Public Interest Obligations/Localism

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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The FCC has once again started sending out email notices to broadcast stations that are not in compliance with their online public file obligations. This follows a set of notices sent in early December, where the FCC first warned specific stations that there were issues with their online public inspection files (see our article here). The new email notices seem to be sent to two classes of stations – those that have done nothing to their online public files, and those that have activated the files, but not uploaded their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to those files. Some of the new notices follow up on notices sent in December. Both sets of notices ask for reports to the FCC from the stations that received the notice of corrective actions that they have taken.

We have been warning of the FCC’s concern about incomplete or inactive online public files for some time, and the potential impact that noncompliance could have on license renewals, which start for radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia in June 2019, with pre-filing public announcements of those filings due to begin on April 1 (see our article here). The renewal obligation for radio moves across the country with stations in a few specific states filing every other month in this three-year renewal cycle (for more information see, for instance, our articles here and here). Clearly, this set of emails is a warning to stations that the FCC is watching their public files, and that compliance problems will bring issues, and probably fines, if the files are not complete by license renewal time. The emails that have been sent out do not target every station in noncompliance with the public file obligations – but instead seem to just be a sampling of those stations – so do not relax and assume compliance simply because you did not receive any contact from the FCC.
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March is one of those unusual months in the broadcast regulatory cycle, where there are no routine EEO public file obligations, and no quarterly filing obligations or other regularly scheduled regulatory deadlines.  That means that my tardiness in publishing this article before the start of the month did not miss anything important.  But, starting next month, there will be a whole new set of deadlines about which broadcasters need to be concerned, as April 1 is when the first pre-filing announcements for broadcast license renewals will begin, signaling the start of the 3-year long radio renewal cycle. The 3-year TV license renewal cycle will begin at the same time next year.

Radio broadcasters in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia will be the first to file their renewal applications – and they will need to start running their “pre-filing” notices on their radio stations beginning on April 1, in anticipation of a June renewal filing (renewal applications to be filed no later than June 3, as June 1 is a Saturday).  The FCC has posted a helpful guide to the times that these notices need to run, and a model for the text of these notices, here (although the model text is now outdated, in that it does not acknowledge that stations now have online public files; the FCC has a pending proceeding to modify these public notices that one would hope would be resolved soon – see our articles here and here for details).  Stations in the Carolinas begin their pre-filing announcements two months later, with stations in other states to follow at 2-month intervals after that.  The schedule for renewals is on the FCC website here, and the pre-filing announcements begin two months before the renewal-filing deadline.
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The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the next Quadrennial Review of the FCC’s ownership rules was adopted in December and was published today in the Federal Register, starting the 60 day period for public comments. Comments on the NPRM will be due on April 29 with reply comments due on May 29. The FCC is looking at numerous issues, including one issue, the rules setting out the limits on the number of radio stations that one company can own in a market, that has not been reviewed in depth in recent Quadrennial Reviews. On the TV side, the FCC is again looking at local TV ownership (specifically combinations of Top 4 stations in a market and shared services agreements) and also at the dual network rule restricting common ownership of two of the Top 4 TV networks. In addition, the FCC is reviewing additional ideas on how to increase diversity in broadcast ownership. Today, let’s look at the FCC’s questions on the local radio ownership rules.

The review of the radio ownership rules may well be the most fundamental issue facing the Commission in this proceeding, as no real changes have been made in those rules since they were adopted as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. As we wrote here, the marketplace has certainly changed since 1996 – which was at least a decade before Google and Facebook became the local advertising giants that they now are; and before Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and many other web services offered by tech giants became competitors for the audience for music entertainment. And spoken word entertainment competition was also virtually non-existent – “audiobooks” were a niche product and the concept of a “podcast” would have been totally foreign when the current rules were written. So what are some of the questions about the radio ownership rules that are being asked by the FCC?
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In recent months, there have been many calls to regulate e-cigs, and potentially to regulate the marketing of all sorts of vaping products, including a call last week by an FCC Commissioner in an op-ed article in USA Today.  As we wrote several months ago, these suggestions have been based in the fear that increased promotion of vaping products have led to an increase in tobacco use among children.  While the FDA has been taking efforts to crack down on flavored vaping products to reduce their appeal to kids, the makers of e-cigs still advertise, including on radio and TV.  And those advertisements bring us frequent questions about whether the FCC has rules about advertising these products.  So far, the FCC has had no real role in regulating these products.  In fact, one wonders if it really has any authority to take action against the advertising of e-cigs without Congressional action.

So far, all the limits on e-cig advertising have been imposed by other agencies – principally, the FDA.  The FDA requires a tag on all vaping ads, stating that these products contain nicotine, which is an addictive substance (see our articles here and here for more details about that requirement).  And these ads should not claim health benefits for vaping.  Given the FDA’s concern about children, any ads should also stay out of programming with a large audience of children.  Could the FCC itself do more?
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While the shutdown of the Federal government delayed FCC activities in January, with the government back in business (hopefully for the long term), we have put together a Calendar of Important Dates for Broadcasters for 2019, available here. The calendar highlights normal regulatory dates like those for Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports

Yesterday, we published an article talking about an FCC public notice extending all filing deadlines that fell between January 8 and February 7 (except those dealing with auctions and other activities of the FCC unaffected by the government shutdown) to February 8. The article also mentioned that the FCC gave stations that had not been

Yesterday, we wrote about upcoming deadlines for broadcasters, and noted that the FCC was going to be releasing an order providing further details on the deadlines for pleadings and other documents that were due during the government shutdown.  That Public Notice was released on Tuesday, and further postponed many filing deadlines which fell during

We typically publish our article about upcoming regulatory dates before the beginning of each month, but this month, the looming FCC shutdown and determining its effect on filing deadlines pushed back our schedule. As we wrote on Friday, the effect of the shutdown is now becoming clear – and it has the potential to put on hold a number of the FCC deadlines, including the filing of Quarterly Children’s Television Reports due on January 10 and the uploading of Quarterly Issues Programs lists, due to be added to station’s public inspection files on January 10. The FCC-hosted public inspection file database is offline, so those Quarterly Issues Programs lists can’t be uploaded unless the budget impasse is resolved this week. Certifications as to the compliance of TV stations with the commercial limits in children’s television programs would also be added to the public file by January 10 – if it is available for use by then. While these and other dates mentioned below may be put on hold, there are deadlines that broadcasters need to pay attention to that are unaffected by the Washington budget debate.

We note that the FCC’s CDBS and LMS databases are up and operating, though most filings will be considered to be submitted the day that the FCC reopens. As the databases are up and operating, many applications can be electronically filed – so TV stations might as well timely upload their Children’s Television Reports on schedule by January 10, to avoid any slow uploading that may result from overloading of the FCC’s system as the FCC reopens. Other FCC deadlines are unaffected by the shutdown – most notably, as we wrote on Friday, those that related to the repacking of the TV band following the TV incentive auction. The FCC has money to keep its auction activities operating so staff are working to keep the repacking on track. Deadlines coming up for the repacking include a January 10th deadline for stations affected by the repacking to file their Form 387 Transition Progress Report. Auction deadlines proceed whether or not the FCC is otherwise open for business.
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Yesterday, it was announced that Time Magazine had awarded its person of the year award to “the Guardians” – journalists around the world who risk their lives to bring us the news each day.  Most broadcasters don’t think of their on-air personnel as facing the same risks as journalists in war zones or facing imprisonment