advertising on noncommercial stations

When do noncommercial stations stray from permissible acknowledgment of those local businesses that provide funding for its operations to impermissible commercials?  That question was addressed in a Notice of Apparent Liability issued by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau on Thursday, proposing a $15,000 fine for a low power FM station whose underwriting announcements were deemed too commercial.  The decision, which includes examples of the announcements deemed problematic, is must-reading for all noncommercial licensees who want to avoid fines from the FCC in connection with their underwriting acknowledgements for commercial entities.

The decision breaks down into four categories the reasons for finding the announcements in this case to be too promotional.  The first category is one that often arises in connection with these announcements – the underwriting announcement uses terms that make qualitative claims about the sponsor.  You can’t talk about a commercial sponsor being voted the “best” or being the “most experienced.”  Talking about mechanics who are “experts” in working on certain cars, or decorators who have “an exceptional eye for the perfect arrangement” are all examples of announcements that cross the line.  In this case, some of the examples of impermissible qualitative claims include a car repair shop with “certified master technicians” who use “state of the art equipment.”  Another was for a new real estate company that was characterized as being “one of the fastest growing real estate companies in the country” having “23 agents and a combined experience of over 300 years” and being a “national company with a local flair” having “recruited some of the most well-known agents.”  Another for a computer repair company was perhaps closer to the line but still was deemed too promotional, saying “don’t waste your time when you have a professional nerd to help make your life run easier” and “we’re not your average nerds.”  In some cases, like the last one, had it been the only identified issue, the FCC may have just determined that it was an exercise of licensee judgement about what was too promotional and let it go.  But in a case like this one, with so many other issues, it was identified as being a problem.
Continue Reading $15,000 FCC Fine Proposed for Underwriting Announcements that Were Too Commercial

Noncommercial broadcast stations are licensed to be just that – noncommercial. These stations can run “underwriting announcements” acknowledging commercial businesses that provide financial support to the stations, but such announcements must meet strict guidelines – including restrictions on “calls to action,” prohibitions on statements about prices or discounts, and requirements that no qualitative claim about the sponsor’s products or services can be made. From time to time, the FCC will fine or admonish noncommercial stations that run underwriting announcements that are too commercial. Yesterday, the FCC announced that its Enforcement Bureau had reached a Consent Decree (available here) with a noncommercial broadcaster who acknowledged having run underwriting announcements that had exceeded the bounds set by the rule. To settle the complaints about its announcements at stations in California and Arizona, the licensee agreed to pay the FCC a penalty of $115,000. According to the FCC Press Release on the matter, this was the highest penalty ever imposed on a noncommercial broadcaster for violations of the underwriting rules.

In addition to the fine, the licensee had to agree to a one-year moratorium on underwriting announcements from commercial entities. In addition, the licensee had to institute a compliance plan to educate its employees about the requirements of the FCC rules on underwriting, including a requirement that it create a training manual for use by its staff, and that it appoint a compliance officer to oversee compliance with the underwriting restrictions. For four years, the licensee needs to report to the FCC any instance where they violate the rules, and file a yearly report detailing their efforts to maintain compliance and certifying either that there have not been any violations of the rules or, if such a certification cannot be made, the details of any violations.
Continue Reading FCC Reaches Consent Decree with Noncommercial Broadcaster Imposing Largest Fine Ever Issued for Underwriting Violations – $115,000

Last week, the FCC reached a consent decree with a noncommercial broadcaster, where the broadcaster paid an $8000 penalty for, among other things, running underwriting spots that were too promotional. While the consent decree and its implementing order provide no details on the underwriting violations by the broadcaster, we can assume that the broadcaster ran spots that somehow crossed the line – giving price information about a sponsor’s products, or including a call to action suggesting that listeners somehow patronize the sponsor, or making qualitative claims about the sponsor or its products or services. We have written about similar violations many times (see, for instance, our articles here, here, here, here and here) and I have conducted seminars for numerous noncommercial broadcasting organizations talking about specifics as to what is permitted in underwriting acknowledgements and what will get a noncommercial station into trouble (see for instance, the presentations mentioned here and here). Obviously, it is important that noncommercial stations pay attention to these restrictions. But, last week, I received a question that indicated that not all noncommercial stations realize that, while their ability to promote a commercial enterprise is limited, these same restrictions do not apply to on-air spots for other nonprofit organizations.

About 35 years ago, Congress changed the provisions of the Communications Act to redefine what a noncommercial station can and cannot do. Noncommercial stations obviously cannot run commercials. But the language of the statute makes clear that commercials are promotional announcements for profit businesses. In looking at that statutory change, after much discussion, the FCC concluded that the restrictions on underwriting announcements that apply to these noncommercial businesses do not apply to promotional announcements for nonprofit entities.
Continue Reading Remember FCC Rules on Underwriting Limitations – And that They Don’t Apply to Spots Bought By Nonprofit Entities

Several months ago, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals created shockwaves throughout the noncommercial broadcasting community by holding that the Communications Act’s prohibitions against the sale of advertising time by noncommercial stations was unconstitutional when applied to political advertising. That decision may be short-lived, as the full Court of Appeals, in reviewing

The FCC has adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggesting, with significant limitations, a liberalization of its rules that prohibit noncommercial broadcasters from raising funds for an entity other than the station itself if the fundraising suspends or alters normal programming of the station. As we’ve written before, the FCC prohibits noncommercial broadcasters from raising funds for charities and other non-profit organizations through telethons or other special programming.  The prohibition has been in place for some time, and was reaffirmed by the FCC’s orders in the early 1980s which established the basic rules that still today govern most noncommercial fundraising and sales activities. 

The prohibition on third-party fundraising reflected the Commission’s concern that educational stations are "licensed to provide a noncommercial broadcast service, not to serve as a fund-raising operation for other entities by broadcasting material that is akin to regular advertising."  Doing too much fundraising for these third parties, in the Commission’s view when the rule was adopted, would distract stations from their principal mission of service to the public.   While the Communications Act was changed in the early 1980s to allow noncommercial broadcasters to accept paid promotional spots for nonprofit groups, the FCC did not change the rule on third-party fundraising that disrupts normal programming.  In the NPRM just adopted, the Commission recites that they still believe the justification for the rule to be true, even though noncommercial stations can now run what is essentially paid advertising for nonprofit organizations, as long as those spots are incorporated into the normal programming of the stations. What the Commission now proposes is a limited degree of liberalization of the third-party fundraising prohibition, subject to many conditions set forth below.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes to Liberalize Rules Against Noncommercial Stations Fundraising For Third-Party Non-Profit Groups

The Communications Act’s ban on noncommercial broadcast stations running political and issue advertising was struck down as unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  While the Court upheld the prohibition on commercial advertising for products and services, the majority of the Court felt that the ban on political advertising could not be justified.  Bob Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine’s DC office, who is quite experienced in First Amendment litigation and is a frequent speaker and author on these issues, offers this summary of the constitutional issues raised by this case:

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A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Communications Act provisions that ban political and issue advertising on public broadcasting stations violate the First Amendment.  The court left intact another provision that prohibits commercial advertising on public stations.  The majority opinion in Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FCC, written by Judge Carlos Bea, reasoned that Congress lacked substantial evidence that the ban on political and issue advertising set forth in 47 U.S.C. § 399b was necessary to serve the government’s purpose of preserving the mission and quality of public broadcasting, and that the statute was not narrowly tailored.  At the same time, the court held that allowing commercial advertising would undermine the purpose of public broadcasting to provide educational and niche programming.

Synthesizing three decades of First Amendment case law, Judge Bea wrote that Congress must have substantial evidence to justify a content-based speech restriction “at the time of the statute’s enactment.”  The evidence must show “that the speech banned by a statute poses a greater threat to the government’s purported interest than the speech permitted by the statute.”  The decision principally relied on FCC v. League of Women Voters, a 1984 Supreme Court case that struck down a similar Communications Act prohibition on editorializing by public broadcast stations.  Judge Bea’s opinion also relied on a 1993 commercial speech case, Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, for “[a]dditional instruction on what narrow tailoring requires.  That case invalidated a municipal ordinance that imposed differential regulation on newsboxes, depending on whether they contained commercial or noncommercial matter.


Continue Reading Court of Appeals Strikes Down Communications Act Ban on Political and Issue Advertising on Noncommercial Broadcasting Stations – Analyzing the Issues