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

In two recent actions, the FCC has evidenced its concern about the EEO performance of its licensees.  Last week, the Commission’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with DIRECTV, by which DIRECTV paid the FCC $150,000 in lieu of a fine for the company’s failure to abide by the FCC’s EEO rules by not preparing an Annual EEO Public File Report or submitting a Form 396-C for several years.  The FCC also released a Public Notice announcing changes in the racial categories to be used in FCC Form 395 – the Form breaking down the employees of a broadcaster or cable company by race and gender.  That form has not been filed for years, as its use was prohibited when the FCC EEO rules were declared unconstitutional.  In adopting new EEO rules in 2003, the FCC promised to return the form to use, but has been wrestling with the issue of whether or not the form should be publicly available or whether it should simply used internally by the FCC to collect data about industry employment trends. The adoption of new definitions for the racial categories specified on the form may signal the return of this form.  Together, these actions demonstrate that the FCC has not lessened its concern about EEO in any fashion.

The DIRECTV fine was the result of the company’s failure to prepare Annual EEO Public File Reports or to submit 2003 and 2004 Form 396-C reports – reports that are more detailed versions of the Form 396 filed by broadcasters with their license renewals and the Form 397 Mid-Term Employment report.  The Form 396-C requires that multichannel video providers detail their hiring in the previous year and the outreach efforts made to fill job vacancies, the supplemental efforts that the employment unit has made to educate its community about job openings, and other details on the company’s employment practices.  After review of the company’s efforts, the Commission not only faulted the company for its paperwork failures, but also determined that the company had not engaged in sufficient outreach for all of its employment openings – relying solely on the Internet and on word-of-mouth recruiting for many job openings, which the Commission found to be insufficient.  Broadcasters need to make sure that they do not forget to file their required EEO forms, prepare their annual EEO Annual Public File Report, and engage in wide dissemination of information about all job openings.  Details of the FCC’s EEO rules, policies and requirements applicable to broadcasters can be found in Davis Wright Tremaine’s EEO Advisory.


Continue Reading Big EEO Fines on DIRECTV, and The Return of FCC Form 395B

In recent months, the broadcast industry has experienced one of the most active periods of regulatory activity in recent memory. Since November, the FCC has adopted enhanced disclosure obligations concerning the public interest programming of television broadcasters and requirements for an on-line public inspection file; rejected most calls for increased deregulation of broadcast ownership (allowing only the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in the largest markets); established specific prohibitions against advertising practices that involved “no Spanish, no urban dictates”; placed mandatory disclosure obligations on television broadcasters in connection with promotion of the DTV transition; proposed rules that could favor low power FM stations over improvements in full-power broadcast services and existing FM translator licensees; and proposed sweeping regulation of broadcasters which could potentially require specific amounts of nonentertainment programming by all stations, restrict the flexibility of broadcasters’ location of their main studios, require 24-7 live staffing for all stations that operate on that basis, and perhaps even evaluate the music selection process of radio operators. Rumored to be in the offing are proposals to regulate embedded advertising, to adopt enhanced rules on sponsorship identification in connection with video news releases and payola-like practices, and perhaps even expand EEO reporting requirements (as the FCC recently asked for public comment on the employee-classification information for its long-suspended requirements for the filing of FCC Form 395 – the Annual Employment Report in which stations categorize all their employees by their employment duties, race and gender). And Congress has not been idle, with proposals introduced for the adoption of a performance royalty on over-the-air radio for the use of sound recordings, hearings about potential restrictions on prescription drug advertising, and a proposal to roll back the limited ownership reform adopted by the Commission in December.

With all this activity in a six month period under a Republican administration with a Republican majority on the FCC, during a time of great turmoil in the broadcast industry itself, as television prepares for the digital transition and broadcast revenue growth is slow or nonexistent (based on a variety of factors including general economic conditions and competition from the plethora of new media choices), many broadcasters are wondering what’s going on? And some fear even more changes could come about in any new administration that may come to Washington after the November elections, no matter what the result of that election. The one candidate with the most experience in the regulation of broadcasting, Senator McCain who has chaired the Senate Commerce Committee which regulates the broadcast industry, has by no means been a captive of the broadcast industry – leading efforts to enhance the use of LPFM and at one point pushing a spectrum tax proposal for television broadcasters for the use of the digital spectrum.


Continue Reading Broadcasters and the Regulatory Pendulum – Swinging Toward More Regulation