they are available to provide uninterrupted service in the event of a national emergency.
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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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With Hurricane Florence about to hit the East Coast, broadcasters are well reminded of their obligations with respect to the airing of emergency information. Broadcasters may also want to consider the benefits that the FCC can offer in an emergency. While the FCC yesterday announced the postponement of its test of DIRS, the Disaster Information Reporting System, broadcasters may want to consider quickly getting familiar with this system. The voluntary system allows stations in the area affected by any disaster to report on the status of their operations. In the past, FCC officials have assisted stations that were off-the-air or operating with emergency facilities in order to direct resources (like gas trucks to fuel emergency generators) to these stations so that they could continue to provide emergency information. Registering in DIRS can facilitate getting the information about your station’s status to the FCC. More information is available on the FCC’s website, here. [Update, 9/11/2018, 1:30 PM the FCC just released a Public Notice providing contact information in various FCC Bureaus for licensees to contact about service outages, STA filings and their needs to resume service to the public].

But emergencies also impose regulatory obligations on broadcasters – particularly TV broadcasters. Last year, the issued a FCC Public Notice reminding all video programmers of the importance of making emergency information accessible to all viewers. The FCC has just posted a link to a notice about a disaster preparedness webinar it will be conducting on September 27 for state and local government officials, and we would not be surprised to see a new notice reminding broadcasters of their emergency obligations in the coming days. Last year’s notice serves as a good refresher on all of the obligations of video programmers designed to make emergency information available to members of the viewing audience who may have auditory or visual impairments that may make this information harder to receive. The notice also reminded readers that they could file complaints against video programming distributors who do not follow the rules. Thus, TV broadcasters need to be extremely sensitive to all of these requirements.
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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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The last month has been one where there has been lots of activity dealing with EAS. The FCC announced that it will be conducting a Nationwide EAS Test on September 20, 2018. The FCC has been conducting these Nationwide tests routinely over the last few years (see, for instance, our articles here and here on past tests). This test will include wireless carriers as well as broadcasters. To be prepared for this test, the FCC reminded EAS participants to file their updated ETRS Form One by August 27 (see our article here), and to be prepared to file the post-test Forms Two (filed on the day of the test) and Three (due by November 5) to report on the results of the test at their stations.

At its July meeting (as we briefly noted here), the FCC adopted an Order making some changes to the EAS rules, as well as asking further questions in an included Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The changes included:

  • New rules allowing “live code testing” – using actual EAS alert tones in practice alerts, but only after providing lots of publicity that the tones are being used only as part of a test
  • Allowing the use of the EAS attention signal in PSAs and other informational announcements from FEMA and other public interest organizations – but only where simulated tones developed by FEMA are used, as these simulated tones will not trigger other station’s EAS alerts, and only where the tones used are specifically identified as not being a real notice of an emergency.

Use of the alert tones like this have been approved in the past by the FCC, but only by use of a waiver process. The FCC actions allow for more testing and more public information without having to request FCC approval for each such use.
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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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