The judge presiding over the royalty litigation between BMI and the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC) approved the settlement between these parties by an order released on March 23.  At the same time, the judge approved an order keeping the specifics of the approved settlement confidential for 30 days while the settlement is being implemented

As Washington reacts to the coronavirus, there are certainly regulatory implications to broadcasters and other media companies.  The FCC Thursday announced that its headquarters is closed to visitors and that its employees should begin to telework.  Many FCC employees regularly took advantage of telework options before the current situation, so it can be expected that many routine application processing activities (particularly those involving electronically filed applications) should be able to proceed with relatively minimal delays.  What remains to be seen is the ability of the FCC to handle more complex matters that often involve meetings with stakeholders and among FCC staff before decisions are made.  While these too can be handled electronically and telephonically, the speed of FCC actions may well be slower than normal as technological issues are worked out and as the FCC may be called on to address telecommunications matters related to combatting the virus.

The FCC’s Audio Division, on Friday, released a Public Notice describing some special processes it will use in light of the teleworking policy.  First, college and university stations can rely on the FCC rules that exempt these stations from the FCC’s minimum operating schedule during recess periods without the need for a special temporary authority.  The current college shutdowns will be treated as recess periods.
Continue Reading Washington Reacts to the Virus – FCC Closed to Visitors and Its Employees Told to Telework; Audio Division Issues Guidance for Radio Regulatory Filings, and Copyright Office Postpones Webcasting Royalty Trial

The FCC yesterday released a Public Notice calling for public comment on the state of the communications marketplace so that it can prepare a report to Congress – a report that is required every even-numbered year.  The Notice calls for comments on the state of competition in various sectors of the communications industry – including for audio and video.  The inclusion of audio in this report is relatively new – being included for the first time two years ago (see our article here).  Comments in this proceeding are due on April 13, with replies due May 13.

The Audio Competition Report prepared two years ago was very important in informing the FCC as to the state of competition in that segment of the market.  Comments filed with the Commission on the report were incorporated in the record of the FCC’s Quadrennial Review Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which entertained the possibility of changes in the ownership rules for broadcast radio in light of the substantial competition that comes from digital audio sources (see our article here on the Quadrennial Review NPRM).  Whether this year’s report will be as crucial is unknown, as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the FCC’s 2017 ownership rule changes have, for now, put all broadcast ownership changes on hold while the FCC (and the Department of Justice) decide whether to appeal that case to the Supreme Court or to attempt to answer the Third Circuit’s concerns that the FCC had not sufficiently addressed the impact of changes in its ownership rules on minority ownership (see our articles here and here).  While these decisions are being made, it appears that all ownership changes are on hold.
Continue Reading FCC Seeks Comments on the State of the Communications Marketplace – Including for Audio and Video

Global Music Rights, the relatively new performing rights organization that signed a number of composers of popular songs away from ASCAP and BMI in order to seek higher music royalties for the public performance of their works on radio stations and other media platforms (see our articles here and here), lost one round in its litigation with the Radio Music License Committee in RMLC’s attempt to bring GMR under some sort of rate review under the antitrust laws.  RMLC has alleged that GMR, by combining multiple artists in a single essentially take-it-or-leave-it package, is able to charge rates well above what any artists could receive on its own, thus violating the antitrust laws (see our articles here and here).  This is a theory like the one which lead to an arbitration with SESAC dramatically lowering royalty rates the radio industry pays to that organization (see our articles here and here).  In a decision released Friday, the Judge presiding over RMLC’s case rejected GMR’s arguments that the suit should be dismissed without a trial.   The Judge, in a short three-page opinion, said that viewed in their most favorable light to RMLC (which is the standard used in deciding on such motions), the facts alleged by RMLC were enough to support the claims it made in the lawsuit, so the case will go to trial.

But this is not necessarily a great victory, as the Judge notes that it remains to be seen whether, when the full facts are introduced at the trial and challenged by GMR, these facts will in fact be enough to sustain the claims of RMLC.  A similar finding was made in GMR’s countersuit – arguing that RMLC formed an illegal buyer’s cartel in violation of the antitrust laws by trying to negotiate royalty rates for most commercial radio operators (see our article here on that countersuit).  The Court rejected RMLC’s argument that the GMR suit should be dismissed, finding that there were enough facts raised to potentially support GMR’s claims, though also warning that it remained to be seen if, once the facts were presented and challenged at trial, whether they indeed would sustain GMR’s claims.
Continue Reading Litigation Continues as Court Rejects GMR Motion to Dismiss RMLC Lawsuit – and RMLC’s Request to Dismiss GMR Claims

Most years, at some point in January, we look into our crystal ball and try to see some of the legal and regulatory issues likely to face broadcasters.  We already provided a calendar of the routine regulatory filings that are due this year (see our Broadcaster’s Regulatory Calendar).  But not on that calendar are the policy issues that will affect the regulatory landscape in the coming year, and into the future.  This year, the biggest issue will no doubt be the November election.  Obviously, broadcasters must deal with the many day-to-day issues that arise in an election year including the rates to be charged political candidates, the access to airtime afforded to those candidates, and the challenges associated with the content of issue advertising that non-candidate groups seek to transmit to the public.  The election in November will also result in a President being inaugurated in just less than a year – which could signal a continuation of the current policies at the FCC or potentially send the Commission in a far different direction.  With the time that the election campaigns will demand from Congress, and its current attention to the impeachment, Congress is unlikely to have time to tackle much broadcast legislation this year.

The broadcast performance royalty is one of those issues likely on hold this year.  While it was recently re-introduced in Congress (see our article here), it is a struggle for any copyright legislation to get through Congress and, in a year like the upcoming one, moving a bill like the controversial performance royalty likely will likely not be high on the priorities of Congressional leaders.  This issue will not go away – it will be back in future Congresses – so broadcasters still need to consider a long-term strategy to deal with the issue (see, for instance, our article here on one such strategy that also helps resolve some of the music royalty issues we mention later in this article).
Continue Reading Looking Ahead to the Rest of 2020 – Potential Legal and Regulatory Issues For the Remainder of the Year

Last week, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was in the news for sending a letter to the major record labels asking for information about their practices in paying broadcast stations for airing the label’s music.  The letter follows correspondence last year between the Commissioner and the RIAA (the Recording Industry’s trade group) asking for similar information, which the RIAA claimed that it did not have.  This process began after a Rolling Stone magazine article suggested that “payola” was still a common practice in the broadcast industry.  These actions, and the press reports that followed, raise a couple of interesting questions including what the FCC rules are on payola, and how broadcast practices compare to those of online companies.

The Communications Act prohibits the practice of “payola” by requiring, in Section 317, that when any content is aired on a station in exchange for anything of value, the station must disclose that “consideration” has been paid by the person or entity that pays for the consideration.  Thus, “payola” arises when a broadcast station employee or contractor receives or is promised anything of value in return for putting any content on the air, and that payment is not disclosed to the public.  Payola usually occurs when someone makes a gift or payment to a person involved in station programming (i.e., station employees, program producers, program suppliers) in exchange for favorable on-air exposure of a product or service.  While the term “payola” is most often associated with the receipt by a station announcer or music director of money, trips or other value for playing songs on the station, the same prohibition applies whenever any station programming personnel receive anything of value in exchange for airing any content where a sponsorship identification is not broadcast.  For examples of fines for airing programming for which consideration was received without acknowledging the receipt of valuable consideration, outside the context of music, see our articles here, here and here
Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Asks Record Labels for Information About Payola Practices – What are the FCC Rules?  How Do These Practices Compare to Online Music Providers?

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.
Continue Reading While You Were on Vacation….Looking at FCC Regulatory Actions over the Holidays and Deadlines for January

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.
Continue Reading January Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Annual Report, EEO, License Renewal, Political Rate Windows, FM Auction Dates and More

Late last month, the Ask Musicians For Music Act (the “AMFM Act”) was introduced in both the House and Senate. If enacted, the AMFM Act would impose on over-the-air broadcast radio stations a performance royalty for the use of sound recordings in their programming. This is yet another bill proposing that the current royalty that requires that digital music services pay royalties both for the use of musical compositions (as already paid by broadcasters) and the sound recording (currently paid by broadcasters only for the Internet streams of their programming) be extended to cover all over-the-air broadcasts by radio stations. Extending the sound recording performance royalty to over-the-air radio has been proposed many times before (see, for instance, our articles hereherehere and here), but this is the first time that the proposal has been advanced in the current session of Congress. Similar bills were introduced last session before the 2018 elections but were never brought to a vote in either the House or the Senate – see our post here.

As we’ve written before, the royalties that broadcasters pay to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and even GMR are paid to the composers of music (and the copyright holders in the musical compositions, usually a publishing company). Sound recording royalties are paid to the performers (and the copyright holders in the performances, usually the record labels). These are the royalties that broadcasters pay to SoundExchange when they stream their programming on the Internet. Historically, in the US, broadcasters and other businesses who play sound recordings are not subject to a performance royalty for the use of those sound recordings (except for digital audio music services who do pay sound recording performance royalties in the US), though such royalties are paid in many other countries in the world. This bill proposes to make broadcasters pay for their over-the-air performances. Under the provisions of the bill, the Copyright Royalty Board would set these royalties along with those paid by digital audio services, and the royalties would be paid to SoundExchange.
Continue Reading AMFM Act Introduced in Congress to Impose Sound Recording Performance Royalty on Broadcast Stations

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.
Continue Reading How Far Does the FCC Authority Over False EAS Alerts Go? Could Online Programming be Subject to its Reach?