Political Broadcasting

Here are some of the regulatory developments 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.

  • After reviewing comments submitted this summer (we wrote about the rulemaking, here), the FCC will vote at its next

In the last few days, two defamation cases filed against media companies by the Trump campaign have been dismissed – one on the merits and one by agreement of the parties.  This includes the suit filed by the campaign against Northland Television, the licensee of a rural Wisconsin television station.  That station was perhaps the smallest TV station to air an ad by a non-candidate group, Priorities USA, that the Trump campaign alleged was misleadingly edited to assert that the President had labeled the coronavirus a “hoax.”  As we wrote here when that suit was first filed, the campaign claimed that the reference to the hoax was not about the virus itself but was actually a reference to “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  This suit was vigorously opposed by the station and the sponsor of the ad.  The parties have now agreed to voluntarily dismiss that suit with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be refiled.

Another suit was brought by the campaign against CNN alleging that CNN had libeled the President by publishing on its website an article from one of its contributors who alleged that the campaign had assessed the risks of seeking Russian assistance in the 2020 campaign and had “decided to leave that option on the table.”  The campaign alleged that the statement was false and defamatory – and published with knowledge that it was false.  CNN had countered that the statement was protected as it was presented as opinion, not fact, and moreover it was published without “actual malice.”  As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here and here), under Supreme Court precedent, a claim about a public figure for defamation can only be sustained if it is both false and published with “actual malice” – meaning that the publisher knew that it was false, or acted with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false and published it anyway.
Continue Reading Two Trump Defamation Claims Dismissed Including Claim Against TV Station for Political Attack Ad – What is the Relevance for Broadcasters? 

The FCC yesterday released a Public Notice making clear that lowest unit rates (or lowest unit charges) end on Election Day.  Some broadcasters had asked the question, fearful that there would be political advertising bought after Election Day to take positions on issues about counting the vote and other legal matters that could arise

As the campaign enters its final weeks, the FCC has begun to send out the next round of proposed consent decrees to radio broadcasters unable to certify in their license renewal applications, because of perceived deficiencies in their political file, that that every document was placed into their FCC-hosted online public inspection file on a timely basis (see, for instance, this decree released yesterday).  The certification of public file compliance is required of every applicant for license renewal.  As with any other certification, a licensee must review its records and truthfully answer the application’s question, either certifying that it has complied with all of the public file obligations or disclosing any deficiencies.  As we wrote last year, in cases of substantial noncompliance, the FCC has fined stations that essentially ignored the public file rules.  But, until recently, in cases where a station had made a good faith effort to comply but had some minor deficiencies in the public file (as is natural over an eight-year renewal period), the FCC has generally been granting renewals, acknowledging that minor violations do not signal that a broadcaster is not operating in the public interest.  However, in August, the Commission initiated a new policy for stations that reported deficiencies in the political portion of the public inspection file, sending draft consent decrees to virtually all stations unable to certify full public file compliance because of any political file issue.

These consent decrees were modeled on the ones that were sent in July to six large radio broadcast groups as a result of an earlier FCC review of their political files (see our article here on those consent decrees, which also provides a review of a broadcaster’s political file obligations).  The difference is, of course, that the July decrees went to large radio groups for what the FCC described as hundreds of violations at many radio stations.  The new renewal-driven consent decrees were sent to all stations that did not certify political file compliance, even to stations that had only a handful of political advertising sales if those stations determined that they could not certify that all required documents went into the file in a timely fashion.  While the decrees carry no monetary fine, they do require that the signing station enter into a compliance program – appointing a compliance officer, having a written compliance plan, reporting any violations to the FCC as they occur, and providing a report to the FCC at the end of each calendar year for two years cataloging all political sales and when the required documents went into the political file.
Continue Reading More FCC Consent Decrees for Political File Violations – Issues to Watch in the Last Weeks of the Election

Back in August, we highlighted some of the many issues in computing lowest unit charges (or “lowest unit rates”) for political candidates which are in effect during the window for the November elections that went into effect on September 4.  In this last month before the election, as political advertising ramps up and each party fights over those few undecided viewers, we wanted to bring to your attention a video that I did for the Indiana Broadcasters Association discussing the various issues that arise in determining lowest unit rates.  That video summarizes many of the issues that we wrote about back in August and is available here:

At the end of this article, we provide links to other videos produced by the Indiana Broadcasters discussing other political broadcasting issues, and to other articles that we have written on other political broadcasting issues.

As we wrote back in August, lowest unit charges (or “Lowest Unit Rates”) guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, legally qualified candidates get the lowest rate for a spot that is then running on the station within any class of advertising time running in any particular daypart. Candidates also get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e., the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.
Continue Reading A Video Summary of the Rules on Lowest Unit Rates and Other Political Broadcasting Resources

In many parts of the country, the air is turning crisp, the leaves are changing color, and kids are back in school (in some form), making it the perfect time to get caught up with regulatory dates and deadlines coming in October.  This is an unusual month where there are several routine regulatory deadlines – renewals, EEO filings, Quarterly Issues Programs Lists, and the must-carry/retransmission consent deadline, but no significant broadcast rulemaking comment deadlines, perhaps as we are nearing the end of the current administration which might not be around to finish any proceeding started now.

The routine deadlines include those for radio stations in Iowa and Missouri and TV stations in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who should be putting the finishing touches on their license renewal applications, to be filed on or before October 1, along with the accompanying EEO program report.  Stations should also have their post-filing announcements ready and scheduled to begin airing on October 1.  Those announcements continue through December 16.  Stations are no longer required to air pre-filing announcements.  The schedule for post-filing announcements and sample announcement language is here for radio stations and here for TV stations.
Continue Reading October Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: License Renewals, EEO Reports, Carriage Elections, Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists and More

What are a noncommercial broadcaster’s obligations with respect to the political file and the rest of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules?  That is a question that I have heard asked several times in the last few weeks as we approach this most important, and contentious, election.  In short, I think that the answer to this question is that, in most cases, a noncommercial broadcaster will have few if any political file obligations.  Why?

Broadcast stations that are licensed as noncommercial do not have any reasonable access requirements.  What that means is that noncommercial stations do not have any obligation to sell time to political candidates or to make any free time available to the candidates for their messages.  Years ago, reasonable access did apply to noncommercial stations, but when a DC-area congressional candidate used the statutory reasonable access requirements to force a local NPR affiliate (to which many on Capitol Hill listened) to air political commercials, Congress acted to abolish the reasonable access requirement as it applied to noncommercial stations.  So, as noncommercial stations do not need to sell political time to candidates, they are not faced with the political file obligations which have triggered scrutiny from the FCC in recent months.  But that is not to say that there could never be a political file obligation for a noncommercial station.
Continue Reading Noncommercial Broadcasters and the Political File

Where do all the Washington DC legal issues facing TV broadcasters stand? While we try on this Blog to write about many of those issues, we can’t always address everything that is happening. Every few months, my partner David O’Connor and I update a list of the legal and regulatory issues facing TV broadcasters.

Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions and developments 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.

  • Political advertising will continue to blanket the airwaves for the next month and a half and