Political Broadcasting

Yesterday, we wrote about the regulatory dates coming up for broadcasters in September.  Even though that was an extensive list, we realized later that we left a few off.  So here are a few more issues to consider in September.  Plus, the FCC yesterday reminded repacked TV stations of all of the requirements for TV stations involved in the repacking of the TV band following the Incentive Auction which, as we noted in our post yesterday, formally begins this month.

One date that we overlooked was the effective date for a general increase in FCC application fees – those fees that commercial broadcasters pay every time they file an application for a construction permit, approval of a purchase or sale of a station, a license renewal, an STA or many other requests for FCC action.  As we wrote here, the FCC recently announced that the fees were going up to reflect inflation.  Last week, the FCC issued a Public Notice announcing that those new fees are effective on September 4.  So commercial stations filing applications on September 4 or afterward need to remember to pay the new fees, or risk having their applications returned.
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Last week, it was announced that Google through its DoubleClick platform, would be offering programmatic buying opportunities for advertisers looking to place audio ads into online streams. While that system is initially being rolled out among the big digital audio services, if it or other similar platforms are expanded more broadly, it could bring more advertising into internet radio, podcasting and other digital audio program channels. But, being the spoilsports that we tend to be as lawyers, we wanted to pass on some issues to consider in accepting programmatic buys – whether in online streams or in over-the-air broadcasts. The immediacy of the audience’s perception of an audio insertion into a program stream can bring unintended results – some of which may have legal consequences.

We have already written about the issues for some of the programmatic buying platforms that are inserting ads into broadcast radio and television programming. As we wrote here and here, these ads can potentially impact a broadcaster’s legal compliance – particularly in the area of political broadcasting, where these ads could affect a station’s lowest unit rate, as well as reasonable access, equal opportunities and even political file disclosure obligations. While none of these FCC issues apply directly to online ads, as we wrote here, there are potential rules on political advertising that may soon be applied to online ads, either through actions by the Federal government or by the enactment of rules to implement a recently passed New York State law that compels disclosures for online political ads similar to those required by the FCC for broadcast ads. There are other considerations as well.
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With election season upon us again, I’ve had one question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their businesses’ ads during the election as well. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago, and since the question has been coming up again, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words, outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
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For radio and television stations with 5 or more full-time employees located in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, June 1 brings the requirement that you upload to your online inspection file your Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report detailing your employment outreach efforts for job openings filled in the last year, as well as the supplemental efforts you have made to educate the community about broadcast employment or the training efforts undertaken to advance your employees skills. For TV stations that are part of Employment Units with five or more full-time employees and located in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, you also need to submit your EEO Form 397 Mid-Term Report. See our article here on the Mid-Term Report, and another here on an FCC proposal that could lead to the elimination of the filing of the form.

June 1 should also serve as a reminder to radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia that your license renewal will be filed a year from now, on or before June 1, 2019. So, if you have not done so already, you should be reviewing your online public inspection file to make sure that it is complete, and otherwise review your station operations in anticipation of that filing. We wrote about some of the issues of concern for the upcoming license renewal cycle in our article here. TV stations in those same states will start the TV renewal cycle two years from now.
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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.
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May is one of those months where there are neither deadlines for EEO Public File Reports nor for any of the quarterly filings of issues/programs lists and children’s television reports. But the lack of these routine filing deadlines does not mean that there are no dates of interest in the coming month to broadcasters and other media companies. As seemingly is the case every month, there are never times when Washington is ignoring legal issues potentially affecting the industry.

May 10 brings an FCC meeting where two items of interest to broadcasters will be considered. One is a proposal to abolish the requirement for posting licenses and other operating authorizations at a broadcaster’s control point and to eliminate the requirement that FM translators post information about the station’s licensee and a contact phone number at their transmitter sites (see our post here for more details). The second is a proposal to modify the processing of complaints about new or modified FM translators causing interference to existing stations. See our summary of that proposal here. If adopted at the May 10 meeting, these proposals will be available for public comment after they are published in the Federal Register.
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The FCC this week published a Small Business Compliance Guide for companies looking to take advantage of the FCC’s elimination of the main studio rules and the studio staffing requirements associated with those rules (see our articles here and here summarizing the rule changes). The Compliance Guide points out that stations looking to eliminate their main studios still must maintain a local toll-free telephone number where residents of the community served by the station can call to ask questions or provide information to the licensee. The Guide also references the requirement that access to the public file must be maintained. While, by March 1, all broadcast stations (unless they have obtained a waiver) will have their public files online (see our article here), it is possible that some stations may have a remnant of their file still in paper even after the conversion date. “Old political documents” (documents dealing with advertising sales to candidates, other candidate “uses,” and issue advertising) that were created before the date that a station activates its online file for public viewing need not be uploaded but can be kept in a paper file for the relevant holding period (generally two years). If the station decides not to upload those old political documents, or closes its main studio before they have gone live with their online public file, they will need to maintain a paper file in their community of license. The Guide also mentions how Class A TV stations, which are required to show that they originate programming from their local service area, will be treated since they will no longer have a legally mandated main studio. But are there questions that the Guide does not address?

We think that there are, and that broadcasters who are considering doing away with their main studio need to consider numerous other matters. First, and most importantly, the obligation for a station to serve its local community with public interest programming remains on the books. So stations need to be sure that they are staying in touch with the local issues facing their communities, and they need to address those issues in their local programming. Addressing these issues needs to be documented in Quarterly Issues Programs lists which are the only legally-mandated documents that demonstrate how a station has served its community. There are other issues to consider as well.
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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 week before last, Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Programming and the acknowledged guru on political broadcasting issues, and I conducted a webinar for 20 state broadcast associations discussing the FCC rules regarding political advertising and related issues. We have done this seminar every other year for quite some time to help broadcasters prepare for an upcoming election year. Every time we conduct the session, we are faced with some new questions, usually not because the FCC rules have changed, but instead because new advertising practices have arisen in the industry. This year, one of the issues that prompted a question from the audience dealt with “programmatic advertising” – the question being how advertising bought through various programmatic platforms would play into the political broadcasting analysis that each station must conduct to prepare for the political season (including questions of political rates and access rights that might be affected by programmatic sales).

While most of the principles governing the FCC rules on political broadcasting are relatively established (and many are summarized in our Political Broadcasting Guide available here), new advertising practices and opportunities always raise questions as to how those established rules are to be applied. Programmatic buying of advertising time is one of those areas where these questions have arisen in recent years. In the last few years, programmatic buying has become the buzzword in broadcast advertising circles for both radio and TV. It is intended to make ad buying easier and more akin to the experience that ad buyers have when they place online advertising, allowing most of the buying process to take place from the buyer’s computer, anywhere and at any time, often without directly engaging with a station account rep.
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In these last few weeks before the many municipal elections that will be occurring in November in states across the country, I have recently received several questions about a broadcaster’s legal obligations toward write-in candidates who want to run advertising on a radio or television station. Under FCC precedent, all legally qualified candidates (including those running for state and local offices, see our article here) must be provided lowest unit rates, equal opportunities to purchase advertising time matching purchases by their opponents and, when they do buy time, the no censorship rules apply to their ads. For Federal candidates, they also have a right of reasonable access. But is a write-in candidate a “legally qualified candidate?” 

In most cases, the question as to whether a candidate is legally qualified is relatively easy.  The station looks at whether the person has the requisite qualifications for the office that they are seeking (age, residency, citizenship, not a felon, etc.), and then looks to see whether they have qualified for a place on the ballot for the upcoming election or primary.  In most cases, qualifying for a place on the ballot is a function of filing certain papers with a state or local election authority, in some places after having received a certain number of signatures on a petition supporting the candidacy.  Once the local election authority receives the papers (and does whatever evaluation may be required to determine if the filer is qualified for a place on the ballot), a person is legally qualified and entitled to all the FCC political broadcasting rights of a candidate: equal opportunities, no censorship, reasonable access if they are Federal candidates, and lowest unit rates during the limited LUC windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election).  But, for write-in candidates, there are different rules that are applied, as there is no election authority to certify that the requisite papers have been filed for a place on the ballot.  Instead, in these situations, a person claiming to be a candidate must make a “substantial showing” that he or she is a bona fide candidate – that he has been doing all the things that a candidate for election would do. What does that mean?
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