Payola and Sponsorship Identification

With high profile primaries in numerous states and similar elections last week, and more coming over the next few months in preparation for the November election, broadcasters are dealing with the legal issues that arise with on-air advertising that either promotes or attacks candidates and which addresses other important matters that will be decided in the election – including ballot issues in a number of states. While we have addressed many of the legal questions that arise with on-air political advertising in other posts on this blog and elsewhere (see, for instance, our Political Broadcasting Guide here and these slides from my recent presentation on the FCC political advertising rules for the Washington State Association of Broadcasters), we thought that it was worth discussing some of the efforts that are underway to bring FCC-like regulation to the world of online political advertising.

Thus far, the FCC has tended to stay out of the online political broadcasting world. As we wrote a decade ago, other than having to give some consideration to the value of online advertising thrown into a package with over-the-air ads, the FCC avoids regulation of ad sales on websites and advertising delivered solely through other digital media platforms. So a broadcaster who sells stand-alone online ads to political candidates or issue advertisers need not worry about questions of lowest unit rates, reasonable access, or the political file.
Continue Reading Moving Broadcast Political Advertising Rules to the Online World – NY State Adopts a New Law While Congress Considers Online Political Advertising Disclosures, and the FEC Considers Enhanced Online Sponsorship Identification

Last week, Aaron Burstein of our law firm and I conducted a webinar for several state broadcast associations on legal issues in digital and social media advertising. As broadcasters become more active in the digital world, whether it be through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or by posting their content online through

It’s a new year, and a good time to reflect on where all the Washington issues for TV broadcasters stand at the moment, especially given the rapid pace of change since the new administration took over just about a year ago. While we try on this Blog to write about many of the DC issues

The FCC, apparently not in a holiday mood, yesterday released a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing a $13,376,200 fine against Sinclair Broadcast group for alleged violations of the sponsorship identification requirements of Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC rules. The FCC alleges that program segments contained in news broadcasts of certain Sinclair stations and certain program-length reports featured stories about the Huntsman Cancer Institute which were not tagged as being sponsored – even though they were broadcast as part of a contract that required that Sinclair air advertising for the Institute and develop programming about the Institute’s activities.

While the amount of the fine is large given the thousands of alleged broadcasts missing the sponsorship tags, the Commission’s basis for the fines are not new. The FCC has previously fined stations for news segments that were sold as part of a commercial package and aired without sponsorship identification tags (see our article here.)  Accepting any consideration, even video footage, from a commercial entity, can be seen by the FCC as consideration requiring sponsorship identification. See, for instance, our article here about one such case. The stand-alone programs that Sinclair argued were identified as having been sponsored were found wanting by the FCC as, while the fact that the programs were sponsored was made clear, the actual sponsor’s name was not explicitly stated in the announcement. The Commission rejected claims that the visual depiction of the Institute’s logo that was shown visually just before the sponsorship announcement, and a welcome from the announcer thanking the audience for joining in the broadcast “from the Huntsman Cancer Institute,” were sufficient to notify the audience as to the sponsor of the broadcast. As in cases we wrote about here and here, the FCC takes a hard line on these cases, requiring that the name of the sponsor, and the fact that they sponsored the programming be presented clearly so that any viewer will know who is sponsoring a broadcast program.
Continue Reading Proposed $13,376,200 Fine Illustrates FCC Concern over Sponsorship Identification Issues

Broadcasters and advertisers should take note of the more than 90 warning letters that the FTC sent out this week as a reminder of the need to disclose material sponsorship connections in social media promotions and endorsements.  The FTC has since 2009 announced a policy that any online content for which anything of value has been received must disclose that consideration – even social media posts (see our article here about that policy).  This is in the nature of the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules for broadcast content.   That same policy statement addressed the need for those making personal endorsements to make these sponsorship disclosures.  The recent warning letters are notable not only for their sheer number, but also because the warning letters were addressed to marketers and social media “influencers” – the individuals whose social media followings make their endorsements valuable.  To date, the FTC has only named marketers (Warner Brothers Home Entertainment and Lord & Taylor) in its social media endorsement cases.  Although the FTC did not say who received warning letters, its press release noted that the letters were “informed by petitions filed by Public Citizen and affiliated organizations” in September 2016.

By directing warning letters to marketers and influencers, the FTC is sending a firm reminder that both sides of a sponsorship arrangement need to disclose their connection, “unless the connection is already clear from the context of the communication containing the endorsement.”  Specifically, the FTC advises influencers that they must “clearly and conspicuously” disclose any material connection with a marketer; and marketers, in turn, should ensure that the influencers they sponsor disclose their material connections.
Continue Reading FTC Puts “Influencers” on Notice:  Disclose Marketing Relationships in Social Media Posts

With the change in administration at the FCC, there are opportunities for certain actions to be taken very quickly, without going through the full process of a rulemaking requiring public notice of the proposed rule change and time for public comment.  At the end of this last week, we saw the FCC’s Media Bureau take actions in three different proceedings directly applicable to broadcasters to undo what had been done during the prior administration – rescinding actions with respect to noncommercial ownership reports, the disclosure of information about the sponsor of political advertisements, and on the treatment of TV assignment and transfer applications for television stations where shared service agreements are involved.  Below, we’ll give a few details about each of those actions.

Two of the rescinded actions were January rulings by the Media Bureau which, at the time they were issued, drew statements of concern from then-Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly.  The Republican Commissioners argued that the actions should have been taken by the full Commission, not the Media Bureau.  As these decisions were not final (appeals can be taken or reconsideration requests can be filed within 30 days of an action, and the full Commission, on its own, can set aside a staff action within 40 days), the Media Bureau, presumably at the urging of the new Chairman, set these actions aside for further consideration by the full Commission.


Continue Reading Undoing the Past – New FCC Rescinds Rulings on Noncommercial Ownership Reports, Political Broadcasting Sponsorship Disclosure and Shared Services Agreements

It’s the holiday season, and many of us are turning our thoughts to celebrating with friends and family. It is also high season for shopping, which means the airwaves, social media, websites and print pages are full of opportunities to buy, sell, and advertise. Whether you consider that to be a feature or a bug,

Almost every week, we write about some legal issue that arises in digital and social media – many times talking about the traditional media company that did something that they shouldn’t have done in the online world, and ended up with some legal issues as a result. Two weeks ago, I conducted a webinar, hosted by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters and co-sponsored by over 20 other state broadcast associations, where I tried to highlight some of the many legal issues that can be traps for the unwary. Issues we discussed included copyright and trademark issues, a reminder about the FTC sponsorship identification rules for online media, FCC captioning obligations, privacy implications, as well as discussions about the patent issues that have arisen with the use of software and hardware that makes the digital transmission of content possible. Slides from that presentation are available here and, for the full webinar, a YouTube video of the entire presentation is available below which can be reviewed when you have some spare time over this upcoming holiday or at any other time that you want to catch up on your legal obligations.

Some of the specific issues that we talked about are familiar to readers of this blog. We discussed the many issues with taking photographs and other content found on the Internet and repurposing them to your own website without getting permission from the content’s creator (see our articles here and here). Similar issues have arisen when TV stations have taken YouTube videos and played them on their TV stations without getting permission from the creator. Music issues arise all the time, especially in producing online videos and creating digital content like podcasts, as your usual music licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange don’t cover the reproduction and distribution rights involved when content is copied or downloaded rather than live-streamed (see our article here). The presentation also cautioned companies to be careful about trying to rely on “fair use” as there are no hard and fast rules on when a use of copyrighted materials without permission is in fact fair (see our articles here and here on that subject).

Similarly, there are many other potential pitfalls for digital media companies. We’ve written about some of the FTC rules on requiring sponsorship identification on sponsored digital content – even tweets and Facebook posts (see our articles here and here). Plus, there are always issues about privacy and security of personal information that sites collect – and particularly strict rules for content directed to children. And, as many stations found out when a company asserted patent infringement claims about digital music storage systems used by most radio stations (see our articles here and here), patent issues can also arise in connection with any companies use of digital media.
Continue Reading Legal Issues in Digital and Social Media – Identifying the Landmines for Broadcasters and Other Media Companies – A Video Webinar

There are so many legal issues that facing broadcasters that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with them all. This Blog and many other activities that those at my firm engage in are meant to help our clients and other broadcasters keep up to date on all of the many regulatory challenges with which

To help broadcasters sort out the confusing rules about political advertising, we have updated our Political Broadcasting Guide for Broadcasters (note that the URL for the updated version has not changed from prior versions, so your bookmarks should continue to work). The revised guide is much the same as the one that we published two years ago, formatted as Questions and Answers to cover many of the issues that come up for broadcasters in a political season. This guide is only that – a guide to the issues and not a definitive answer to any of the very fact-dependent legal issues that arise in election season. But we hope that this guide at least provides a starting point for the analysis of issues, so that station employees have a background to discuss these matters with ad buyers and their own attorneys.

In looking at the Guide that we prepared two years ago, really not much has changed. But there are some specific updates that should be noted. For instance, sponsorship identification seems to be a hot issue in the last two years. We wrote here about the $540,000 fine paid as part of a consent decree when a Cumulus radio station did not fully identify the sponsor of advertising on a controversial issue of public importance. We have also written here and here about issues that are currently pending at the FCC about the proper sponsorship identification tag that belongs on an ad paid for by a PAC that is funded by one individual. This is an issue to which stations should be alert. The online public file for radio is mentioned, as this will affect how radio broadcasters maintain their political file starting at some point later this year (see our article here about the online public file requirements for radio broadcasters). Also, we note the adoption by many stations of programmatic selling, and suggest that stations need to carefully review how these sales platforms may impact lowest unit rate issues. We have made some other clarifications and revisions as well.
Continue Reading Updated Political Broadcasting Guide – Questions and Answers about Broadcasters’ Obligations During this Election Season