Here are some of the FCC regulatory and legal actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters — with a quick look at the week ahead— with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • As protests and civil unrest over George Floyd’s killing roiled cities across the country, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commended local broadcasters for their coverage of the events and their willingness to put themselves at personal risk to share these stories with America (News Release). Commissioner Starks called for more diversity in media ownership (News Release). We explained the minority tax certificate on our blog here.  The tax certificate has historically been one of the most effective means of promoting diversity in broadcast ownership.
  • The FCC issued a Public Notice setting out proposed lump sum payments for reimbursement of the costs for the relocation of authorized C-Band satellite earth stations following the repurposing of some of that band for 5-G wireless uses. The notice is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Monday, setting a June 15 comment deadline on the proposed payments.
  • The Media Bureau reminded LPTV and TV translator stations operating on channels 38, 44, 45 and 46 that they must cease operations no later than 11:59 pm local time on July 13, 2020. The July 13, 2020 date for cessation of operations is a hard deadline, tied to the end of the post-Incentive Auction transition period.  (Public Notice)
  • The Media Bureau opened a settlement window running through July 31 for applicants for new or modified LPTV stations or TV translators, originally filed in 2009, that had filed for new channels or new technical facilities because use of their old channels was preempted by the incentive auction repack.  Where more than one applicant applied for the same new channel in the same area, those applicants can file to make engineering changes to their applications (including, if no other solutions are possible, changing channels yet again) or to reach other settlements (including channel sharing) to resolve their conflicts by the July 31 deadline.  (Public Notice)(see our summary of both LPTV items on the Broadcast Law Blog).
  • The FCC released a list of 515 open proceedings from across its bureaus that it plans to close due to dormancy. A proceeding makes the proposed closure list when it requires no more action, no more action is planned, or no filings in the docket have been made for several years.  Interested parties can review the list and submit comments urging the Commission to either keep open or close permanently items that appear on the list.  (Public Notice)
  • The Media Bureau issued a decision reviewing Section 312(g) of the Communications Act which automatically cancels a station’s license if it has been silent for 12 months, absent special circumstances. The decision is particularly useful in explaining the special circumstances that can justify the preservation of a license, and the way that the FCC assesses the period that a station was silent.  (Letter)
  • Two Notices of Apparent Liability that came out of the Commission this week serve as good reminders during this license renewal cycle that you do, in fact, have to file an application to renew your license.
    • In one case, a Virginia AM station was hit with a $7,000 fine for failing to file for license renewal and then operating the station after its FCC authorization had expired. In the end, the Commission levied the fine, but also found that the station’s license should be renewed for a “short-term” two-year license term instead of the typical eight-year term.  (Notice of Apparent Liability)
    • In a second case, a Florida low power FM failed file an application for license renewal on January 27, 2020 that was due on or before October 1, 2019, without providing an explanation for the late filing. The Commission levied a $1,500 fine against the station and will consider the license renewal application at a later time.  (Notice of Apparently Liability)


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: May 30, 2020 to June 5, 2020

We summarized the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on Monday, looking at the application of the law that the President has sought to change through the Executive Order released last week.  Today, it’s time to look at what the Executive Order purports to do and what practical effects it might have on media companies, including broadcasters.  As we noted in our first article, the reach of Section 230 is broad enough that any company with an online presence where content is created and posted by someone other than the site owner is protected by Section 230 – so that would include the online properties of almost every media company has.

The Executive Order has four distinct action items directed to different parts of the government.  The first, which has perhaps received the most publicity in the broadcast world, is the President’s direction that the Department of Commerce, acting through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA – the Executive Branch office principally responsible for telecommunications policy), file a petition for rulemaking at the FCC.  This petition would ask that the FCC review Section 230 to determine if the protections afforded by the law are really as broad as they have been interpreted by the courts.  The Executive Order suggests that the FCC should review whether the ability granted by the law for an online platform to curate content posted by others – the “Good Samaritan” provisions that we wrote about on Monday – could trigger a loss of protections from civil liability for third-party content if sites exercise the curation rights in a manner that is not deemed to be in “good faith”.  The Executive Order directs this inquiry even though the protections for hosting online content are in a separate subsection of the law from the language granting the ability to curate content, and the protections from liability for third-party content contain no good faith language.  The Order suggests that the FCC should find that there would not be “good faith” if the reasons given for the curation actions were “pretextual,” if there was no notice and right to be heard by the party whose content is curated, and if the curation is contrary to the service’s terms of use.  The Order suggests that the FCC should adopt rules to clarify these issues.
Continue Reading Looking at the President’s Executive Order on Online Media – Part 2, What Real Risk Does It Pose for Media Companies?

When the President issues an Executive Order asking for examination of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which permitted the growth of so many Internet companies, broadcasters and other media companies ask what effect the action may have on their operations.  On an initial reading, the impact of the order is very uncertain, as much of it simply calls on other government agencies to review the actions of online platforms.  But, given its focus on “online platforms” subject to the immunity from liability afforded by Section 230, and given the broad reach of Section 230 protections as interpreted by the Courts to cover any website or web platform that hosts content produced by others, the ultimate implications of any change in policy affecting these protections could be profound.  A change in policy could affect not only the huge online platforms that it appears to target, but even media companies that allow public comments on their stories, contests that call for the posting of content developed by third parties to be judged for purposes of awarding prizes, or the sites of content aggregators who post content developed by others (e.g. podcast hosting platforms).

Today, we will look at what Section 230 is, and the practical implications of the loss of its protections would have for online services.  The implications include the potential for even greater censorship by these platforms of what is being posted online – seemingly the opposite of the intent of the Executive Order triggered by the perceived limitations imposed on tweets of the President and on the social media posts of other conservative commentators.   In a later post, we’ll look at some of the other provisions of the Executive Order, and the actions that it is asks other government agencies (including the FCC and the FTC) to take. 
Continue Reading The President’s Executive Order on Online Media – What Does Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act Provide?

Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions of the last week—and some obligations for the week ahead—of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The comment cycle was set in the FCC’s annual regulatory fee proceeding. On or before June 12, the Commission wants to hear from interested parties about the fees that it proposes to impose on the companies that it regulates – including broadcasters.  The FCC proposes to complete the implementation of its change to computing fees for television stations based on population served rather than on the market in which they operate, a move it began last year (see our Broadcast Law Blog article here on the FCC decision last year to initiate the change in the way TV fees are allocated).  The FCC also asks for ideas about how the Commission can extend fee relief to stations suffering COVID-19-related financial hardship.  Reply comments are due on or before June 29.  (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Chris Krebs, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, wrote to the nation’s governors asking them to, among other things, declare radio and TV broadcasters as essential to COVID-19 response efforts and to afford broadcasters all appropriate resources and access. (News Release)
  • In a good reminder to broadcasters that transactions involving the sale or transfer of control of a broadcast station must be authorized in advance by the FCC, the Media Bureau entered into a consent decree with two companies that sold an FM station and FM translator without getting approval from the Commission. The parties mistakenly believed filing license renewal applications that reflected the assignment was sufficient approval.  The consent decree includes an $8,000 penalty.  (Consent Decree).  See this article on past cases where the FCC has warned that even transactions among related companies that change the legal form of ownership of a broadcast station without changing the ultimate control need prior FCC approval.
  • The Commission granted approval to Cumulus Media, Inc. to exceed the Commission’s twenty-five percent foreign ownership threshold. The Commission will allow Cumulus to have up to 100 percent aggregate foreign investment in the company, although additional approvals will be needed if any previously unnamed foreign entity acquires 5% or more of the company or if any foreign entity desires to acquire control.  (Declaratory Ruling).  This decision shows the process that the FCC must go through to approve foreign ownership above the 25% threshold and the analysis needed to issue such approvals.  See our articles here and here about the evolving FCC policy in this area.
  • President Trump signed an executive order that seeks to, among other things, address online censorship and rollback certain protections afforded to online platforms, which include social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, but which also protect any site that hosts content created by users – which could include the Internet platforms of many broadcasters. Under federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, these online platforms generally enjoy legal immunity for what users post on their platforms.  The President directed the Department of Commerce to ask the FCC to open a rulemaking to review this immunity and asked the FTC to review whether platforms were adhering to their terms of use when commenting on or limiting third-party content.  Other government entities, including state attorneys general and the Department of Justice, were also asked to review online platforms.  For his part, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “This debate is an important one. The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce.”  (Executive Order).  Watch for an article on the Broadcast Law Blog this coming week on implications of this order for broadcasters and other media companies.
  • Anyone looking to hand deliver documents to the FCC needs to learn a new address, and it is not, as you might expect, the address of the FCC’s future headquarters. Deliveries by hand must now be brought to 9050 Junction Drive, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701.  The address change is to enhance security screening and is part of winding down operations at the current 12th Street headquarters.  (Order)


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: May 23, 2020 to May 29, 2020

Here are some of the FCC regulatory and legal actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC released the agenda for its June 9 Open Meeting announcing that it will consider an

Rights of publicity and privacy can present issues for podcasters and other media companies who feature people in their productions.  Almost two years ago, we wrote about the lawsuit brought by the surviving family members of the character who was central to the S-Town podcast. The podcast focused much of its attention on the life of this individual who was not an elected official or any other sort of public figure. As the individual died before the podcast’s release, the family sued on his behalf, arguing that the podcast violated his rights of publicity.  The lawsuit now has reportedly been settled.  That settlement suggests that we should repeat the advice that we gave when the suit was first filed, as that advice remains relevant today.

Various states grant individuals rights of publicity to exploit their names, likeness, or stories – essentially barring others from exploiting that person without his or her permission. Other state laws grant individuals a right of privacy to keep private facts private. While the details and exceptions to these rights differ from state to state, they generally do not restrict bona fide news stories about public figures or reporting on other matters that are in the public interest – and the First Amendment provides broad protections for truthful stories about public figures.  Most broadcasters and other media companies don’t routinely run up against the restrictions set out in these laws in their day-to-day coverage of news events. But the analysis may be significantly different when a podcast or other media production gets into the stories of individuals who are not public figures.
Continue Reading S-Town Podcast Lawsuit Settled – Reminder on Getting Releases from Podcast Subjects

Music licensing issues are always confusing.  At the request of streaming service provider Live365 which hosted World Audio Day as a virtual substitute for our all getting together at last month’s cancelled NAB Convention in Las Vegas, I participated in a discussion of those issues, trying to provide the basics as to who gets paid

In an interesting Court decision from the Southern District of New York, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a photographer for the use of her photo without permission by the website Mashable.  Mashable defended against the claim by arguing that it did not need a license directly from the photographer as it had not posted her photo on its website but had instead embedded that photo using an API from Instagram.  An API allowed the photo to display on the user’s computer with content from the Mashable site, even though the photo was actually coming from Instagram.  Thus, Mashable did not itself host the photo – the photo was hosted and served by Instagram pursuant to the rights that the photographer had granted to Instagram by posting a public photo to that site.  As the Instagram Terms of Use give the company a license to make photos posted on its site available through its API, the Court found that the use of the photo by Mashable was permissible as it had a valid sublicense to use that photo from Instagram through use of the API.  As it had a valid sublicense, it did not need a license directly from the photographer.  The photographer had authorized Instagram to sublicense her photos by agreeing to Instagram’s Terms of Use and not restricting the viewing of that photo to private groups.

This Court’s decision is interesting for two reasons.  First, it seems to contradict a decision about which we wrote here that suggested that the use of an embedded photo was not enough to defeat a claim of liability where the embedded photo was posted on a site to appear to the public to be part of that site.  That other decision focused more on how content appeared to the end-user than it did on the issue of a sublicense as does this case.  Even so, it is likely that there will need to be more litigation and some higher court decisions before there is any final resolution of just how safe it is to embed content from a social media site on your website without permission of the creator of that content.
Continue Reading Court Decision Dismissing Photographer’s Lawsuit Shows Breadth of Rights Granted to Social Media and Denies Infringement Claim for Instagram Embedded Photo

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

A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing greater coverage areas for unlicensed “white space” devices operating in the TV bands was adopted at the FCC’s open meeting last week and released earlier this week.   We have written about these white space devices before (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  These devices operate at relatively low powers in unused portions of the TV bands.  They are designed to offer wireless services, including broadband.  Advocates of these operations see them as an inexpensive way to offer broadband services to underserved areas, including parts of rural America.

The concern of course with these devices is that if their use is not managed correctly, their operations could interfere with existing TV operators (including LPTVs, TV translators, broadcast auxiliary services, and wireless microphones).  Thus far, operations have been limited to power levels of 10 watts or less from antenna heights that did not exceed 250 meters height above average terrain.  The advocates for these devices, including Microsoft, have argued that these low power levels make it difficult to serve rural areas given their small coverage area.  NAB, on behalf of broadcasters, and advocates for wireless microphone operators, have urged caution in any increase in the coverage of these operations if they could possibly cause interference to existing users of the spectrum.  After significant discussion and compromise between the NAB and Microsoft, the NPRM adopted last week tries to strike a balance between these positions.
Continue Reading FCC Adopts Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Looking to Allow Higher Power and Greater Height for Unlicensed White Space Devices Operating in the TV Bands