Public Interest Obligations/Localism

Here we are, more than a week into the New Year, and already we’ve written about a host of regulatory issues that will be facing broadcasters in the first month of the year (see for instance our articles here and here).  But what about the rest of the year?  As we do most years,

While many of us were trying to enjoy the holidays, the world of regulation kept right on moving, seemingly never taking time off.  So we thought that we ought to highlight some of the actions taken by the FCC in the last couple weeks and to also remind you of some of the upcoming January regulatory deadlines.

Before Christmas, we highlighted some of the regulatory dates for January – including the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists due to be placed in the online public file of all full-power stations by January 10.  Also on the list of dates in our post on January deadlines are the minimum SoundExchange fees due in January for most radio stations and other webcasters streaming programming on the Internet.  January also brings the deadline for Biennial Ownership Reports (postponed from their normal November 1 filing deadline).

In that summary of January regulatory dates, we had mentioned that the initial filing of the new Annual Children’s Television Programming Report would be due this month.  But, over the holiday week, the FCC extended that filing deadline for that report until March 30 to give broadcasters time to familiarize themselves with the new forms.  The FCC will be doing a webinar on the new form on January 23.  In addition, the FCC announced that many of the other changes in the children’s television rules that were awaiting review under the Paperwork Reduction Act had been approved and are now effective.  See our article here for more details.
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With many Americans using the holiday season to rest and recharge, broadcasters should do the same but not forget that January is a busy month for complying with several important regulatory deadlines for broadcast stations.  These include dates that regularly occur for broadcasters, as well as some unique to this month.  In fact, with the start of the lowest unit rate windows for primaries and caucuses in many states, January is a very busy regulatory month.  So don’t head off to Grandma’s house without making sure that you have all of your regulatory obligations under control.

One date applicable to all full-power stations is the requirement that, by Friday, January 10, 2020, all commercial and noncommercial radio and television stations must upload to their online public file their quarterly issues/programs list for the period covering October 1 – December 31, 2019.  The issues/programs list demonstrates the station’s “most significant treatment of community issues” during the three-month period covered by each quarterly report.  We wrote about the importance of these reports many times (see, for instance, our posts here and here).  With all public files now online, FCC staff, viewers or listeners, or anyone with an internet connection can easily look at your public file, see when you uploaded your Quarterly Report, and review the contents of it.  In the current renewal cycle, the FCC has issued two fines of $15,000 each to stations that did not bother with the preparation of these lists (see our posts here and here on those fines).  In past years, the FCC has shown a willingness to fine stations or hold up their license renewals or both (see here and here) over public file issues where there was some but not complete compliance with the obligations to retain these issues/programs lists for the entire renewal term.  For a short video on the basics of the quarterly issues/programs list and the online public inspection file, see here.
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We have written many times about the concerns regarding the marketing of CBD products on broadcast stations. As we wrote here, here, and here, the FDA and FTC have repeatedly warned makers of these products that they cannot make specific health claims about the products and cannot market products that are intended to be ingested. In a recent action, the FDA issued 15 warning letters to companies marketing CBD products – warning them about marketing both for edible products and for health claims (see the FDA press release here with links to all 15 warning letters). The FDA also released a Consumer Update warning consumers about many of the potential risks of CBD use and noting that, except for a single epilepsy drug, it has not approved any medical uses of these products.

These warning letters include a litany of advertising issues that the FDA found problematic, beyond the simple issues of advertising products to be ingested and making specific health claims. In several letters (including those here, here and here), the FDA suggested that even claims about CBD being good to relieve “aches and pains” or that it “reduces inflammation” exceeded the legal limits on marketing. Even claims that oils used for “skin conditions, spot pain management and sore joints,” qualified with the fact that the uses were “still being studied,” were noted as being concerns. Advertising about products aimed at children was noted as being particularly problematic as use by “vulnerable populations” is a real concern where no FDA-recognized research has established the safety of those products. Animal products were also recognized as a concern, as they also have not been approved as being safe and effective.
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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. 
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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). 
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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.
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