Political Broadcasting

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

Now that we are immersed in the heart of the political broadcasting season, issues of sponsorship identification regularly arise.  For on-air broadcasts, any paid advertisement that conveys a message dealing with any controversial issue of public importance (state or federal) requires at a minimum an on-air sponsorship identification stating that the ad was “paid for” or “sponsored by” the person or organization that paid for the time.  Federal candidates have a more extensive obligation for identifying themselves in their ads, particularly if they mention an opposing candidate.  These identification rules come both from the FCC (which stations need to enforce) and from the Federal Election Commission, which are the responsibility of the candidate and their campaign committee.  To help sort out some of these obligations, and the requirements for political disclosure statements and federal candidate certifications that entitle them to lowest unit rates, check out this video that I prepared for the Indiana Broadcasters Association as part of a series on political broadcasting topics:  https://www.indianabroadcasters.org/iba-news/political-advertising-requirements-with-iba-washington-counsel-david-oxenford/

The video covers the requirements of broadcasters to ensure that the proper sponsorship identification is contained in political advertising.  Online political advertising, however, is much more complicated as there is no single body of law that governs those responsibilities.  As we wrote here, the FEC has general requirements providing that online political advertising must have sponsorship identification. The FEC also has an open proceeding to mandate more stringent sponsorship identification obligations akin to those required on broadcast and local cable political advertising.  Last week, the Congressional Research Service issued a study on the state of the law regarding online political advertising, highlighting the many issues involved in providing more robust political disclosures.  These issues are at least partially triggered by the many players involved in online advertising sales.  There is a very readable outline on pages 16-19 of the report on all the players in the digital advertising ecosystem – with intermediaries, including demand- and supply-side platforms, that complicate the usual direct interaction between the media outlet and the advertising buyer, which in turn complicates the political compliance process for sponsorship identification.  The study, on page 18, even cites to the article that I wrote discussing the concerns about sponsorship identification in any programmatic political advertising.
Continue Reading Sponsorship of Political Advertising On-Air and On-Line – A Video Presentation and a Congressional Research Service Study

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.

  • The FCC released its Report and Order on annual regulatory fees for fiscal year 2020 and,

As broadcasters continue to respond to the coronavirus while sometimes juggling work duties with family responsibilities like at-home virtual schooling, it would be easy to overlook regulatory dates and responsibilities.  This post should help alert you to some important dates in September that all stations should keep in mind – and we will also provide a reminder of some of the dates to remember in early October.  As in any year, as summer ends, regulatory activity picks up – and this year appears to be no different.

Each year, in September, regulatory fees are due, as the FCC is required to collect them before the October 1 start of the new fiscal year.  We expect that the final amount of those fees, and the deadlines and procedures for payment, should be announced any day.  For broadcasters, one of the big issues is whether those fees will be adjusted downward from what was initially proposed by the FCC in their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in this proceeding.  The National Association of Broadcasters has been leading an effort (we wrote about this here and NAB detailed recent meetings between CEO Gordon Smith and members of its legal department with FCC staff here and here) urging the FCC to reduce the amount of fees owed by broadcasters, in part because of the financial toll the pandemic has taken on the industry and in part because the proposed fee structure, which is determined by estimates as to how many FCC staffers are detailed to regulating an industry and the related benefit that industry receives, inaccurately reflects the number of FCC employees who work on radio issues.  Look for that decision very soon.
Continue Reading September Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: Annual Regulatory Fees, Lowest Unit Rate Window Opening, C-Band Reimbursement, Rulemaking Comments and More