Earlier this week, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau released an Order approving a consent decree with Scripps Broadcasting where Scripps agreed to pay a penalty of $1,130,000 for perceived violations of the FCC’s rules requiring tower light monitoring for towers used by a number of TV stations that it had recently purchased.  The company also agreed to adopt numerous procedures to insure continuing compliance, including notification to the FCC of future issues.  The FCC began the investigation when a plane crashed into one station’s tower.  While the FCC specifically states that it did not find any evidence that any of the “irregularities” in the tower monitoring process contributed to the plane crash, the crash opened the door to the FCC’s investigation of the company’s tower light monitoring process at all of its stations, leading to this fine.  Are you ready for such an investigation?

In the consent decree, the Commission cites various tower-related FCC rules that must be observed by tower owners.  The rules include Section 17.47(a), which requires antenna structure owners to monitor the status of a structure’s lighting system by either (1) making “an observation of the antenna structure’s lights at least once each 24 hours either visually or by observing an automatic properly maintained indicator designed to register any failure of such lights” or (2) by “provid[ing] and properly maintain[ing] an automatic alarm system designed to detect any failure of such lights and to provide indication of such failure to the owner.”  That rule also requires that the tower owner inspect any automatic monitoring system at least once every 3 months to make sure that it is working correctly, unless the owner is using a system certified as reliable and not requiring such inspection by the Wireless Bureau of the FCC (see our articles here and here where FCC fines were issued when monitoring systems did not alert the tower owner of tower lighting issues). 
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The PIRATE Act, to crack down on pirate radio, passed the Senate this week after having passed in the House of Representatives last year.  It now goes to the President for signature.  We’ve written about this legislation several times before (see for instance, our articles here and here).  In this final version, it provides more tools for the FCC to crack down on pirate radio operators more quickly, plus it imposes obligations on the FCC to make more regularized enforcement efforts against pirate radio operators, although without necessarily providing any more resources with which to do so.

The bill increases the fine for pirate radio to a maximum of $100,000 per day of operation, to a maximum of $2,000,000.  Fines can be imposed on anyone who “knowingly does or causes or suffers to be done any pirate radio broadcasting.”  This would seemingly allow the FCC to go after not just the operators themselves, but also those who “suffer to be done” any pirate radio operation, which could possibly implicate landlords who knowingly allow pirate radio operations on their premises, consistent with some recent FCC cases (see, for instance, the one we wrote about here).  In addition, the bill allows the FCC to immediately issue a Notice of Apparent Liability (a notice of a proposed fine) without having to first issue a Notice of Violation (a notice suggesting that there is a violation of the rules, but allowing the person accused of violating the rule to first respond before the FCC can issue the proposed fine).  The accused party will still be able to argue that no fine should be imposed when it receives the Notice of Apparent Liability (e.g., the party could argue that it had a license or that it did not really broadcast at all, or at a power level that requires FCC approval), but the two-step process currently needed before issuing a proposed fine would no longer be required, thus speeding up enforcement efforts. 
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Every noncommercial station, including LPFMs, that accepts underwriting announcements should be concerned about making sure that the announcements meet FCC guidelines and remain truly noncommercial.  An FCC Order was released yesterday announcing a consent decree entered into between the University of Arkansas and the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau.  The Order illustrates what can happen if noncommercial stations are not careful – as the University agreed to pay what is essentially a fine of $76,000 and to adopt a compliance plan that forces the University to carefully monitor underwriting announcements for the next five years, as well as engaging in programs to educate and monitor its staff to insure future compliance.  The FCC Order announcing the consent decree should be carefully reviewed by all noncommercial broadcasters to see what can happen if they do not comply with the rules.

The FCC’s Order itself does not go into detail about the alleged instances of where the station exceeded what is permitted by the rules.  But the Order does enumerate the policies that restrict underwriting in the following statement:

such announcements may not contain comparative or qualitative descriptions; price information (sales or discounts); calls to action; inducements to buy, sell, rent, or lease; or excessively detailed “menu listings” of services offered by the entity. Although the Commission has not adopted any quantitative guidelines on underwriting announcements, it has found that the longer the announcement, the more likely it is to contain material that is inconsistent with their “identification only” purpose.

While most noncommercial broadcasters are familiar with the obligations to avoid calls to action, qualitative claims, and price and discount information, some of the more subjective criteria listed in the Order may not be as familiar.  The FCC notes that underwriting announcements, while they can generally mention the services provided by an underwriter, they should not have an excessively detailed list of those services.  In addition, the announcements should not be of excessive length, as they are likely to sound more commercial – going beyond a mere identification of the sponsor.  See our article here for another case where this issue arose.
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With many Americans using the holiday season to rest and recharge, broadcasters should do the same but not forget that January is a busy month for complying with several important regulatory deadlines for broadcast stations.  These include dates that regularly occur for broadcasters, as well as some unique to this month.  In fact, with the start of the lowest unit rate windows for primaries and caucuses in many states, January is a very busy regulatory month.  So don’t head off to Grandma’s house without making sure that you have all of your regulatory obligations under control.

One date applicable to all full-power stations is the requirement that, by Friday, January 10, 2020, all commercial and noncommercial radio and television stations must upload to their online public file their quarterly issues/programs list for the period covering October 1 – December 31, 2019.  The issues/programs list demonstrates the station’s “most significant treatment of community issues” during the three-month period covered by each quarterly report.  We wrote about the importance of these reports many times (see, for instance, our posts here and here).  With all public files now online, FCC staff, viewers or listeners, or anyone with an internet connection can easily look at your public file, see when you uploaded your Quarterly Report, and review the contents of it.  In the current renewal cycle, the FCC has issued two fines of $15,000 each to stations that did not bother with the preparation of these lists (see our posts here and here on those fines).  In past years, the FCC has shown a willingness to fine stations or hold up their license renewals or both (see here and here) over public file issues where there was some but not complete compliance with the obligations to retain these issues/programs lists for the entire renewal term.  For a short video on the basics of the quarterly issues/programs list and the online public inspection file, see here.
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The FCC yesterday issued Notices of Apparent Liability to two pirate radio operators that totaled over $600,000, the largest fines ever issued for those operating radio stations without an FCC-issued license.  Both operated in the Boston area.  One was fined $151,005 for operating one station (press release here, the full Notice of Apparent Liability is available here). The second was fined $453,015 for operating three transmitters in the area (press release here, the full NAL is available here).  The FCC noted that these were the maximum fines that they could impose for these violations under current law, and that the fines were the result of several years of investigations and warnings to the operators.

Commissioner O’Rielly, in a separate statement, noted that he wished that the FCC had the authority to impose even higher fines and to proceed more quickly against these operators than allowed under current FCC procedures.  The Commissioner noted that he would be working with Congress to try to get legislation passed to speed the process and raise the penalties against pirate operators. We wrote about one of those legislative proposals here that would impose fines of $100,000 a day up to $2 million against these pirates and speed the process necessary to impose these fines.  The legislation would also allow fines directly against landowners and others enabling the operations of these stations.
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With more and more stations relying on FM translators to provide local service, a decision released last week emphasizes the importance of following the rules about the operations of these stations.  In the decision, the FCC’s Audio Division proposed to issue a $2,000 fine for an FM translator owner that failed to advise the FCC

October is one of the busiest months on the broadcaster’s regulatory calendar. On October 1, EEO Public Inspection file reports are due in the online public file of stations that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. An employment unit is one or more commonly controlled stations in the same geographic area that share at least one employee.

October 1 is also the deadline for license renewal filings by radio stations (including FM translators and LPFM stations) in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On the 1st and 16th of the month, stations in those states, and in North and South Carolina, need to run post-filing announcements on the air informing listeners about the filing of their license renewal applications. Pre-filing announcements about the upcoming filing of license renewal applications by radio stations in Alabama and Georgia also are to run on the 1st and 16th. See our post here on the FCC’s reminder about the pre- and post-filing announcements.
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On Friday, the FCC’s Audio Division released its first decision in the current renewal cycle addressing the issue of incomplete public inspection files and missing Quarterly Issues Programs List, proposing to fine an AM station in Virginia $15,000 for apparently not having any Issues Programs Lists in its online public inspection file for the entire renewal term.  The decision, found here, should serve as a warning to broadcasters to make sure that their online files are complete and up to date.

The facts of this case, summarized below, seem particularly egregious as the station had the same issue of missing issues programs lists when its last renewal was filed 8 years ago.  Nevertheless, we can expect that this won’t be the last fine we will see for stations that have incomplete public files.  The FCC has been sending out warnings about incomplete online files for the last year, and we’ve been warning (see, for instance, here and here) that, with all public inspection files now being available online, the FCC will likely be issuing fines during this renewal cycle if documents are missing from the file.  The Quarterly Issues Programs lists are seen by the FCC as being particularly important as they are the only official documents demonstrating the public interest programming that was actually broadcast by a station (see our article here). 
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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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The FCC’s recent action reforming many of the rules governing the broadcast of TV programming serving the educational and informational needs of children will go into effect on September 16 (see our articles here and here). Yet, at the same time as it was announcing the process by which these rules will be implemented (see our post from yesterday), it released two consent decrees resolving apparent violations of the old KidVid rules revealed in license renewal applications filed many years ago. In one case, the FCC agreed to a financial penalty of $109,000 to be paid by Nexstar in connection with violations at two stations – one in Arkansas and one in Texas. These violations apparently first arose in connection with license renewals filed almost 15 years ago. In another case involving a religious commercial station in Pullman, Washington, the financial penalty was $30,700 for violations that were identified in connection with its 2014 license renewal application. In both cases, the licensees agreed, in addition to the financial penalties, to institute compliance plans to ensure that future violations of the children’s television rules do not occur at any commonly owned stations.

The Consent Decree entered into by the Washington station penalized the station for preempting children’s programming for station fundraisers so that it did not meet the obligation to air an average of 3 hours of weekly “core programming” addressing children’s educational and informational needs. Certain supplemental programming claimed by the station to substitute for the underperformance was aired outside of the hours in which “core programming” must air to receive credit toward a station’s obligations (currently those hours are 7 AM to 10 PM, but they will expand to 6 AM to 10 PM on September 16). The FCC also identified errors in the Quarterly Children’s Television Reports submitted by the station (as we reported yesterday, these reports will be replaced by an annual filing after the final quarterly report that is due by October 10).
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