Noncommercial Broadcasting

The FCC last week released its tentative agenda for its April 23 open meeting.  For broadcasters, that meeting will include consideration of the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (draft NPRM here) looking to broaden obligations for the audio description of television programming (referred to as the Video Description proceeding) – which we will write about in more detail later.  The agenda also includes a Report and Order modifying rules relating to Low Power FM stations, which also addresses the protection of TV channel 6 stations by FM stations (full-power or LPFM) operating in the portion of the FM band reserved for use by noncommercial stations.  The FCC’s draft order in this proceeding is here.  We initially wrote here about these FCC’s proposals when the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the proceeding was adopted last year. Today, we will look at how the FCC has tentatively decided to resolve some of the issues.

One of the most controversial issues was the proposal to allow LPFM stations to operate with a directional antenna.  While some directional operations had been approved by waiver in the past, there was some fear that allowing these antennas more broadly could create the potential for more interference to full-power stations.  As a directional antenna requires greater care in installation and maintenance to ensure that it works as designed, some feared that LPFM operators, usually community groups often without a broadcast background or substantial resources, would not be able to properly operate such facilities.  The FCC has tentatively decided to allow use of directional antenna by LPFM stations. However, it will require LPFM stations installing such antennas to conduct proof of performance measurements to assure that the antenna is operating as designed.  The cost of such antennas, the limited situations in which such antennas will be needed (principally when protecting translators and in border areas), and the additional cost of the proof of performance should, in the FCC’s opinion, help to limit their use to entities that can afford to maintain them properly.
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In the last three weeks, we have written about actions that the FCC has taken to help broadcasters through the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus.  The FCC appears to realize that the business of broadcasting in the current crisis is vastly different than it was just a month ago.  The FCC has provided

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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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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Despite the telework restrictions in place at the FCC, regulatory life goes on, with the Commission continuing to process applications and deliver decisions every day.  One of those decisions released yesterday clarified the FCC’s rural radio policy, and its application to noncommercial FM stations.  The rural radio policy was adopted a decade ago to preserve program diversity in rural areas by restricting the move of radio stations into more urbanized areas through city of license changes.  The policy restricts rural stations from changing their city of license to a location from which the station could place a principal city contour over 50% of any urbanized area (see our articles here and here for more details on this policy).  The decision yesterday upheld prior decisions in the same proceeding which concluded that, for noncommercial reserved-band stations, the appropriate contour to analyze is the 60 dBu contour.  If that contour would cover more than 50% of an urbanized area after a city of license change, the change will generally be prohibited for any station not now providing such coverage over an urbanized area.

The licensee in this case had argued that this decision was illogical, as the rural radio prohibition for commercial stations is only triggered when the 70 dBu contour covers more than 50% of the urbanized area – not the 60 dBu contour.  The FCC rejected that argument, saying that the policy being advocated was more appropriately raised in a rulemaking, not in an application case like this.  The FCC’s finding in this case would mean that two broadcasters, one commercial and one noncommercial, could propose moves from rural locations to the same new city of license and propose to operate from the exact same antenna with the exact same power levels and height above average terrain, and the noncommercial application would be denied as it would be deemed an application for the urbanized area because its 60 dBu contour covered more than 50% of that area, while the commercial station would be granted as its 70 dBu did not reach 50% of the urbanized area.  Two stations providing exactly the same service to the same urbanized area would be treated differently – one as if it serves the urbanized area, the other as if it would not.
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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.
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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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Last week, the FCC adopted an order making numerous changes to its processes for selecting winning applicants among mutually-exclusive applicants for new noncommercial broadcast stations, including noncommercial, reserved band full power FM stations and LPFMs. Applicants are “mutually exclusive” when their technical proposals are in conflict – meaning that if one is granted it would create interference to the other so that the other cannot also be allowed to operate. The changes adopted by the FCC, which we wrote about when first proposed here, affect not only the process of applying for new noncommercial stations and the system for resolving conflicts, but also address the holding period for new stations once construction permits are granted, and the length of permits for LPFM stations.

In cases involving mutually exclusive applications for new noncommercial stations, the FCC uses a “points system” to determine which of the mutually-exclusive applicants should have its application granted. The point system relies on paper hearings to determine which applicant has the most points, awarding preferences on factors such as whether they have fewer interests in other broadcast facilities, whether they are local organizations, and whether they are part of state-wide networks.
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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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