Public Interest Obligations/Localism

On October 31, the US Department of Agriculture published in the Federal Register interim rules governing the production of industrial hemp under the provisions of the 2018 Farm Act (see the USDA press release here).  These rules will allow the USDA to approve state and tribal plans for the regulation of hemp production.  It also allows for the USDA to authorize growers in states that have not adopted their own plans (or that have restricted the production of hemp).  The USDA notes the interest in hemp production driven by interest in CBD products derived from hemp.  While these rules do not address advertising issues specifically, they do ease some of the concerns that many broadcasters and other media companies have had about advertising CBD products when it was unclear that the production of those products was legal.  We wrote about some of those concerns many times, including in our posts here and here.

These interim rules recognize that CBD products can already be legally produced under provisions of the 2014 Farm Act.  As we noted here, that Act authorized experimental production of hemp products.  The 2014 Act also permitted research into commercial exploitation of hemp products – probably permitting greater production than Congress or the USDA expected when the Act was adopted.  The October 31 public notice states that production under the 2014 Act will be allowed to continue for the next three years until permanent rules implementing the 2018 Act are adopted.  In fact, the USDA notes that it expects that over 50% of hemp production will be by those operating under these grandfathered 2014 licenses for the next year.  This seems to recognize that a significant amount of production already underway is in fact legal under federal law, ameliorating some of the concerns as to whether CBD products now being sold could have been legally produced. 
Continue Reading

A pattern is being established – $15,000 and a short-term, 2-year license renewal seem to have become the standard penalty for stations that are missing all of their Quarterly Issues Programs Lists for a license renewal term.  Yesterday, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued a proposed fine to a Virginia station that had failed to complete any Quarterly Issues Programs lists during its 8-year license renewal term.  The proposed $15,000 fine, and a renewal for only 2 years rather than the normal 8-year term, is the same penalty proposed two weeks ago in another case (which we wrote about here) where a station had similar problems.  These two cases seem to announce that this is the base penalty for stations that simply have not bothered to complete any Quarterly Issues Programs lists.

Yet to be seen is what happens when a broadcaster has completed some but not all of the required public file paperwork.  Last week, the FCC granted many of the license renewal applications from the first round of radio license renewals (for stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia).  The granted applications were the ones that had few if any problems.  With the FCC having acted at the two extremes – renewal grants for those with no issues and $15,000 fines and short-term renewals for those with significant issues – the Commission now needs to fill in the holes, deciding what to do with those applicants that fell somewhere between these two extremes.  Watch for decisions from the FCC to see whether penalties are imposed on stations that fall in the middle in coming months.
Continue Reading

October is one of the busiest months on the broadcaster’s regulatory calendar. On October 1, EEO Public Inspection file reports are due in the online public file of stations that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. An employment unit is one or more commonly controlled stations in the same geographic area that share at least one employee.

October 1 is also the deadline for license renewal filings by radio stations (including FM translators and LPFM stations) in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On the 1st and 16th of the month, stations in those states, and in North and South Carolina, need to run post-filing announcements on the air informing listeners about the filing of their license renewal applications. Pre-filing announcements about the upcoming filing of license renewal applications by radio stations in Alabama and Georgia also are to run on the 1st and 16th. See our post here on the FCC’s reminder about the pre- and post-filing announcements.
Continue Reading

Yesterday, a panel of judges from the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided by a 2 to 1 vote to overturn the FCC’s 2017 decision that made significant changes to its ownership rules (see the decision here).  The Court sent the case back to the FCC for further consideration.  The 2017 decision (see our article here) was the one which ended the ban on the cross ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers in the same market and the limits on radio-television cross-ownership.  The 2017 decision also allowed television broadcasters to own two TV stations in markets with fewer than 8 independent owners and made other changes to the radio and TV ownership rules.  Yesterday’s decision also put on hold the FCC’s incubator program meant to assist new owners to acquire radio stations (see our summary of the incubator program here).  All of this was done without any analysis whatsoever as to whether marketplace changes justified the changes to the ownership rules or of the impact that the undoing these rule changes would have on broadcasters and other media companies – including on radio companies hoping for changes in the radio ownership rules in current proceeding to review those rules (see our articles here and here).

What led the Court to overturn the decision if it was not the Court’s disagreement with the FCC’s determination that change in the ownership rules was needed?  This Court, in fact these same three judges, has overturned the FCC three times in the last 15 years, stymieing ownership changes because the Court concluded that the FCC had not sufficiently taken into account the impact that rule changes would have on diversity in the ranks of broadcast owners.  Here, again, the Court determined that the FCC did not have sufficient information on the impact of the rule changes on ownership diversity to conclude that the rule changes were in the public interest – and thus sent the case back to the FCC to obtain that information before making any ownership rule changes.  What led the Court to that conclusion, and what can be done about this decision?
Continue Reading

On Friday, the FCC’s Audio Division released its first decision in the current renewal cycle addressing the issue of incomplete public inspection files and missing Quarterly Issues Programs List, proposing to fine an AM station in Virginia $15,000 for apparently not having any Issues Programs Lists in its online public inspection file for the entire renewal term.  The decision, found here, should serve as a warning to broadcasters to make sure that their online files are complete and up to date.

The facts of this case, summarized below, seem particularly egregious as the station had the same issue of missing issues programs lists when its last renewal was filed 8 years ago.  Nevertheless, we can expect that this won’t be the last fine we will see for stations that have incomplete public files.  The FCC has been sending out warnings about incomplete online files for the last year, and we’ve been warning (see, for instance, here and here) that, with all public inspection files now being available online, the FCC will likely be issuing fines during this renewal cycle if documents are missing from the file.  The Quarterly Issues Programs lists are seen by the FCC as being particularly important as they are the only official documents demonstrating the public interest programming that was actually broadcast by a station (see our article here). 
Continue Reading

We’ve written many times about the legal concerns about advertising for various vices – including e-cigs (see, for instance, our article here) and CBD (see for instance our articles here and here). The issues with these products never seem to go away, and in recent days, they have become even more pronounced. On e-cigs and vaping products, we have advised that ads need to avoid health claims, must contain an FDA-required warning that they contain nicotine and can be addictive (see our articles here and here), and that they should not be aired during programming targeting children (see our article here). We recently also added a warning that action might be coming against flavored vaping products. This week, the headlines are full of news announcing a new Federal ban on flavored vaping products that may go into effect in the next few months, following a state ban that was recently instituted in Michigan. On CBD, in addition to concerns about laws that still make the product illegal in many states, we’ve discussed concerns about whether the product is legally produced from hemp (see our article here), and highlighted prohibitions on health claims (see our article here) and ads directed to an underage audience. This week, we saw another set of warnings from the FTC targeting advertisers making specific health claims about their products. These actions should serve as a warning to broadcasters and other media companies to proceed very carefully, only after receiving legal advice, before jumping into advertising for these products.

On the vaping front, Michigan recently became the first state to totally ban flavored e-cigarettes – including mint and menthol flavored vaping products. See the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “Finding of Emergency” here, and the Governor’s announcement here. While there was some indication that the vaping industry might fight that ban, with the news yesterday that the Trump administration plans to ban these products on a Federal level (see this statement from the FDA indicating that it will soon announce specific rules for the Federal ban on these products), broadcasters need to be concerned about running advertising for products that may be considered illegal. With the recent rash of other serious health consequences of vaping, it is quite possible that further regulation of these products will follow, and so may lawsuits from the vaping industry. In the interim, the FDA notes that it will be running advertising to combat underage vaping and to warn about the potential health issues, so look for those advertising opportunities.
Continue Reading

With the summer winding down, you can expect that come September, like everywhere else, Washington will leap back to life and the government will try to accomplish what they can before the end of the year. That will no doubt mean some regulatory actions (and potentially court actions and legislative actions) affecting broadcasters this Fall, though what they are remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is plenty to keep broadcasters busy. While September is one of those months in which there are few of the normally recurring filing deadlines (no EEO reports, renewal filings or quarterly reports need to be submitted during the month), there is one big deadline that no commercial broadcaster should forget – the filing of annual regulatory fees.

We understand that there is an order circulating at the FCC right now to set the final amount of the regulatory fees for the year. As these fees must be paid before October 1 when the government’s new fiscal year begins, we can expect that order shortly, with fees due at some point in September. As the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposed significant unexplained increases in the fees paid by radio, and a change to the methodology used to compete TV fees, moving from a DMA-based fee to one calculated based on an individual station’s predicted coverage (which had the effect of raising some fees, especially for high-powered VHF stations, while lowering others), a number of broadcasters and the NAB complained about those proposals. Watch for the FCC’s decision in the coming days to see how it addresses these complaints about the proposed fees, and to see when the fees will be due.
Continue Reading

Once upon a time, August was a quiet month in Washington, when everyone went on vacation. Sure, there are plenty of vacations that will happen this coming month, but it seems that regulatory activity no longer takes a break. For example, August 1 is the due date for the filing with the FCC of license renewals for all radio stations (including translators and LPFM stations) in North and South Carolina, and the filing of associated EEO forms for all full power radio stations in those states. With the renewal filing comes the obligation that these stations start airing, on August 1 and August 16, their post-filing announcements informing the public about the submission of the license renewal applications. Radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, who filed their renewals on or before June 2, also need to keep running their post-filing announcements on these same dates. Radio stations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who are in the next license renewal group with their renewal applications to be filed by October 1, need to start broadcasting their pre-filing announcements this month, also to run on the 1st and 16th of the month. See our post here on pre-filing announcements.

Commercial and noncommercial full power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM radio stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin that are part of an employment unit with five or more full-time employees must place their annual EEO public inspection file reports in their online public file. Links to those reports should also be placed on the home pages of these station’s websites, if they have a website. The effectiveness of these EEO public file reports, and the EEO programs of which they are a part, are being reviewed by the FCC in a proceeding started by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about which we wrote here. Comments on this notice asking for suggestions about how to make the EEO rules more effective are due August 21, with reply comments due by September 5.
Continue Reading

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. 
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading