Multiple Ownership Rules

Yesterday, the FCC released two public notices reflecting its attempts to assist broadcasters coping with the COVID-19 crisis.  The first public notice deals with the attempts of several broadcasters to support their advertisers while at the same time filling advertising inventory holes that have been created by the cancellation of other advertising schedules.  Broadcasters who

Life has been upended for most Americans due to the spread of the coronavirus and that tumult is, of course, reaching broadcasters as it reaches others throughout the country.  As we wrote here, like many agencies and businesses, as part of its COVID-19 response, the FCC has moved most of its workforce to teleworking in an attempt to keep FCC staff and their families safe.  With most FCC forms and filings being submitted electronically, and remote work already being routine for many FCC employees, there should be minimal disruption to broadcasters’ routine daily dealings with the Commission.  Broadcasters should continue to comply with all FCC rules, including meeting filing deadlines, though it does appear that the FCC is willing to be flexible with some deadlines, especially when a broadcaster can point to virus-related reasons that the deadline cannot be met.  Check with your attorney on specific deadlines.  And check our article from yesterday highlighting some issues to consider while preparing for whatever comes next.

While there is much disruption to normal routines, the routines of regulatory life largely carry on.  For instance, before moving on to April deadlines, we should remind TV broadcasters that, if they have not already done so, their first Annual Children’s Television Report is due to be submitted to the Commission by March 30.  See our articles here and here on that new report.
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The FCC yesterday issued a Public Notice addressing news sharing or “pooling” agreements between television stations that are coming together as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Stations may be faced with fewer crews to cover local events as infections and self-quarantines take place, and because of the general obligation to maintain physical distancing from other people, no one wants a crowd of camera crews and reporters at every news event.  The FCC’s notice yesterday states that such agreements entered into during the crisis for news sharing do not need to be in writing and do not need to be in the public file – an exemption to the normal obligation to reduce any sharing agreement between TV stations to writing and add it to the online public file.  That obligation exempts “on-the-fly” arrangements during breaking news events and those precipitated by unforeseen or rapidly developing events.  The FCC concluded that pandemic-related agreements fit into that category.

Ordinarily, the obligation to include sharing agreements between TV stations in the public file is a very broad one.  We wrote about that obligation here.  The rule grew out of concerns by the FCC that stations could be using sharing agreements to skirt the FCC’s ownership rule limitations and wanted such agreements to be public so that it, and the public, could review their provisions to determine if any FCC action was necessary.
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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.
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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).
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With the holiday season getting smaller in the rear-view mirror and many parts of the country dealing with ice, snow, and single-digit temperatures, broadcasters could be forgiven for dreaming about the sunshine and warmth that come with spring.  Before spring arrives, however, broadcasters need to tend to important regulatory matters in February.  And, if you find yourself eager to plan past February, use our 2020 Broadcasters’ Calendar as a reference tool for tracking regulatory dates through the end of 2020.

But focusing on the month ahead, by February 3, all AM, FM, LPFM, and FM translator stations in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi must file their license renewal applications.  For the full-power stations in the state, there’s an additional EEO task to complete irrespective of how many employees a station employment unit (SEU) has.  Before filing for license renewal, stations in these three states must submit FCC Schedule 396. This schedule is the Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Program Report, which is a reporting to the FCC of the SEU’s equal employment opportunity activities for the last license period (SEUs with fewer than five full-time employees are not required to maintain an EEO recruitment program and are only required to check a box that they have fewer than 5 full-time employees and skip ahead to the certification).  The sequencing here is important: When filing for license renewal, the application (Schedule 303-S) asks for the file number of your already-filed Schedule 396.  So, without having already filed the schedule, you won’t be able to complete your renewal application.
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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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Late Friday, the FCC issued an Order reinstating the FCC’s 2016 ownership rules, recognizing that the changes made in those rules in 2017 (see our post here) were no longer effective because the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had thrown out the 2017 decision. See our post here on the Third Circuit decision and our article here on the court’s denial of rehearing en banc.  While the FCC may still try to appeal the Third Circuit decision to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit’s mandate has issued, meaning that its order is effective even if a Supreme Court appeal is filed.

Among the rule changes that have been rendered a nullity are the abolition of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule (once again reinforcing what we have written several times, that the rule may well outlive the daily newspaper) and the radio-television cross-ownership rule, the local TV ownership rule that had allowed combinations of two TV stations in the same market even if there were not 8 independent voices in the market after the combination, and changes to the FCC’s processing policy with respect to radio embedded markets.  These changes required the FCC to also issue two Public Notices dealing with these changes.
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In a very short decision issued on Wednesday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s request for rehearing of the September decision of a panel of three of its judges which overturned the FCC’s 2017 decision changing many of the broadcast ownership rules (including the abolition of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules).  We

In September, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit released a 2-1 decision overturning the FCC’s 2017 decision modifying many of its ownership rules (see our summary of the Court decision here, and our review of the 2017 decision here).  The Court’s decision not only upset the plans of many media companies for acquisitions based on the changes adopted in the 2017 decision, but also dashed the hope of many radio companies for timely changes in the radio ownership rules that are under consideration by the FCC in its next Quadrennial Review of its ownership rules (see our summary of the issues in the current Quadrennial Review here).  Last week, both the FCC and a number of industry groups who were parties to the Third Circuit case filed Petitions asking that all of the sitting judges on the Third Circuit vote to rehear the decision of the three-judge panel.

The panel’s decision did not find that any of the rule changes adopted by the Commission (including the abolition of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibition) were not justified by changes in the media marketplace.  Instead, the panel voided the FCC’s decision because it did not believe that the FCC had enough historical data on minority and female ownership to be able to judge the affects of any ownership changes on diversity of ownership in the media industry.  The FCC Petition for Rehearing centered on an argument that the Commission had plenty of data to support its conclusions – and that Courts have never required government agencies to have perfect information in making any decision.  Instead, agencies are only required to have sufficient factual data to justify their conclusions.  The FCC argued that, where the information that is sought by the panel might simply not exist and where the panel’s insistence on the information has held up the FCC’s attempts to modernize its media ownership rules for a decade and a half as the same judges keep rejecting FCC attempts to justify its ownership decisions, the full Court should step in and conduct a rehearing.  The industry parties emphasized how the decision was overbroad – overturning all aspects of the FCC’s decision – even parts that had not been challenged by the petitioning parties.  The industry participants also pointed to the fact that real hardships were being imposed on media companies as the FCC had not been able make changes in its ownership rules to reflect the changes in the industry that had occurred in what may have been the most dynamic 15 years in the history of the mass media.  With these requests for rehearing on file, what is next?
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