Payola and Sponsorship Identification

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.
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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.
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It’s that time of the year when we need to dust off the crystal ball and make predictions about the legal issues that will impact the business of broadcasters in 2016.  While we try to look ahead to identify the issues that are on the agenda of the FCC and other government agencies, there are always surprises as the regulators come up with issues that we did not anticipate. With this being an election year, issues may arise as regulators look to make a political point, or as Commissioners look to establish a legacy before the end of their terms in office.  And you can count on there being issues that arise that were unanticipated at the beginning of the year.

But, we’ll nevertheless give it a try – trying to guess the issues that we will likely be covering this year.  We’ll start today with issues likely to be considered by the FCC, and we’ll write later about issues that may arise on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the maze of government agencies and courts who deal with broadcast issues.  In addition, watch these pages for our calendar of regulatory deadlines for broadcasters in the next few days.

So here are some issues that are on the table at the FCC.  While the TV incentive auction may well suck up much of the attention, especially in the first half of the year, there are many other issues to consider.  We’ll start below with issues affecting all stations, and then move on to TV and radio issues in separate sections below. 
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The FCC yesterday released, and trumpeted, a Consent Decree reached with Cumulus Radio for a violation at one of its New Hampshire stations where full sponsorship identification announcements were not made on issue ads promoting an electric company’s construction project in New Hampshire.  In the Consent Decree, Cumulus agreed to pay a $540,000 penalty to the FCC for the violations of the rules – plus it agreed to institute a company-wide compliance program to make sure that similar violations did not occur in the future.  In connection with the fine, the FCC released a press release highlighting the fine and the importance of identifying the true sponsor of issue advertising.  Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau stated “While failure to disclose these identities generally misleads the public, it is particularly concerning when consumers are duped into supporting controversial environmental projects.”  This fine is yet another example of the enhanced enforcement of all FCC rules by the new Enforcement Bureau, enforcement that has been controversial both among those being regulated and even among the FCC Commissioners themselves.  What was behind this extreme penalty, which probably dwarfs the profits that this radio station will make for the next several decades?

According to the FCC’s Consent Decree, the Cumulus station broadcast 178 announcements promoting the Northern Pass Project, a proposed hydro-electric project involving the construction of 180 miles of power lines in Canada and New Hampshire.  While the actual texts of the announcements were not provided in the FCC decision, and apparently included several versions of the ad, all supported the approval of the Northern Pass project, but none included the language “paid for” or “sponsored by” Northern Pass Transmission LLC, the full name of the company that paid for the ads and was behind the project.  Cumulus claimed that the station’s employees believed that references in the ads to the Northern Pass project were sufficient to inform the public of who was behind the ads, the FCC says that is not enough – the full name of the sponsor, making clear that it was the sponsor of the ad, is required.  This is not the first time that the FCC has, in the context of the Consent Decree, imposed a big penalty for a lack of a full sponsorship identification on broadcast programming but, outside of the context of “payola” violations, this may well be the largest fine imposed on a radio station for this kind of violation.
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The Sunlight Foundation, along with Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center, have filed with the FCC complaints against 18 TV stations claiming that these stations violated the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules by not identifying former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as the true sponsor of issue ads bought by the Independence USA political action committee.  The complaint (available on the Foundation’s website as part of a press release on the action) alleges that stations have an obligation to look behind the named organizational sponsor to identify Mr. Bloomberg as the true sponsor of these ads, as he has provided all of the organization’s funding and directs its actions.  These same organizations filed a similar set of complaints last year, some also targeting Mr. Bloomberg and the PAC with which he is associated, complaints which, for the most part, remain pending at the FCC (see our article here).

These complaints are very similar to the ones filed in 2014, arguing that where a PAC is 100% financed by a single individual, the individual should be identified on the air as the sponsor, not the PAC itself.  The petitioners claim that, by not identifying Mr. Bloomberg as the true sponsor, the public is deceived as to who is behind the ads.  This is despite the fact that, in the required sponsorship disclosure statements filed in the stations’ public files, Mr. Bloomberg is identified, as required by the rules, as the Chairman of the PAC and as one of its two officers.  Apparently, this required disclosure is deemed insufficient by these groups.  But what will the FCC think?
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A bill introduced in the House of Representatives last week proposes that the FCC be required to amend its sponsorship identification rules to require not just the name of the sponsor of an ad addressing “a controversial issue of public importance,” but also the names of any “significant donors” to the

April is one of those months with many routine FCC obligations. Quarterly Issues Programs lists need to be in your public file by the 10th of the month. This is an obligation for all full-power broadcast stations – commercial or noncommercial. Similarly, all TV stations have an obligation to submit their Children’s Television Reports on FCC Form 398 demonstrating compliance with the obligations to provide educational and informational programming directed to children, and at the same time put into their public files documents showing their compliance with the limitations on commercials within programming directed to children.

EEO public file reports are due for stations that are part of an employment unit with 5 or more full-time (30 or more hours per week) employees which is located in any of the following states: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. Noncommercial TV stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee; and noncommercial radio stations in Texas, need to file their Biennial Ownership Reports with the FCC on April 1. Finally, license renewal applications in the last license renewal window for this license renewal cycle are due to be filed on April 1 by TV stations (and TV translators and LPTV stations) in Delaware and Pennsylvania. The next regularly scheduled license renewal will be filed by radio stations in certain states – but not until June 2019!
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A group of radio broadcasters have asked the FCC to agree to waive some provisions of the current sponsorship identification rules of the FCC to permit stations that have sponsored music or sports programming to move some of the required sponsorship identification online (the request is available here). This is to provide listeners with a more detailed and accessible means of determining the sponsor of certain broadcast programming. The FCC’s Mass Media Bureau has asked for public comments on this proposal, with comments due by April 13, and reply comments by May 12.

The examples of situations where the waiver would be used as provided in the Petition are for sponsored music programming (e.g. if a particular music label was to purchase an hour to feature their recordings) or sports programs (e.g. if a team were to purchase time on a station to do a coaches program or even a full game). The current rules require that the identification must be broadcast at the time of the broadcast – which has often been interpreted to mean at the time of the program, which is why you see the sponsorship acknowledgements at the end of TV quiz shows, acknowledging all the companies who provided free stuff to the program producers to get their products mentioned on air. The proponents of the new approach set out in this petition suggest that the online disclosure might actually provide more information to listeners of a radio program as, if the listeners don’t happen to be listening at the top of the sponsored hour (or three hours for a sponsored baseball game broadcast), they don’t hear the fleeting announcement. So the broadcasters have suggested what they see as a better way of providing that announcement.
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