The FCC recently proposed modifying its rules prohibiting a radio station in one service (either AM or FM) from duplicating more than 25% of the weekly programming of another station in the same service if there is more than 50% overlap of the principal community contour of either of the stations.  The FCC this week issued a Public Notice announcing that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking setting out the proposed changes has now been published in the Federal Register, setting January 22 as the comment deadline in this proceeding, with replies due by February 6.

In the NPRM, the FCC notes that the broadcast industry has significantly changed since the rule was adopted, with over 19,000 commercial operating radio stations today, up almost 8000 from 1992 when the rule was adopted. In addition, there are noncommercial stations, LPFMs, and all sorts of digital audio services that did not exist in 1992.  In light of these industry changes, the Commission asks many questions on which they seek input from the public.  Are there public interest reasons to allow for more duplication, e.g. allowing economically challenged stations to combine rather than ceasing operations?  Will market forces prevent too much consolidation of programming by stations in the same market?  Will allowing more duplication affect diversity of broadcast ownership?  Is 50% overlap the appropriate standard, or are there reasons to use a different measure of overlap?  Should AM duplication be treated differently from FM duplication?  While not explicitly stated by the FCC, a relaxation of this rule could be particularly important for AM radio, as it could allow for a transition to digital by one AM station in a market (another proposal recently advanced by the FCC), while allowing another AM station in the same market to continue to air the same programming in an analog format for listeners who have not yet acquired digital AM receivers.  If a change in this rule could assist your operations, note the January 22 comment deadline.

The FCC gave a present to TV broadcasters at the end of the week before Christmas by issuing a Public Notice announcing the effective date of the remaining changes to the children’s television rules, and postponing the filing date for the initial Children’s Television Programming Report, which was to be filed by January 30, to March 30.  This will give broadcasters more time to become familiar with the new report.  The annual Children’s Programming Report takes the place of the Quarterly Children’s Television Programming Reports, and are designed to report on the educational and informationalcore programming” broadcast by a television station to meet its obligations for such programming.  Also announced in the Public Notice is an FCC webinar on January 23 from 1:30 to 2:30 pm ET to review the new form.

Other provisions of the rule that became effective following the pre-Christmas publication in the Federal Register of the approval of the rule changes by the Office of Management and Budget (following the required review under the Paperwork Reduction Act of the changes in the paperwork burdens imposed by the modifications of the rules) include the following:

  • The elimination of the requirement for noncommercial stations to display the E/I symbol during core programming (retaining the requirement for commercial TV stations);
  • The elimination of the requirement to provide publishers of program guides the age group for which each core program is intended;
  • The revision of the rescheduling and viewer notification rules for core programming that is preempted;
  • The adoption of revised reporting periods for children’s TV commercial limit certifications from quarterly to annually (the last quarterly certification being due in stations’ public files by January 10 for the last quarter of 2019 – with the first annual certification for 2020 being due by January 30, 2021).
  • The elimination of the requirement to publicize the existence and location of a station’s Children’s Television Programming Report.

These changes follow the FCC order this summer adopting the new rules, and prior public notice on the effective date of the Annual Children’s Programming Report.  See our posts here and here.  Be sure to note these changes in your operations.

Late Friday, the FCC issued an Order reinstating the FCC’s 2016 ownership rules, recognizing that the changes made in those rules in 2017 (see our post here) were no longer effective because the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had thrown out the 2017 decision. See our post here on the Third Circuit decision and our article here on the court’s denial of rehearing en banc.  While the FCC may still try to appeal the Third Circuit decision to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit’s mandate has issued, meaning that its order is effective even if a Supreme Court appeal is filed.

Among the rule changes that have been rendered a nullity are the abolition of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule (once again reinforcing what we have written several times, that the rule may well outlive the daily newspaper) and the radio-television cross-ownership rule, the local TV ownership rule that had allowed combinations of two TV stations in the same market even if there were not 8 independent voices in the market after the combination, and changes to the FCC’s processing policy with respect to radio embedded markets.  These changes required the FCC to also issue two Public Notices dealing with these changes. Continue Reading FCC Reinstates 2016 Ownership Order and Gives Instructions for Sale and Renewal Applications in Light of Third Circuit Decision Overturning Rule Changes

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. Continue Reading January Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Annual Report, EEO, License Renewal, Political Rate Windows, FM Auction Dates and More

While political broadcasting never seems to be totally off the airwaves, the 2020 election season is about to click into high gear, with the window for lowest unit rates to begin on December 20 for advertising sales in connection with the January Iowa caucuses. That means that when broadcasters sell time to candidates for ads to run in Iowa, they must sell them at the lowest rate that they charge commercial advertisers for the same class of advertising time running during the same time period. For more on issues in computing lowest unit rates, see our articles here, here and here (this last article dealing with the issues of package plans and how to determine the rates applicable to spots in such plans), and our Political Broadcasting Guide, here.

The beginning of the LUR (or LUC for “lowest unit charge”) window in Iowa is but the first of a rapid many political windows that will be opening across the country as the presidential primaries move across the country. These windows open 45 days before the primary election (or caucus, in states where there is a caucus system that is open to the public for the selection of candidates) and 60 days before general elections. For the Presidential election, New Hampshire of course comes next, with their LUR window opening on December 28.   January will bring the opening of a slew of LUR windows for states with primaries and caucuses in late February and early March, including all of the Super Tuesday states. But it is important to remember that these are not the only LUR windows that broadcasters will have to observe in 2020. Continue Reading Election Season in High Gear for Broadcasters – Lowest Unit Rate Windows to Begin in Iowa This Week, New Hampshire Next and Other States Soon to Follow

Last week, the FCC adopted an order making numerous changes to its processes for selecting winning applicants among mutually-exclusive applicants for new noncommercial broadcast stations, including noncommercial, reserved band full power FM stations and LPFMs. Applicants are “mutually exclusive” when their technical proposals are in conflict – meaning that if one is granted it would create interference to the other so that the other cannot also be allowed to operate. The changes adopted by the FCC, which we wrote about when first proposed here, affect not only the process of applying for new noncommercial stations and the system for resolving conflicts, but also address the holding period for new stations once construction permits are granted, and the length of permits for LPFM stations.

In cases involving mutually exclusive applications for new noncommercial stations, the FCC uses a “points system” to determine which of the mutually-exclusive applicants should have its application granted. The point system relies on paper hearings to determine which applicant has the most points, awarding preferences on factors such as whether they have fewer interests in other broadcast facilities, whether they are local organizations, and whether they are part of state-wide networks. Continue Reading FCC Adopts Changes to Rules for New Noncommercial FM and LPFM Stations – Changing Application Processing Procedures and Holding Periods

On Friday, the FCC released a Public Notice setting out the rules for the auction for new FM channels, which will being in April. We wrote about that auction when it was first announced here. The Public Notice sets out the bidding process for the auction, and the dates for pre-auction filing deadlines necessary to participate in the auction. The notice also rejects several petitions asking that additional channels be added to the auction and one request for a deletion from the auction list. Thus, the channels to be sold in the auction remain the same as originally proposed. A list of the 130 available FM construction permits, with the minimum bid necessary for each of these channels, is available here.

The Public Notice sets out the following pre-auction dates and deadlines that those planning to participate in the auction must observe. These dates are as follows:

  • Auction Tutorial Available (via Internet) by January 22, 2020
  • Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Opens January 29, 2020, 12:00 noon Eastern Time (ET)
  • Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Deadline February 11, 2020, 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Upfront Payments (via wire transfer) March 20, 2020, 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Mock Auction April 24, 2020
  • Auction Bidding Begins April 28, 2020

The “short-form” is an application that anyone wishing to participate in the auction must file. This short-form application sets out the channels in which the applicant is interested and some basic information about the applicant. Specific site locations that an applicant wants to protect can also be listed in the short form. Upfront payments are required monetary deposits that must be made by auction participants in amounts sufficient to cover the minimum fees for the channels on which the applicant is interested in bidding. More details on the information required in the forms, and the mechanics of the auction, are set out in the Public Notice which should be carefully reviewed by parties interested in any of these construction permits authorizing the new stations.  Continue Reading FCC Announces Deadlines for the Next Auction for New FM Channels – And a Filing Freeze

The FCC yesterday issued Notices of Apparent Liability to two pirate radio operators that totaled over $600,000, the largest fines ever issued for those operating radio stations without an FCC-issued license.  Both operated in the Boston area.  One was fined $151,005 for operating one station (press release here, the full Notice of Apparent Liability is available here). The second was fined $453,015 for operating three transmitters in the area (press release here, the full NAL is available here).  The FCC noted that these were the maximum fines that they could impose for these violations under current law, and that the fines were the result of several years of investigations and warnings to the operators.

Commissioner O’Rielly, in a separate statement, noted that he wished that the FCC had the authority to impose even higher fines and to proceed more quickly against these operators than allowed under current FCC procedures.  The Commissioner noted that he would be working with Congress to try to get legislation passed to speed the process and raise the penalties against pirate operators. We wrote about one of those legislative proposals here that would impose fines of $100,000 a day up to $2 million against these pirates and speed the process necessary to impose these fines.  The legislation would also allow fines directly against landowners and others enabling the operations of these stations. Continue Reading FCC Proposes Fines of Over $600,000 to Two Boston-Area Pirate Radio Operators

Late last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision in a case called Washington Post v. David J. McManus, upholding the ruling of the US District Court finding that the State of Maryland’s attempts to impose political advertising reporting obligations on online platforms to be an unconstitutional abridgment of these companies’ First Amendment rights.  The suit was brought by the Washington Post and several other companies owning newspapers with an online presence in the State.  Their arguments were supported by numerous other media organizations, including the NAB and NCTA.  The Maryland rules required that online advertising platforms post on their websites information about political ads within 48 hours of the purchase of those ads.  That information had to be maintained on the website for a year and kept for inspection by the Maryland Board of Elections for a year after the election was over.  The appeals court concluded that the obligation to reveal this information was forcing these platforms to speak, which the court found to be just as much against the First Amendment as telling them to not speak (e.g., preventing them from publishing).  As the court could find no compelling state interest in this obligation that could not be better met by less restrictive means, the law was declared unconstitutional.

The Maryland law required the following disclosures on the website of a platform that accepted political advertising:

  • the ad purchaser’s name and contact information;
  • the identity of the treasurer of the political committee or the individuals exercising control over the ad purchaser; and
  • the total amount paid for the ad.

In addition, the platform had to maintain the following information for a year after the election and make it available to the State authorities upon request:

  • the candidate or ballot issue to which the qualifying paid digital communication relates and whether the qualifying paid digital communication supports or opposes that candidate or ballot issue;
  • the dates and times that the qualifying paid digital communication was first disseminated and last disseminated;
  • a digital copy of the content of the qualifying paid digital communication;
  • an approximate description of the geographic locations where the qualifying paid digital communication was disseminated;
  • an approximate description of the audience that received or was targeted to receive the qualifying paid digital communication; and
  • the total number of impressions generated by the qualifying paid digital communication

The appeals court found that this “compelled speech” forced these platforms to “speak” when they otherwise might not want to – the “speaking” being the mandatory publication of information on their website.  The court also pointed to the potential of these rules to chill political speech, by compelling companies to reveal information about those who might otherwise not want to disclose that they are taking a position on a controversial issue or election.  The court found that anonymity in political speech was part of a long tradition in the US, and it could subject those buying the political ads to harassment.  Also, the added burden of collecting this information could cause platforms to reject political ads in favor of advertising where no such burden was imposed.  Continue Reading Court of Appeals Finds Maryland Law Imposing Political Disclosure Obligations on Online Platforms to be Unconstitutional – Finding Different Treatment of Broadcasters is Justified

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. Continue Reading Many More Warning Letters Sent by FDA to CBD Companies – More Issues for Advertisers