While last Tuesday’s elections may well affect broadcast regulation in the future, there were several regulatory developments in the last week of immediate significance to broadcasters. Here is a summary of some of those developments, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.
In an FCC decision fining a TV station $10,000 for failing to include 15 Quarterly Issues Programs lists in its public inspection file, the FCC refused to reduce the proposed liability based on an intervening “long-form” transfer of control followed by a short-form assignment of license of the station. Thus, even though the station was no longer controlled by the same individuals who controlled the station at the time of the violation, and even though the licensee company was different, the fine still applied.
The Media Bureau decision looked at precedent that has held that a transfer of control of a station, even a “long-form” application on FCC Form 315 that is subject to public notice and a 30 day waiting period during which the public can comment on the change in control of the licensee, does not excuse the licensee for violations of the FCC’s rules that occurred prior to the transfer. We wrote about a similar holding in another case last year. The FCC’s view is that, when you are buying the stock of a company, you acquire not only the assets of the company but also its obligations, including any potential FCC violations. This is different from an assignment of license filed on a Form 314 (also a “long-form” application subject to a 30-day public comment period) – where a buyer just buys the assets through a new company and does not assume the liabilities – a difference that the FCC has recognized in these cases. In the decision reached today, the licensee attempted to exploit that different treatment – but the FCC rejected the distinction.
Continue Reading Fine for Missing Quarterly Issues Programs List Not Excused by Intervening Transfer of Control of TV Station – Buy Assets Not Stock to Avoid Assuming Prior Owner’s FCC Liabilities
The potential perils of foreclosing on a radio station were evident in a Consent Decree released by the FCC’s Media Bureau yesterday, agreeing to an $11,000 penalty to be paid to the FCC U.S. Treasury before a station could be sold by a receiver to help pay off the debts of an AM radio station owner. The fine was imposed both for an unauthorized transfer of control of the licensee of the station, and because of the failure of the receiver appointed by the Court to keep the FCC fully appraised of the status of the control of the licensee company while FCC approval for the receiver’s control of the station was still pending before the FCC. What this case really shows is that in any foreclosure on a broadcast station where there are competing creditors, an uncooperative debtor or anyone else who could possibly contest the process, anyone attempting to collect obligations owed by a broadcaster needs to proceed very carefully, keep the FCC fully informed of the entire process surrounding the exercise of the creditor’s rights, and be advised by an attorney or advisor very familiar with FCC process in addition to counsel in the local court proceedings. Plus, local counsel and FCC counsel need to work together at each stage of the process to make sure that the proper approvals are obtained from the FCC before the local court actions are implemented.
This case demonstrates, like a case we wrote about last week, the complicated interplay between the actions of local courts enforcing private actions and the FCC enforcing the Communications Act. In this case, the orders of the local courts and other authorities dealing with the receivership of station assets and the stock of the licensee company changed over time. The failure to keep the FCC appraised of those changes really led to the $11,000 fine. The receiver initially asked that he be approved to become the “assignee” of the station, as the court order appeared to indicate that he would receive the assets of the debtor’s estate. In the FCC’s eyes, an “assignment of license” is when the assets and license of a station change hands, so that a new licensee is now the operator of the station. Here, later action of the local court changed the nature of the action to one where the receiver, instead of getting the assets of the debtor, would instead be receiving its stock. Where the licensee remains the same, but a new owner takes control, as was the case here where the receiver took control of the stock of the licensee, the FCC deems that to be a “transfer of control.” That was significant to the FCC in this case.
Continue Reading Broadcast Creditors Beware – $11,000 Fine Imposed for FCC Reporting Shortcomings in an AM Foreclosure Action
In a recent decision, the FCC made clear that when there is a transfer of control of a station through the sale of the stock of the licensee company, the new owners are not absolved of any FCC violations that may have taken place when the old owners controlled the company. In this case, the old owners had various main studio, public file and issues programs lists issues, along with some compliance problems with late-filed Children’s Television Reports. While the FCC cancelled a fine on the licensee for reasons unrelated to the transfer of the stock (issuing an admonition instead), it went out of its way to emphasize that a new owner of the stock of a licensee company remains liable for the conduct of a predecessor controlling owner. The sale of stock, and the FCC’s approval of that sale, does not remove the threat of fines for violations that occurred when the old owner still controlled the company.
We wrote here about a similar warning in connection with a case decided several years ago. Assignments of license, where the FCC approves the sale of a station to a new licensee, seemingly do provide the new owner with some degree of protection against problems with FCC compliance that occurred during the watch of the old owner – but that is because the licensee has changed. (Note however, as we wrote here, if a compliance issue was discovered by the FCC before the sale, it is possible that the FCC could go after the old licensee for a fine, even after a sale has been completed). But, where the licensee remains the same, the FCC looks to the licensee company for compliance, regardless of who owns that company.
Continue Reading Buyers of Broadcast Stations Through Stock Transfer Beware – Liability for Fines of Prior Owner Can Still be Imposed After the Transfer
The FCC this week issued fines to two broadcasters for issues in connection with the ownership of their stations – in one case the fine was issued simply because the broadcaster did timely not file three consecutive FCC Form 323 Biennial Ownership Reports . In the second case, the fine was for not requesting FCC approval for a transfer of control of the licensee of the broadcast station. These cases serve as a reminder that broadcast ownership is closely regulated by the FCC, that broadcasters need to report that ownership once every two years as required by the rules, and to seek approval before any change in control of any company that holds an FCC license.
The station that failed to file the three ownership reports was fined $6000. As disclosed on the licensee’s license renewal application, the licensee had not filed 2001 and 2003 ownership reports at all, and filed the 2005 report late and did not put it in the station’s public inspection file. Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 must be filed by the licensees of AM, FM and TV station licensees once every two years, on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications by all licensees except where the licensee is an individual or a general partnership of natural persons (as opposed to a partnership that contains corporations or other business entities as partners). We regularly send reminders to our clients about the filing of ownership reports. For more details on the requirements for the biennial filing, see our advisory for reports that were due on August 1 here, and see our schedule of broadcast filing dates for the remainder of 2008 to see if your station has a biennial filing deadline this year). Continue Reading Fines for Broadcast Ownership Issues – Remember to File Biennial Ownership Reports and to Seek FCC Approval Before a Transfer of Control