Public Interest Obligations/Localism

The FCC this week announced consent decrees with six large radio groups over problems with the political files maintained by these groups.  The consent decrees included very specific compliance plans for each company to ensure that it met all FCC political file obligations in the future.  And it suggested that the penalties were mitigated by the current economic conditions caused by the pandemic – but emphasized the importance to the FCC of the political file obligations and suggested that industry associations take steps to educate all broadcasters about their public file obligations when they run political advertising.  Based on these decisions, we thought that we would republish an updated version of an article that we ran two years ago about those political file obligations so that broadcasters can review their own files to ensure that they have in their files the documents that the FCC wants to see.

Our article from two years ago looked at the political file obligations not too long after the FCC required that all of these documents be made available online, as part of the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the globe has made the required documents much more visible than when they could be reviewed only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. Not only can these documents be reviewed by the FCC in Washington, DC, but they can be reviewed by candidates, their agencies, and political ad buyers across the country.  In fact, we understand that some political ad buyers have online “bots” that scan these files routinely to keep track of political ad buying across the country.  Plus, with the license renewal cycle ongoing, the FCC reviews the political file as part of their review of a commercial station’s license renewal application (where licensees need to certify as to whether they have kept their public files complete in a timely fashion).
Continue Reading FCC Enters Consent Decrees with Six Big Radio Groups – Looking at What the FCC’s Political File Rules Require

Here are some of the FCC actions 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’s Enforcement Bureau entered into negotiated settlements with two Boston-area pirate radio operators who admitted to illegal operations and

July is usually a month of family vacations and patriotic celebrations.  While the pandemic has seen to it that those activities, if they happen at all, will look different than they have in years past, there are plenty of regulatory obligations to fill a broadcaster’s long, summer days.  Here are a few of the dates and deadlines to watch for in July, and a quick reminder of some of the significant filings due right at the beginning of August.

On or before July 10, all TV and radio stations must upload to their public file their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for the 2nd quarter (April, May and June).  Stations that took advantage of the FCC’s extension of time to file their 1st quarter (January, February and March) list must also by July 10 upload that list to their public file.  As a reminder, the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists are a station’s evidence of how it operated in the public interest, demonstrating its treatment of its community’s most significant issues.  The FCC has shown (see here and here) that it takes this requirement seriously and will fine stations, hold up license renewals, or both if it finds problems with a station’s compliance.  For a short video on complying with the Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirement, see here.
Continue Reading July Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: End of the TV Repacking, Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Reporting, EEO, Carriage Election Public File Information Deadline, LPTV Settlement Window, Rulemaking Comments and More

Here are some of the FCC regulatory and legal actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters — with a quick look at the week ahead— with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • As protests and civil unrest over George Floyd’s killing roiled cities across the country, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commended local broadcasters for their coverage of the events and their willingness to put themselves at personal risk to share these stories with America (News Release). Commissioner Starks called for more diversity in media ownership (News Release). We explained the minority tax certificate on our blog here.  The tax certificate has historically been one of the most effective means of promoting diversity in broadcast ownership.
  • The FCC issued a Public Notice setting out proposed lump sum payments for reimbursement of the costs for the relocation of authorized C-Band satellite earth stations following the repurposing of some of that band for 5-G wireless uses. The notice is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Monday, setting a June 15 comment deadline on the proposed payments.
  • The Media Bureau reminded LPTV and TV translator stations operating on channels 38, 44, 45 and 46 that they must cease operations no later than 11:59 pm local time on July 13, 2020. The July 13, 2020 date for cessation of operations is a hard deadline, tied to the end of the post-Incentive Auction transition period.  (Public Notice)
  • The Media Bureau opened a settlement window running through July 31 for applicants for new or modified LPTV stations or TV translators, originally filed in 2009, that had filed for new channels or new technical facilities because use of their old channels was preempted by the incentive auction repack.  Where more than one applicant applied for the same new channel in the same area, those applicants can file to make engineering changes to their applications (including, if no other solutions are possible, changing channels yet again) or to reach other settlements (including channel sharing) to resolve their conflicts by the July 31 deadline.  (Public Notice)(see our summary of both LPTV items on the Broadcast Law Blog).
  • The FCC released a list of 515 open proceedings from across its bureaus that it plans to close due to dormancy. A proceeding makes the proposed closure list when it requires no more action, no more action is planned, or no filings in the docket have been made for several years.  Interested parties can review the list and submit comments urging the Commission to either keep open or close permanently items that appear on the list.  (Public Notice)
  • The Media Bureau issued a decision reviewing Section 312(g) of the Communications Act which automatically cancels a station’s license if it has been silent for 12 months, absent special circumstances. The decision is particularly useful in explaining the special circumstances that can justify the preservation of a license, and the way that the FCC assesses the period that a station was silent.  (Letter)
  • Two Notices of Apparent Liability that came out of the Commission this week serve as good reminders during this license renewal cycle that you do, in fact, have to file an application to renew your license.
    • In one case, a Virginia AM station was hit with a $7,000 fine for failing to file for license renewal and then operating the station after its FCC authorization had expired. In the end, the Commission levied the fine, but also found that the station’s license should be renewed for a “short-term” two-year license term instead of the typical eight-year term.  (Notice of Apparent Liability)
    • In a second case, a Florida low power FM failed file an application for license renewal on January 27, 2020 that was due on or before October 1, 2019, without providing an explanation for the late filing. The Commission levied a $1,500 fine against the station and will consider the license renewal application at a later time.  (Notice of Apparently Liability)


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: May 30, 2020 to June 5, 2020

We summarized the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on Monday, looking at the application of the law that the President has sought to change through the Executive Order released last week.  Today, it’s time to look at what the Executive Order purports to do and what practical effects it might have on media companies, including broadcasters.  As we noted in our first article, the reach of Section 230 is broad enough that any company with an online presence where content is created and posted by someone other than the site owner is protected by Section 230 – so that would include the online properties of almost every media company has.

The Executive Order has four distinct action items directed to different parts of the government.  The first, which has perhaps received the most publicity in the broadcast world, is the President’s direction that the Department of Commerce, acting through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA – the Executive Branch office principally responsible for telecommunications policy), file a petition for rulemaking at the FCC.  This petition would ask that the FCC review Section 230 to determine if the protections afforded by the law are really as broad as they have been interpreted by the courts.  The Executive Order suggests that the FCC should review whether the ability granted by the law for an online platform to curate content posted by others – the “Good Samaritan” provisions that we wrote about on Monday – could trigger a loss of protections from civil liability for third-party content if sites exercise the curation rights in a manner that is not deemed to be in “good faith”.  The Executive Order directs this inquiry even though the protections for hosting online content are in a separate subsection of the law from the language granting the ability to curate content, and the protections from liability for third-party content contain no good faith language.  The Order suggests that the FCC should find that there would not be “good faith” if the reasons given for the curation actions were “pretextual,” if there was no notice and right to be heard by the party whose content is curated, and if the curation is contrary to the service’s terms of use.  The Order suggests that the FCC should adopt rules to clarify these issues.
Continue Reading Looking at the President’s Executive Order on Online Media – Part 2, What Real Risk Does It Pose for Media Companies?

An intense national conversation on racial justice and equity has been thrust upon the country by the events of the last week.  While our focus here on this blog is narrow, it is certainly worth looking at some of the issues that are within our broadcast world that are relevant to this conversation.  In recent days, for instance, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks promoted more diversity in broadcast ownership, and an article in Radio Ink by the President of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters called for a revival of the minority tax certificate – a program ended decades ago over concerns about its cost to the government.  The tax certificate offers perhaps the most meaningful route to the goals sought by the Commissioner and is worth examination as, since its abolition so many years ago, its revival has been discussed so many times that it has become almost a cliché, with many not really understanding what it did and why it was effective.

The minority tax certificate was a program designed to provide broadcasters with an economic incentive to sell their stations to minority owners.  Rather than directly subsidizing the potential owners, the certificate instead gave a tax break to sellers that incentivized them to sell to the minority-owned business even if there were multiple bidders for their properties.  If the seller sold to a minority-owned business, the seller could take the proceeds from the sale and roll those proceeds over into a new media property without recognizing the taxable gain from the sale.  Unlike the typical like-kind exchange where the roll-over into a new property has to proceed within a few months of the sale, the tax certificate treated the sale as an involuntary sale (like the sale of a property because of a government’s exercise of eminent domain) under Section 1033 of the tax code, giving the seller several years to roll the proceeds over into a new purchase.  At that point, the new property would have the same tax basis as the old – meaning that no gain would be recognized until the sale of the new property.  This spurred many sales to minority companies by broadcasters looking not to get out of the business, but instead looking to realign their holdings or to move up into larger markets.  Several hundred radio and TV stations were purchased under this program in the last 20 years of the program’s existence.  Why was this seemingly successful program abandoned?
Continue Reading Understanding the Minority Tax Certificate and its Potential for Promoting Diversity in Broadcast Ownership

With many people now entering their third month of complying with stay-at-home orders and social distancing and summer being right around the corner, it would be easy for broadcasters to look past their regulatory obligations to focus on the day when they can ramp up operations and profits.  As you can read below, however, June is a busy month with important obligations for many stations.

June brings the start of summer and the start of the license renewal cycle for television stations.  By June 1, full-power TV, Class A TV, TV translator, and LPTV stations in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia and full-power AM and FM stations and LPFM and FM translators in Michigan and Ohio must file their license renewal applications. Those stations should already be close to completing their renewal applications, looking to file them on or before the June 1 deadline.  See our article here on the FCC’s announcement of the newly-revised procedures for filing TV license renewal applications.  On June 1 and again on June 16, stations filing renewals need to broadcast their post-filing announcements informing their audiences of the filing of the renewal application.
Continue Reading June 2020 Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: License Renewals, EEO Reports, Broadcast Internet Consideration, and Comments on Significant Viewing, DTS, White Spaces, Regulatory Fees, and Video Description

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

Trying to stay on top of regulatory developments for broadcasters is difficult even in normal times.  There are always day-to-day obligations that distract from a focus on legal and regulatory questions – and there are so many developments almost every week that we can’t always write about everything that may have occurred.  So we thought that we would introduce a new feature – each weekend providing a list of some of the regulatory actions of importance to broadcasters that occurred in the prior week, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

In addition, to provide information on dealing with the FCC during the pandemic, and on the many actions that the FCC has taken during the last 6 weeks – both those dealing with the current crisis and decisions made in processing its normal workload relating to broadcasting – we conducted a webinar last Tuesday on these issues.  You check out that webinar presented to broadcasters across the country, available by clicking on this link.  And here are some of the regulatory actions announced last week of importance to broadcasters that have been announced since then :


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC: April 18, 2020 to April 24, 2020

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