Programming Regulations

When a broadcaster files certain types of applications with the FCC, the public must be informed.  Last week, the FCC issued an Order which will change the rules regarding the public notice that must be given – consolidating what was a confusing process with different language and timing for notice about different types of applications into one providing standardized disclosures and scheduling for all public notices.  The decision (once it becomes effective) will eliminate obligations for the newspaper publication that was required for some public notices and also ended the obligation of broadcasters to give a “pre-filing public notice” before the submission of a license renewal application.  It will also require the inclusion of an “FCC Applications” link on the homepage of each commercial station’s website, whether or not they have any applications pending.  Let’s look at some of the changes adopted in last week’s Order.

First, the FCC did not change the requirements as to what applications require notice to the public.  Public notice is required for applications for new stations and major technical changes, for assignments (sales) or transfers of station licenses (except for pro forma changes where there is no real change in control over the station), for license renewal applications, minor change technical applications that involve a city-of-license change, and certain applications involving international broadcast stations or the export of programming to foreign stations to be rebroadcast back into the US.  Notice of designation for hearing of any application is also required.  We will concentrate here on the more common applications for changes to US stations, sale and license renewals.
Continue Reading Looking at Changes to the FCC’s Public Notice Requirements for Broadcast Applications

The responses by the major record labels to Commissioner O’Rielly’s inquiry into allegations of payola practices (see our article here) were published last week while we were all distracted with pandemic issues.  While the responses (available here on the Commissioner’s twitter feed) were perhaps not surprising – saying that the record labels do not engage in any on-air pay-for-play practices where the payment is not disclosed – they nevertheless highlight some practices that should be observed at every radio station.  As I have said in many seminars to broadcasters around the country when talking about FCC sponsorship identification requirements, if you get free stuff in exchange for promoting any product or service on the air, disclose that you got that free stuff. As made clear in these responses, when the record companies give free concert tickets or similar merchandise to a radio station for an on-air giveaway to promote a concert or the release of new music by one of their artists, they agree with the station to reveal on the air that the record company provided the ticket or merchandise that is being given away.

The responses also indicate that these record companies do not provide musical artists to play at station events with any agreement – explicit or implicit – that the station will play those artists more frequently because of their appearance.  While that might happen naturally, it also might not (if, for instance, the band is one of many acts participating at some station-sponsored festival).  The record companies state that their contracts with stations for such events make clear that there is no agreement that any artist appearance is tied to additional airplay for that artist.
Continue Reading Record Companies Respond to FCC Commissioner on Payola – What Should Broadcasters Learn from the Responses?

Taking a station off the air is often the last resort of a broadcast company in desperate financial times.  While Payroll Protection Act loans have helped many small broadcasters avoid that action even in light of the dramatic decrease in broadcast advertising revenue in the last two months, and some relief may come in areas of the country looking at some reopening of business in the coming weeks, we have still heard of some stations that just can’t manage continued operations in this period of turmoil – either for financial or operational reasons caused by the current health crisis.  If this action is in the cards for your station because of the pandemic or for any other reason including technical failures, do not forget about the FCC requirements for taking a station silent.

When a broadcast station goes silent, it must notify the FCC of that status within 10 days of going off the air.  If the situation will continue for a longer period, a request for Special Temporary Authority providing the reasons for going off the air must be filed within 30 days of going silent.  These STAs are granted for no more than 6 months at a time, so that date should be noted for the filing of any extension that may be needed.  But be careful, as if a station is silent for a full year, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act provides that the license will be cancelled unless the FCC makes an affirmative finding that there are special public interest reasons for not taking that action (a finding made in very rare cases).  When stations resume operations, they must notify the FCC that they are back on the air.  But to be considered back on the air, there must be programming – running a test pattern is insufficient (see the case we wrote about here).  Even with authority to remain silent, there are risks.
Continue Reading Broadcast Stations Going Silent – What You Need to Do

Recently, FCC staff dismissed a request by the organization Free Press asking the FCC to investigate the broadcast of the President’s press conferences on the coronavirus and programs where commentators supported the President’s pronouncements.  In addition to an investigation, the request asked that the FCC require that broadcasters “prominently disclose when information they air is false or scientifically suspect” in relation to these press conferences and other broadcasts.   Free Press suggested that the FCC had the authority to take this action under its broad mandate to regulate in the public interest.  It also cited the FCC’s hoax rule as providing support for such an action.  As we have written before, the hoax rule is designed to prevent broadcasts that pose the risk of imminent harm to the public by potentially tying up first responders and emergency response teams for purported disasters and crimes that are not real.  FCC staff dismissed the Free Press complaint, finding that the FCC is forbidden by Section 326 of the Communications Act from censoring the speech of broadcasters or otherwise abridging their freedom of speech.  These First Amendment principles largely keep the FCC out of content regulation (with the limited exceptions of regulation in areas like indecency, obscenity and sponsorship identification where the message is not being censored, just certain means of expression).

In the Free Press decision, the FCC concluded that, in covering a breaking news story like the pandemic, it would be impossible for a broadcaster to fact check every statement made in a press conference and correct any misstatements in anything approaching real time, as there is so much room for interpretation of any statement made on these ongoing matters.  It would also be impossible for the FCC to police any such mandate without trampling on First Amendment principles, as it would require the FCC to become the arbiter of the truth for many claims made on television.  The FCC declined to take on that role, and noted that the hoax rule is narrowly drawn to avoid these First Amendment issues.  That rule only punishes clearly false broadcasts that could foreseeably tie up first responders or cause substantial public harm.  It does not get the FCC involved in evaluations of the truth of political statements and policy pronouncements.  This is a position that has consistently been taken by the FCC, and one that we often see misstated in connection with demands for the take-down of issue advertising and non-candidate political attack ads.
Continue Reading FCC Denies Application of Hoax Rule to Trump Press Conferences on COVID-19 – Looking at the First Amendment and the Commission’s Regulation of Political Speech

The FCC announced two actions yesterday providing broadcasters targeted relief during the heart of this pandemic.  In a Public Notice released yesterday, the FCC announced that it will waive its rules to allow the preemption of children’s educational and informational programs during the month of April to allow TV stations to air live or near-live

In the last three weeks, we have written about actions that the FCC has taken to help broadcasters through the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus.  The FCC appears to realize that the business of broadcasting in the current crisis is vastly different than it was just a month ago.  The FCC has provided

The FCC on  Friday released a Public Notice announcing that they are giving stations more time in which to upload their Quarterly Issues Programs lists to their online public file and to file their first Annual Children’s Television Report.  In our list of April regulatory dates for broadcasters last week, we had highlighted both of those filings.  Because of the disruption of the schedules of so many people, and the lack of access to many broadcast stations, the FCC appears to have decided that broadcasters should get more time to meet these regulatory obligations.

Quarterly Issues Programs lists are required to be uploaded to the online public inspection file of all full-power stations every quarter – and would normally be required to be in the public file by April 10.  While urging stations to upload those lists as soon as possible, the Commission has given stations until July 10 (when the next quarter’s lists will be due) to upload this quarter’s report.  So the two reports could be uploaded at the same time.
Continue Reading FCC Announces Extensions of Deadlines to Upload Quarterly Issues Programs List and to File Annual Children’s Television Report

Yesterday, the FCC released two public notices reflecting its attempts to assist broadcasters coping with the COVID-19 crisis.  The first public notice deals with the attempts of several broadcasters to support their advertisers while at the same time filling advertising inventory holes that have been created by the cancellation of other advertising schedules.  Broadcasters who

FCC business marches on in this time of social distancing and mandatory lockdowns, though with modifications caused by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  The FCC released a Public Notice yesterday announcing that its monthly open meeting scheduled for March 31 will be held by teleconference rather than live in the FCC meeting room.  It can be viewed on the FCC’s website and on its YouTube channel.  Most of the action items will have already been voted on by the Commissioners through the “circulation” process.  This means that the votes will be taken on the written orders without any formal presentations by FCC staff members explaining the actions, and without orally-delivered statements by any of the Commissioners – though the Commissioners can certainly make their feelings known in written statements on the items on which they will have voted.  The meeting itself is likely to consist of Commission announcements and statements by the Commissioners on the current state of affairs.

Issues that were to be considered at the meeting of interest to broadcasters include the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Distributed Transmission System technology for TV stations – making it easier for TV stations to fill in their market coverage with multiple transmitters spread throughout the market, rather than a single big transmitter in the center of the market – a technology made easier as stations transition to the new ATSC 3.0 transmission system (see the draft NPRM here).  FCC Notices of Proposed Rulemaking on significantly viewed TV stations (draft NPRM here) and cable carriage disputes (draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here) are also on the agenda.
Continue Reading FCC Activity in the Time of COVID-19 – Commission Meeting to be Held Virtually, Commissioner O’Rielly Nominated for New Term

Life has been upended for most Americans due to the spread of the coronavirus and that tumult is, of course, reaching broadcasters as it reaches others throughout the country.  As we wrote here, like many agencies and businesses, as part of its COVID-19 response, the FCC has moved most of its workforce to teleworking in an attempt to keep FCC staff and their families safe.  With most FCC forms and filings being submitted electronically, and remote work already being routine for many FCC employees, there should be minimal disruption to broadcasters’ routine daily dealings with the Commission.  Broadcasters should continue to comply with all FCC rules, including meeting filing deadlines, though it does appear that the FCC is willing to be flexible with some deadlines, especially when a broadcaster can point to virus-related reasons that the deadline cannot be met.  Check with your attorney on specific deadlines.  And check our article from yesterday highlighting some issues to consider while preparing for whatever comes next.

While there is much disruption to normal routines, the routines of regulatory life largely carry on.  For instance, before moving on to April deadlines, we should remind TV broadcasters that, if they have not already done so, their first Annual Children’s Television Report is due to be submitted to the Commission by March 30.  See our articles here and here on that new report.
Continue Reading April Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: The FCC May Be Teleworking, But Regulation Goes On