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David Oxenford represents broadcasting and digital media companies in connection with regulatory, transactional and intellectual property issues. He has represented broadcasters and webcasters before the Federal Communications Commission, the Copyright Royalty Board, courts and other government agencies for over 30 years.

The FCC on  Friday released a Public Notice announcing that they are giving stations more time in which to upload their Quarterly Issues Programs lists to their online public file and to file their first Annual Children’s Television Report.  In our list of April regulatory dates for broadcasters last week, we had highlighted both of those filings.  Because of the disruption of the schedules of so many people, and the lack of access to many broadcast stations, the FCC appears to have decided that broadcasters should get more time to meet these regulatory obligations.

Quarterly Issues Programs lists are required to be uploaded to the online public inspection file of all full-power stations every quarter – and would normally be required to be in the public file by April 10.  While urging stations to upload those lists as soon as possible, the Commission has given stations until July 10 (when the next quarter’s lists will be due) to upload this quarter’s report.  So the two reports could be uploaded at the same time.
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Yesterday, the FCC released two public notices reflecting its attempts to assist broadcasters coping with the COVID-19 crisis.  The first public notice deals with the attempts of several broadcasters to support their advertisers while at the same time filling advertising inventory holes that have been created by the cancellation of other advertising schedules.  Broadcasters who

FCC business marches on in this time of social distancing and mandatory lockdowns, though with modifications caused by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  The FCC released a Public Notice yesterday announcing that its monthly open meeting scheduled for March 31 will be held by teleconference rather than live in the FCC meeting room.  It can be viewed on the FCC’s website and on its YouTube channel.  Most of the action items will have already been voted on by the Commissioners through the “circulation” process.  This means that the votes will be taken on the written orders without any formal presentations by FCC staff members explaining the actions, and without orally-delivered statements by any of the Commissioners – though the Commissioners can certainly make their feelings known in written statements on the items on which they will have voted.  The meeting itself is likely to consist of Commission announcements and statements by the Commissioners on the current state of affairs.

Issues that were to be considered at the meeting of interest to broadcasters include the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Distributed Transmission System technology for TV stations – making it easier for TV stations to fill in their market coverage with multiple transmitters spread throughout the market, rather than a single big transmitter in the center of the market – a technology made easier as stations transition to the new ATSC 3.0 transmission system (see the draft NPRM here).  FCC Notices of Proposed Rulemaking on significantly viewed TV stations (draft NPRM here) and cable carriage disputes (draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here) are also on the agenda.
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Life has been upended for most Americans due to the spread of the coronavirus and that tumult is, of course, reaching broadcasters as it reaches others throughout the country.  As we wrote here, like many agencies and businesses, as part of its COVID-19 response, the FCC has moved most of its workforce to teleworking in an attempt to keep FCC staff and their families safe.  With most FCC forms and filings being submitted electronically, and remote work already being routine for many FCC employees, there should be minimal disruption to broadcasters’ routine daily dealings with the Commission.  Broadcasters should continue to comply with all FCC rules, including meeting filing deadlines, though it does appear that the FCC is willing to be flexible with some deadlines, especially when a broadcaster can point to virus-related reasons that the deadline cannot be met.  Check with your attorney on specific deadlines.  And check our article from yesterday highlighting some issues to consider while preparing for whatever comes next.

While there is much disruption to normal routines, the routines of regulatory life largely carry on.  For instance, before moving on to April deadlines, we should remind TV broadcasters that, if they have not already done so, their first Annual Children’s Television Report is due to be submitted to the Commission by March 30.  See our articles here and here on that new report.
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With more and more states, municipalities, and other authorities issuing shelter-in-place warnings or other restrictions on travel, and with more station facilities likely to be closed temporarily because of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, broadcasters need to be planning on how to continue to operate their facilities in the new world we are all facing.  I participated in an online conference last week with over 100 college broadcasters who are perhaps on the front lines of this problem, as so many operate from campus buildings that were closed early after (and in some cases before) the declaration of the pandemic.  We’ve had calls from many other broadcasters about the issues that they are facing in their operations, as communities take actions to enforce the personal distancing urged by medical organizations.  Many commercial broadcasters may be seeing in the upcoming days greater restrictions on unnecessary travel, perhaps impacting access to their facilities and studios.  Planning and coordination among broadcasters – and with broadcasters and local officials – is already underway in many cities and with many state broadcast associations.  But it also needs to be considered by individual broadcasters everywhere.

One of the most basic questions is one of access.  Questions are arising every day as to whether local officials can block access to broadcast stations or to the coverage of news events during the emergency.  Will broadcasters be shut down like so many other businesses?  There has been much written in the trade press and elsewhere about broadcasters being “essential services” that should be allowed access to their facilities and to news events during any crisis.  There is in fact statutory language in the US code to that effect (see, for instance, this section that tells federal officials not to limit access or facilities to radio and TV broadcasters in an emergency).  But that statute restricts the actions of federal officials to block broadcaster access and is silent as to actions by state and local officials.  Even if state laws have similar provisions, those provisions are only helpful if someone in a position of authority has the time and inclination to look at the legal niceties that apply to a given situation.  Coordination with state and local officials is paramount in a situation like the current one that affects everyone, everywhere.  Stations should already be in touch with state and local authorities to see how they can help in the current crisis.  At the same time, they should also be discussing and planning with these officials to ensure access to studios and transmitter sites, and exemptions from travel restrictions for news coverage, so that they can continue to provide their important services to the public.
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The FCC yesterday issued a Public Notice addressing news sharing or “pooling” agreements between television stations that are coming together as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Stations may be faced with fewer crews to cover local events as infections and self-quarantines take place, and because of the general obligation to maintain physical distancing from other people, no one wants a crowd of camera crews and reporters at every news event.  The FCC’s notice yesterday states that such agreements entered into during the crisis for news sharing do not need to be in writing and do not need to be in the public file – an exemption to the normal obligation to reduce any sharing agreement between TV stations to writing and add it to the online public file.  That obligation exempts “on-the-fly” arrangements during breaking news events and those precipitated by unforeseen or rapidly developing events.  The FCC concluded that pandemic-related agreements fit into that category.

Ordinarily, the obligation to include sharing agreements between TV stations in the public file is a very broad one.  We wrote about that obligation here.  The rule grew out of concerns by the FCC that stations could be using sharing agreements to skirt the FCC’s ownership rule limitations and wanted such agreements to be public so that it, and the public, could review their provisions to determine if any FCC action was necessary.
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Despite the telework restrictions in place at the FCC, regulatory life goes on, with the Commission continuing to process applications and deliver decisions every day.  One of those decisions released yesterday clarified the FCC’s rural radio policy, and its application to noncommercial FM stations.  The rural radio policy was adopted a decade ago to preserve program diversity in rural areas by restricting the move of radio stations into more urbanized areas through city of license changes.  The policy restricts rural stations from changing their city of license to a location from which the station could place a principal city contour over 50% of any urbanized area (see our articles here and here for more details on this policy).  The decision yesterday upheld prior decisions in the same proceeding which concluded that, for noncommercial reserved-band stations, the appropriate contour to analyze is the 60 dBu contour.  If that contour would cover more than 50% of an urbanized area after a city of license change, the change will generally be prohibited for any station not now providing such coverage over an urbanized area.

The licensee in this case had argued that this decision was illogical, as the rural radio prohibition for commercial stations is only triggered when the 70 dBu contour covers more than 50% of the urbanized area – not the 60 dBu contour.  The FCC rejected that argument, saying that the policy being advocated was more appropriately raised in a rulemaking, not in an application case like this.  The FCC’s finding in this case would mean that two broadcasters, one commercial and one noncommercial, could propose moves from rural locations to the same new city of license and propose to operate from the exact same antenna with the exact same power levels and height above average terrain, and the noncommercial application would be denied as it would be deemed an application for the urbanized area because its 60 dBu contour covered more than 50% of that area, while the commercial station would be granted as its 70 dBu did not reach 50% of the urbanized area.  Two stations providing exactly the same service to the same urbanized area would be treated differently – one as if it serves the urbanized area, the other as if it would not.
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In recent days, we have seen Presidential primaries delayed by the coronavirus in at least six states – including Ohio which was originally set to vote yesterday but has postponed its primary until June 2.  We expect that additional states will be looking at extensions in the coming days.  As lowest unit rate windows had

The repacking of the TV band following the incentive auction is reaching its end – but perhaps not as quickly as anticipated.  Yesterday, the FCC issued “Guidance” to stations in Phase 9 of the repacking indicating that they can request extensions so that their deadline for implementing any repacking obligation would be the