At the FCC meeting held on Election Day, the Commission approved the operation of "white spaces" devices in the TV spectrum.  These would be mobile, unlicensed devices that would operate on TV channels that are not used in a particular location.  Many Internet users have hailed the expansion of wireless Internet opportunities that they believe that this decision will bring.  While the FCC promised that these devices would protect television operations and other current uses of the TV Band, many other groups have reacted to the decision far more skeptically.  All in all, we have probably not heard the end of this debate.

The full text of the FCC Order has not yet been released but, from the Public Notice summarizing the action (which came late in the day, after a several hour delay in the start of the FCC meeting), the FCC appears to have made some concessions to the broadcasters who were objecting that the tests of the white spaces devices were not able to adequately sense the presence of television signals in a way that would protect those stations.  So, to protect television signals, the FCC ordered that, in addition to sensing the existence of television signals, the white spaces devices would also have to have geo-location abilities, which would check the location of the device and compare it to a database of television stations and prevent the device from operating on channels that the database shows to be occupied.  Even with this capacity, organizations representing television stations do not believe that this compromise is sufficient to protect those stations.


Continue Reading FCC Approves White Spaces Devices in TV Band – While Some Hail a Boon to Wireless Internet, Others Say Not So Fast

I’m writing this entry as I return from the annual convention of the Iowa Broadcasters Association, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa. Anyone who has read, watched or listened to the national news this week knows of the terrible tornadoes that devastated a Boy Scout camp in that state, and the floods ravaging many of its cities and threatening others. I arrived in Iowa on Wednesday having just completed the filing of reply comments in the FCC’s localism proceeding, and after reviewing the many comments filed in that proceeding. After talking with, watching and listening to the Iowa Broadcasters, I was struck by the contrast between the picture of the broadcast industry contained in the Commission’s notice of proposed rulemaking and that which I saw and heard reflected in the words and actions of the broadcasters. I could only think of how the broadcasters of Iowa and the remainder of the country have dealt admirably in their programming with the disasters that nature has sent their way, and with the other issues facing this country every day, and have been able to do this all without any compulsion by the government. Why, when we have probably the most responsive broadcast system on earth, do we need the government to step in and tell broadcasters how to serve their communities?

At dinner on Wednesday, I watched one station general manager repeatedly getting up from his meal to take calls from his station about their coverage of a tornado that had come within a quarter mile of his studio, and how he had to insist that his employees take shelter from the storm rather than continuing to broadcast news reports from their exposed location as the tornado bore down on them. Another told me of how he and another employee had spent the previous day piling sandbags around the station to keep the water from flooding the studio, all the time reporting between every song the station played updates on the weather and travel conditions in their community. Other stations had continued to operate after their tower sites flooded by gerry-rigging antennas on dry land to permit their continued operation. In one of the more minor inconveniences, one station talked about operating for a few days after their city’s waterworks had been inundated by floods , meaning that their studio (and the rest of town) had no running water for drinking or even for flushing the toilets.  Yet, between these inconveniences, large and small, the broadcasters continued their service, without being told how by the government.


Continue Reading Iowa Broadcasters – Floods, Tornadoes and Localism

This week, after a long period when we saw little in the way of indecency enforcement by the FCC, the Commission issued two orders compelling payment of fines for television programs broadcast in 2003.  The Commission issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (an order proposing a fine) only a few weeks ago asking ABC affiliates to respond to a potential indecency violation in connection with an NYPD Blue episode run in February 2003 (see our description of the proposed fines here and here).  Only a week after the submission of arguments against the proposed fine made by the cited affiliates in a 75 page response to the Notice of Apparent Liability, the FCC issued its order rejecting the arguments against the fines – an unheard of speed in issuing a decision.  Each station involved was fined $27,500.  Then, later in the week, the FCC issued an Order which fined a number of Fox affiliates $7000 each for perceived indecency violations in an episode of the Married By America reality television program, also broadcast in 2003 – following up on a Notice of Apparent Liability issued over two years ago by the FCC.  In one case, an incredibly quick action resulting in a large fine against many stations – in another a smaller fine against far fewer stations.  Why the differences?

The reason for fines coming now was that, in both cases, the 5 year statute of limitations was coming to an end and, if the Commission did not quickly act, it would be precluded from doing so.  In both cases, the Commission determined that it would fine only stations against which complaints were filed.  In the case of Married by America, the Commission had sent a notice of Apparent Liability to 169 stations, but ended up fining only 13 against which actual complaints had been filed.  In contrast, the Commission fined 45 stations for the NYPD Blue episode, even though the "complaints" were in many cases filed months after the program aired on the stations, and even though many of the "complaints" did not even allege that the local viewer had actually seen the program for which the fine was issued.  Instead, many of the complaints were apparently initiated by an on-line campaign urging that the people write the FCC to complain about the program – even if they hadn’t necessarily seen it.  In its decision, the Commission concluded that the fines were appropriate – even without specific allegations that the program was watched by the people who complained.


Continue Reading A Tale of Two Indecency Decisions – FCC Issues Fines for Married by America and NYPD Blue