Public Interest Obligations/Localism

July is an important month for regulatory filings – even though it is one of those months with no FCC submissions tied to any license renewal dates. Instead, quarterly obligations arise this month, the most important of which will have an impact in the ongoing license renewal cycle that began in June (see last month’s update on regulatory dates, here).  Even though there are no renewal filing deadlines this month, radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and DC must continue their on-air post-filing announcements on the 1st and 16th of the month.  On these same days, pre-filing announcements must be run by radio stations in North and South Carolina, who file their renewals by August 1.  Stations in Florida and Puerto Rico, who file on October 1, should be prepared to start their pre-filing announcements on August 1.  See our article here on pre-filing announcements.

Perhaps the most important date this month is July 10, when all full power AM, FM, Class A TV and full power TV stations must place their quarterly issues/programs lists in their online public inspection files.  The issues/programs list should include details of important issues affecting a station’s community, and the station’s programming aired during April, May, and June that addressed those issues.  The list should include the time, date, duration and title of each program, along with a brief description of each program and how that program relates to a relevant community issue.  We have written many times about the importance of these lists and the fact that the FCC will likely be reviewing online public files for their existence and completeness during the license renewal cycle – and imposing fines on stations that do not have a complete set of these lists for the entire license renewal period (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here).  So be sure to get these important documents – the only official documents that the FCC requires to show how a station has met its overall obligation to serve the public interest – into your online public file by July 10. 
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The license renewal cycle, about which we have been warning broadcasters for at least the last year (see, for instance, our posts here, here and here), is now upon us. June 3 is the filing deadline for license renewals for radio stations in Maryland, DC, Virginia and West Virginia. Radio stations (including FM translators and LPFMs) licensed to any community in any of those states should be filing their renewal applications in the FCC’s Licensing and Management System (LMS) by Monday’s deadline. The new FCC forms, as we wrote here, have been available since early May, so the renewal and the accompanying EEO program report should either be on file or ready to be filed in LMS by the June 3 filing deadline. These stations should also be running their postfiling license renewal announcements on the 1st and 16th of June, July and August. Radio stations in the next renewal group, in North and South Carolina, should begin their license renewal pre-filing announcements on June 1st and 16th as well, informing the public about the upcoming filing of their renewals due on August 1. See this article on pre-filing announcements for more information.

In addition, broadcasters in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees should also be preparing to add to their online public inspection file their Annual EEO Public File Report. This report is due to be added to their online public files by June 1. A link to this report should also be placed on the station’s website, if it has a website.
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Perhaps some of the most controversial areas in broadcast advertising are those surrounding the advertising of cannabis products. While many states claim to have legalized marijuana, either for medical or recreational purposes, the Federal government still considers its possession and distribution a felony, and has specific laws that criminalize the use of radio frequencies, the Internet, and publications to promote its use. At the same time, the Federal government has recently decriminalized the possession of various hemp-based products with less than .3% THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in the 2018 Farm Act. This has led to an explosion in the sale of CBD products – even though the production of such products is, for the most part, to only be conducted after either the adoption of state laws approved by the US Department of Agriculture or under Federal rules that the USDA is supposed to approve – none of which has happened yet. With all these issues outstanding, I was recently asked to talk about the advertising issues surrounding these products before a continuing legal education seminar sponsored by the New York State Bar Association. The slides from my presentation are available here.

As we have advised broadcasters before, because they are Federal licensees, and marijuana is still a federally prohibited substance, there is substantial risk in running any advertising for products supposedly “legal” in the state in which they are being used. These ads are particularly of concern during the license renewal cycle that begins next month, as objections from anti-marijuana activists could put this issue directly before the FCC. Even though states may have adopted rules governing advertising for these products, the federal law still poses great risks for broadcast licensees – just as it does for other federally-regulated entities. That is one of the reasons that federally-chartered and insured banks have stayed away from taking deposits from marijuana-related businesses (a bill is presently pending in Congress to allow banks to take deposits, but its prospects are uncertain).
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Looking for a brief explanation of the online public inspection file and Quarterly Issues Programs List, and how they will be viewed in connection with the upcoming license renewal cycle – including the potential fines for violations of the rules? The Indiana Broadcasters has just released this video of me discussing those issues available

The FCC tomorrow will hold a public forum on Electronic Newsroom Technique (ENT) of captioning live TV programming tomorrow from 1 PM to 4:45 PM Eastern Time (see the agenda here). The forum will be available for viewing online (go to the FCC webpage here for information about connecting). This forum may provide a

The FCC this week released a Public Notice soliciting comments on the request of Univision, which owns US radio and TV stations, to have foreign ownership that exceeds 50%. As we wrote here, the FCC previously permitted foreign ownership of up to 49% of the company. With a restructuring of its investors, the

Questions about regulations from Washington don’t disappear just because you are spending time in Las Vegas, and this week’s NAB Convention brought discussion of many such issues. We’ll write about the discussion of antitrust issues that occurred during several sessions at the Convention in another post. But, today, we will report on news about more imminent actions on other issues pending before the FCC.

In his address to broadcasters at the conference, FCC Chairman Pai announced that the order on resolving translator interference complaints has been written and is now circulating among the Commissioners for review. The order is likely to be adopted at the FCC’s May meeting. We wrote here about the many suggestions on how to resolve complaints from full-power stations about interference from FM translators. While the Chairman did not go into detail on how the matter will be resolved, he did indicate that one proposal was likely to be adopted – that which would allow a translator that is allegedly causing interference to the regularly used signal of a full-power broadcast station to move to any open FM channel to resolve the interference. While that ability to change channels may not resolve all issues, particularly in urban areas where there is little available spectrum, it should be helpful in many other locations.
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The developments surrounding the regulation of cannabis products, and the impact of that regulation on the ability of broadcasters and other media companies to run ads for these products, continue on an almost daily basis.  Of course, the developments don’t all point in a single direction.  As described below, at the same time as the FDA schedules a hearing to look at cannabis products and the rules that should apply to them, the FTC and FDA together have written warning letters to CBD marketers advising them to stay away from making specific health claims about their products and to avoid promoting edible products.  What does this mean for media companies that have been approached to advertise these products?

We very recently wrote about the murky state of the law on CBD advertising (mentioning our continuing concerns about marijuana advertising even in states where it has been “legalized”).  In that article, we warned that broadcasters should be particularly concerned about selling advertising that markets CBD products to be ingested, or advertising which makes unsupported health claims.  In a joint action announced last week, the FTC and the FDA wrote letters to three sellers of CBD products, warning those companies that their marketing raised legal issues.  In these letters, the FTC expressed concern that the marketing contained health claims that could not be substantiated, and the FDA was concerned about the marketing of supplements and other CDB products to be taken orally that had not been approved by the FDA as either foods or medicines.  At least one of the letters cited a “salve” that presumably was not to be ingested, so the concern there seemed to be solely the specific health claims made for the product.  These letters reinforce the concerns that we expressed about advertising that contains specific health claims or which deals with products to be taken by mouth (either as dietary supplements, medicines or in other foods) – so stations should be especially wary of such ads. 
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April, as we wrote last month, begins the start of the radio license renewal process, with stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia having to run on the 1st and 16th of the month public notices of the planned filing of their license renewals at the beginning of June.  As we also noted last month, April also brings a requirement that, by the 10th of the month, stations add to their online public file Quarterly Issues Programs Lists for the prior quarter, setting out the most important issues facing their communities in the prior quarter, and the programming that they aired to address those issues.  We have written about the importance of these quarterly reports to the FCC to show how you served the public interest and the fines that can be imposed at renewal time if the lists are not properly prepared and uploaded to the online public file.  So don’t forget the obligation this obligation that applies to all full-power stations (and Class A TV stations).  We expect that the FCC will be watching (and in fact already is, as evident from some of their recent warnings to stations)!

In addition, April 1 brings the obligation for radio and television stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees, to add to their online public inspection file their Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report.  This report documents the full-time employment openings at the station in the prior year, the recruitment sources used to fill those positions, and the non-vacancy specific outreach efforts (the menu options) that stations use to inform their community about broadcast job openings and the efforts they make to train their staffs to assume more involved roles at their stations.  TV stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware will also file with the FCC their Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Reports – likely the last mid-term reports to be filed as the FCC’s order abolishing these reports should become effective before the next such reports are due to be submitted (see our articles here and here on the FCC’s abolition of the Mid-Term Report and its continued enforcement of the EEO rules through EEO audits).
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The FCC on Friday issued a Public Notice reminding radio stations that the license renewal cycle begins in June, when all stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia are due to electronically file their license renewal applications, along with the Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Report on Form 396 (the 396 being required of all full-power stations, even those with fewer than 5 full-time employees). It is still unclear whether these applications will be filed using the current electronic database for radio (called CDBS), or whether the FCC will require radio stations to use the new electronic database that TV stations have been using for several years now (called LMS).

The renewal filing obligation applies to LPFMs and FM translator stations, as well as full-power stations. As we have written many times in recent months (for example here and here), after the June filing deadline for these Mid-Atlantic states, the renewal cycle moves south – with stations in the Carolinas filing by August 1. Every other month for the next 3 years, radio stations in other states will file their renewal applications. The order in which stations file is available on the FCC’s website, here. The TV renewal cycle starts one year later, beginning in June 2020.
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