Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

As the Obama administration fills its top level government posts, all eyes are now turning to the next levels of government appointments which, at some point, will include a new Chair of the FCC and potentially other new FCC Commissioners. We wrote about our hopes for an Obama administration at the FCC immediately after the election, and now other voices in Washington are weighing in. And, as one might expect, with so many different perspectives, the advice is far from consistent. As we wrote in our analysis, the appointment of the FCC Chair is crucial as it is the FCC Chair, far more than the President or the White House, who sets the tone for Communications policy. This is made clear by the extensive regulations either adopted or proposed for broadcasters by the current Republican FCC, seemingly at the direction of the current chairman, regulations that would not have been expected from a Republican administration.  In light of the economic challenges facing broadcasters, as evidenced by today’s news that two television companies – Tribune and Equity – declared bankruptcy, and another, NBC, has announced a cut back in prime time programming, replacing it with a prime time, 5 day a week Jay Leno program. 

So what should the transition team look to accomplish at the FCC?  In one of the most perceptive articles that I’ve seen recently, Harry Jessell in TV Newsday has urged the new Commission to simply do nothing on broadcast regulation for the next year. The current state of the economy and its ramifications for the advertising that is the lifeblood of the broadcast industry simply leaves no room for broadcasters to have to bear new costs for new regulations.  Broadcasting and Cable magazine has echoed that sentiment last week.  Recently, not only have we seen the economy and the state of the broadcast industry been reflected by the actions announced by Tribune, Equity and NBC today, but we’ve seen numerous mainstream press articles about the economic peril in which the entire broadcast industry finds itself.  In one recent article, radio’s dramatic decline in revenues was highlighted, even as the industry’s listenership remains high (as confirmed by BIA’s recent prediction that radio revenues will decline by 7% in the coming year, coming after declines this year – perhaps the first two year decline in revenues in radio history). I recently attended the Radio Ink Forecast 2009 conference in New York.   While the conference is off the record, I don’t think that I’d be betraying any confidences to state that there was much concern about the short term health of the radio industry. 


Continue Reading As the FCC Transition Progresses, The Broadcast Industry Shows Economic Strains – Tribune and Equity Declare Bankruptcy and NBC Cuts Programming Costs By Putting Leno on at 10 PM, Five Days A Week

Broadcasting and Cable magazine today reported that the FCC is looking to back off some of the requirements for the "enhanced disclosure" of television broadcaster’s public interest programming (see our summary of the new requirements of FCC Form 355, here).  B&C reports that the FCC may lessen or at least better explain

Last week, the Office of Management and Budget determined that the FCC’s new rules on Leased Access to cable channels (see our bulletin describing those rules) violated the Paperwork Reduction Act. This means that the new rules, which would have significantly lowered the cost for parties who wanted to lease cable channels to provide their own programming, will be sent back to the FCC for further consideration.  These rules are also on appeal to the Courts, which had stayed the effectiveness of the rules while the appeal is being considered, which is usually a good indication that the Court had issues with the rules as well.  The OMB action has the effect of returning the rules back to the FCC to be considered anew in light of the OMB findings.  Our firm has prepared a memo detailing the decision, here.  Given the OMB decision that these rules imposed too great a burden on cable systems, one wonders if this decision portends a similar result when the OMB reviews the FCC’s rules on Enhanced Disclosure and an on-line public inspection file – rules that would impose a significant burden on television broadcasters (about which we wrote here).

The OMB decision on the leased access rules highlighted some of the perceived shortcomings of the FCC decision, including that the FCC had not shown that they had taken steps to minimize the burden on companies who would have to hire staff to comply with the new rules, and they had not provided reasons why reduced timeframes for responses to requests for leased access were necessary.  Looking at these standards, one would have to think that much of the same reasoning would apply to the FCC’s Enhanced Disclosure requirements for TV stations as set out in the new Form 355.  The completion of the Form would clearly require the hiring of new staff.  We’ve also questioned whether the Commission has given any justification for the increased paperwork requirements, as the information itself has no regulatory purpose as the FCC has not adopted any quantitative standards for public interest programming.  With no purpose and increased costs, how could the OMB treat the enhanced disclosure requirements differently than it did the leased access requirements?


Continue Reading OMB Throws Out Leased Access Rules as Violation of Paperwork Reduction Act – Will TV Enhanced Disclosure Be Next?

The FCC Form 355 requiring "enhanced disclosure" by television stations was a frequent topic of discussion at this week’s NAB Convention in Las Vegas.  That form will require that television broadcasters report significant, detailed information about their programming, providing very detailed reports of the percentage of programming that they devote to news, public affairs, election programming, local programming, PSAs, independently produced programs and various other program categories, as well as specifics of each program that fits into these categories (see our detailed description of the requirements here).  Obviously, all broadcasters were concerned about how they would deal with the expense and time necessary to complete the forms, and the potential for complaints about the programming that such reports will generate.  At legal sessions by the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law and the Federal Communications Bar Association, held in connection with the NAB Convention, it became very clear to me that the obligations imposed by these new rules are obligations adopted for absolutely no reason, as the Commission has not adopted any rules mandating specific amounts of the types of programming reported on the form.  In fact, one of the Commissioner’s legal assistants confirmed that, unless and until the FCC adopts such specific programming requirements, the Commission’s staff will not need to spend any time processing these forms.  Thus, if the form goes into effect, broadcasters will be forced to keep these records, and expend significant amounts of staff time and station resources necessary to complete the forms, for essentially no purpose.

Of course, public interest advocates will argue that the forms will allow the Commission to assess the station’s operation in the public interest, and will allow the public to complain about failures of stations to serve local needs.  But, as in a recent license renewal case we wrote about here, the Commission rejected a Petition to Deny against a station based on its alleged failure to do much local public affairs programming as, without specific quantitative program requirements, the Commission cannot punish a station for not doing specific amounts of particular programming. If the Commission adheres to this precedent, it will not be able to fine stations for the information that they put on the Form 355, but only for not filing it or not completing it accurately.  Thus, unless the Commission adopts specific programming requirements, the form will be nothing more than a paperwork trap for the unwary or overburdened broadcaster.  And, as is usually the case with such obligations, the burden will fall hardest on the small broadcaster who does not the staff and resources to devote to otherwise unnecessary paperwork.


Continue Reading FCC Form 355 – A Form Without a Reason?

The FCC has released the full text of its Order adopting enhanced disclosure requirements for broadcast television stations – requiring that they post their public files on their websites and that they quarterly file a new form, FCC Form 355, detailing their programming in minute detail, breaking it down by specific program categories, and certifying that the station has complied with a number of FCC programming rules.  The Commission also released the new form itself and, as detailed below, the form will require a significant effort for broadcasters to document their programming efforts – probably requiring dedicated employees just to gather the necessary information.  The degree of detail required is more substantial than that ever required of broadcasters – far more detailed than the information broadcasters were required to gather prior to the deregulation of the 1980s – though, for the time being, much (though not all) of the information is not tied to any specific programming obligations set by the FCC.

 Before getting to the specifics of the new requirements, the thoughts of the Commission in adopting this order should be considered.  The Commission’s decision focuses on its desire to increase the amount of citizen participation in the operation of television stations and the decisions that they make on programming matters.  While many broadcasters protested that the public rarely cared about the details of their operations, as evidenced by the fact that their public files were rarely if ever inspected, the Commission suggested that this was perhaps due to the difficulty the public had in seeing those files (the public actually had to go to the station to look at the file) and the lack of knowledge of the existence of the files (though broadcasters routinely broadcast notice of the public file’s existence during the processing of their license renewal applications, rarely producing any viewers visiting the station to view the file).  With respect to the new Form 355 detailing the station’s programming, the Commission rejected arguments that reporting of specific types of programming in excruciating detail imposes any First Amendment burden on stations, as the Commission claims that it has imposed no new substantive requirements.  Yet the Commission cites its desires that the public become more involved in the scrutinizing of the programming of television stations, which it states will be aided by the new form, and also emphasizes the importance that the Commission places on local service (an item detailed in Form 355).  At the same time, in its proposals detailed in its Localism proceeding (summarized here), the Commission is proposing rules requiring specific amounts of the very programming that is reported on Form 355, the very numbers that, in this proceeding, it claims have no significance.  Moreover, citizens will be encouraged by the Commission’s actions to scrutinize the new reports, and file complaints based on the perceived shortcomings of the broadcaster’s programming.  Broadcasters in turn will feel pressured to air programming that will head off these complaints.  So, implicitly, the Commission has created the First Amendment chilling effect that it claims to have avoided.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Rules for Enhanced TV Disclosure Requirements