The transition to ATSC 3.0, the next generation of television transmission, is underway as authorized by the Commission in 2017 (see our post here and our posts here, here and here on subsequent actions making that order effective and allowing TV stations to file to convert to the new standard).  This week, the FCC released a draft of an item to be considered at its June open meeting dealing with lingering legal issues about the services to be provided by television stations that are part of this transition.  The item to be considered, if adopted in June, will take two actions.  First, it will issue a declaratory ruling that the leasing of auxiliary and supplementary spectrum capacity on digital television stations for non-broadcast uses does not trigger the application of the FCC’s multiple ownership rules, which limit the number of stations that one entity can own or program in any given TV market.  Secondly, the item will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address what regulatory changes, if any, are needed to govern the types of non-broadcast content that will be provided by stations operating with this next generation television transmission standard.

The declaratory ruling addresses concerns that the use of broadcast television spectrum by various companies or consortia that plan to use that spectrum for all sorts of non-broadcast applications could trigger violations of the FCC’s ownership rules.  Those rules limit one owner from owning (or providing more than 15% of the broadcast programming to) more than two television stations in a given TV market (and only one station in some smaller markets).  When stations convert to ATSC 3.0, there are plans to offer a plethora of non-broadcast services, which the FCC describes in its draft decision as “Broadcast Internet” services.  These services could include sending updates to smart dashboards in automobiles and in other Internet of Things smart devices, updating utility meters, providing telehealth and emergency communications information, distributing smart agriculture applications, or distributing popular pay-video programming to user’s devices.  In many cases, to provide these applications, one company or consortium would seek to lease the ancillary and supplementary capacity of multiple stations in a market to assure that content was distributed as broadly as possible.  The fear was that such users leasing capacity on multiple stations could be deemed to have an “attributable interest” in such stations for multiple ownership purposes or simply for purposes of having to be reported on ownership reports and other broadcast applications.
Continue Reading FCC to Consider Exemption of TV Broadcast Internet Services from Broadcast Ownership Rules and Regulations for ATSC 3.0 Non-Broadcast Services

Yesterday, the FCC released two public notices reflecting its attempts to assist broadcasters coping with the COVID-19 crisis.  The first public notice deals with the attempts of several broadcasters to support their advertisers while at the same time filling advertising inventory holes that have been created by the cancellation of other advertising schedules.  Broadcasters who

The changes in the FCC’s rules for Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 were today published in the Federal Register. That publication starts the 30 day clock for petitions for reconsideration or requests for appeal of that decision. We summarized the changes in the requirements here – changes that include putting noncommercial stations on the same schedule as commercial stations (filing on December 1 of odd-numbered years) and requiring that all licensees obtain, for every person or entity with an attributable interest, an FCC Registration Number (an “FRN”). To get an FRN, the licensee must either submit the Social Security number (“SSN”) of the person with an attributable interest (or the Taxpayer ID number if the interest holder is not an individual) or the last four digits of the SSN plus other identifying information (their full name, residence address and date of birth). The requirement for an FRN has triggered concern among many broadcasters, particularly those where licenses are held by a college or university.

Why? Some licensees fear that, even though the personal information necessary to get an FRN will not be made public, the submission of that information to the FCC may still somehow compromise the security or privacy of individuals with attributable interests. While the FCC assured licensees in its order that these concerns are overblown as the Commission says that it maintains information with a high level of security, there are still doubters. Nevertheless, the FCC has required that the FRN be obtained for all attributable interest holders, and threatened to take enforcement action against interest holders who refuse to comply. The FCC also identified for whom the information needs to be provided.
Continue Reading Appeal Date Set for Changes in FCC Rules for Biennial Ownership Reports – Why Many College and University Licensees are Concerned

In an order released last month which has not received much attention, the FCC clarified its requirements for the filing of Biennial Ownership Reports. Much of the order deals with fixes to the report itself that will, for the most part, make the completion of the report administratively easier in terms of the physical data that needs to be entered into the form. However, certain new information-collection requirements call for broadcasters – both commercial and noncommercial – to start gathering information now from their attributable owners, including members of their governing boards, in order to enable the completion of the forms when they are next due to be filed, on December 1, 2017. We earlier wrote here about the FCC’s proposals in this proceeding (including the dazzling use of acronyms for various kinds of identification numbers assigned to attributable owners).

One of the principal purposes of the Biennial Ownership Reports is to gather information about the ownership and control of broadcast stations that will allow the FCC to slice and dice that information to use it to make decisions about issues like minority ownership in broadcasting and the concentration of broadcast ownership and control. Thus, the Biennial Reports gather information about race and gender of those with attributable interests in broadcast stations, and also about the interests those interest holders have in other stations. As we have written before, there have been complaints from some who have tried to analyze the information collected in the Biennial Reports that the data cannot be easily manipulated, particularly to track the ownership and control of individuals across multiple companies. Partially, this was attributed by the FCC to the failure of applicants to be able to get from all of their attributable owners information necessary to obtain an FRN (FCC Registration Number). That FRN was to be used to uniquely identify each holder of an attributable interest and track those individuals or entities through all of their media interests. In the past, there had been concerns that some interest holders were reluctant to provide the information necessary to get an FRN. The FCC has tried to remedy some of those concerns, and backed up their remedy with a suggestion that they will sanction interest holders who fail to provide the required information.
Continue Reading FCC Order on Biennial Ownership Requirements – All Broadcasters, Commercial and Noncommercial, Need to Start Collecting Information from Attributable Owners and Directors for Next Year’s Filing

In Friday’s Federal Register, the FCC published a summary of the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to revise its policies regarding the ownership of broadcast stations by non-US citizens setting the date for comments on its proposal of December 21, with Reply Comments being due by January 20.  The FCC two years ago issued a Declaratory Ruling confirming that it would allow broadcasters to have foreign ownership (in a licensee’s parent company) of greater than 25%, overturning what was widely viewed as the Commission’s prior reluctance to approve that degree of foreign ownership of broadcast stations (see our article here for a summary of the FCC’s 2013 action).  But that decision left many unanswered questions, as the Commission decided to proceed on a case-by-case basis in reviewing any requests for approval under the new rules.  When it took almost two years for Pandora to get approval for its acquisition of a broadcast station, almost a year in processing a request under the 2013 ruling (see our article here on the filing of the Pandora petition), when Pandora did not even think that it exceeded the 25% foreign-ownership threshold but it could not prove its compliance based on the FCC’s 40 year old rules setting out the procedures used to assess the foreign ownership of broadcast stations, it was clear that some changes had to be made.  So, in approving the Pandora deal in May, the FCC said that it would conduct a further review of its rules regarding foreign ownership, a commitment that it moves to fulfill by the issuance of this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The NPRM suggests that the FCC will use for broadcasting, with some modifications, the procedures that it uses in assessing foreign ownership of non-broadcast FCC licensees.  While there are many details and nuances in its proposals, the FCC will still need a Petition for Declaratory Ruling to approve foreign ownership above 25% of a parent company of a broadcast licensee (foreign ownership of the licensee itself is flatly prohibited if it exceeds 20%). But it now proposes to adopt the non-broadcast presumptions that, when the FCC approves a foreign owner of more than 5% of a corporation, that approved owner can go up to 49% ownership without further FCC approval.  Similarly, if a foreign owner is approved in a control position, that owner would be able go to 100% without further approval.  But, on a practical level, perhaps more important was the FCC proposals about the mechanics of tracking foreign ownership.
Continue Reading FCC Sets Comment Dates on Proposal to Relax Restrictions on Foreign Ownership in Companies Holding US Broadcast Station Licenses – What Is the FCC Proposing?

Last year’s FCC decision to make Joint Sales Agreements between broadcast television stations attributable interests (meaning that they can only be done if stations are commonly owned) are back in the news – at least a little bit. Yesterday, at the NAB State Leadership Conference held here in Washington DC, NY Senator Chuck Schumer, a prominent Democrat, said that he believed that Joint Sales Agreements, especially in smaller television markets, were beneficial to the public interest. He said that he has sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler urging him to grant waivers to allow such agreements to continue. Coming from a Senator of the same political party as the Chairman, that call may have more impact than those that have previously gone to the FCC.

It appears that many broadcasters who had entered into those agreements, who are not currently in the middle of a sale of their companies, have been sitting with their JSAs, waiting to determine what to do with them before the deadline for existing agreements to be unwound – set in December of 2016 by a provision in last year’s STELAR legislation (see our article here). One other factor causing stations to wait on any action is the appeal of the FCC’s decision. The Briefing dates for that case have now been set – with initial briefs due on April 13, and the final of series of other briefs and responsive briefs being due on July 27. No oral argument date has been set yet, but it is likely that the argument itself will not occur until late in the year, so there would not likely be a decision until 2016. Thus, stations waiting to hear about the future of JSAs to which they are a party, may not have much time to decide what to do with their arrangements if there is no decision until 2016.
Continue Reading NY Senator Chuck Schumer Supports TV JSA Waivers in Small Markets, Briefing Dates Set in Appeal of FCC JSA Decision

The FCC meeting yesterday proposed to attribute Joint Sales Agreements (making them “count” for multiple ownership purposes – meaning that one broadcaster can’t do a JSA with another station unless it can own the other station).  The Commission also apparently kicked the can down the road on all other multiple ownership matters – not changing the local TV ownership rules or amending the newspaper broadcast cross-ownership restrictions, instead deciding to further consider any modification of the rules.  No decision on these issues is expected until probably 2016.  See the FCC’s Public Notice of that action here.  Shared Services Agreements will also be examined – though new ones have effectively been put on hold during the course of the examination by an FCC processing policy released two weeks ago that requires that any party proposing any sort of sharing agreement in a transaction requiring FCC approval demonstrate how that sharing agreement serves the public interest.  Also at the meeting, the FCC took actions to ban joint negotiation of retransmission consent fees by any two of the top 4 rated stations in a TV market, and to reexamine the network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity rules (see the FCC’s decision here).  While we will have more details on these decisions in the coming days, as we fully analyze the texts of the FCC decisions as they are released, for now it is interesting to look at these decisions with the perspective of history.

Having represented broadcasters in Washington for over 30 years, one sees many of the same issues debated over and over again.  Many of the issues that were thought to be settled years ago come to the fore after most of the participants at the FCC, and even those in industry, forget that these battles had already been fought and seemingly decided.  In introducing the FCC’s examination of Shared Services Agreements at yesterday’s meeting, the representative of the FCC’s Media Bureau talked about how the examination of each transaction will be important for the FCC to determine if there are too many interlocking ties between stations that are supposed to be competitors in a market.  Not mentioned was the fact that this same kind of review used to be done by the FCC under what was called the “cross-interest policy,” a policy that was repealed by the FCC in 1988.
Continue Reading FCC Attributes JSAs, to Examine SSAs and Network Nonduplication and Syndex Rules – A Return to the 1980s?

While we hate to turn this into the JSA/SSA blog, it appears that events are moving quickly on that front, so there is seemingly some news almost every day.  The week before last, the big news was comments of the Department of Justice filed with the FCC, suggesting that Joint Sales Agreements be attributable (meaning that they should count for multiple ownership purposes. i.e. you can’t do a JSA with another station in your market unless you can own that station), and that the FCC review Shared Services Agreements and similar arrangements on a case-by-case basis.  This is pretty much the position that the FCC’s new Chairman was expected to take, based on rumors floating around Washington (see our article here).  The way that the trade press reacted to the filing of the DOJ’s comments was an expectation that the “fix is in,” so that the expected action at the March FCC meeting was now a foregone conclusion.  But this past week has been filled with stories about broadcasters making the case that there is more to consider here, and late last week came an public filing from NABOB (the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters), summarizing positions it took in a meeting with FCC Commissioners last week, to, prehpas reluctantly, support at least some limited continuation of these agreements as they could be a force for promoting minority ownership of broadcast stations.

The DOJ’s comments certainly did say that they supported the attribution of JSAs, though the reasoning of that determination was not especially compelling or even internally consistent.  The DOJ recognized that some JSAs could actually be beneficial to competition.  Even though they recognized the potential benefits of JSAs, because they had supported the attribution of JSAs for radio, over 15 years ago, and as any agreements between competitors had the potential for impeding competition in a market, they contended that JSAs should be attributable.  As TV NewCheck put it in a very good article published on Friday, the DOJ’s reasoning is “so 1997.” But beyond that, had the DOJ’s brief not been signed by the DOJ, there would have been numerous reasons for the Commission to give it little weight in its consideration of JSAs and SSAs
Continue Reading TV Joint Sales and Shared Services Agreements – NABOB, The Public Interest Benefits, and Where the DOJ Went Wrong

Only two weeks ago, we were writing about the FCC’s consideration of TV Joint Sales and Shared Service Agreements (or “side-car arrangements” as some have called them) as being an issue that was just being reviewed at the FCC by the new Chairman and his staff.  Now, according to press reports (including this one), the exploration has quickly moved much further – so far that we apparently will see FCC action in the very near future on these very controversial subjects.  The rumors suggest that the FCC is ready to resolve many of the issues in the current Quadrennial Review of its multiple ownership rules (see our summary of the issues initially raised in that proceeding here) at its March open meeting. According to these rumors, the FCC will prohibit Joint Sales Agreements for television stations in situations where the two stations involved cannot be commonly owned under the FCC’s multiple ownership rules, and at the same time do nothing to relax the broadcast- newspaper cross-ownership restrictions.  This is much the same result on JSAs that was rumored in December 2012, but a harsher result on the cross-ownership issue than the previous FCC Chair was rumored to be ready to take.  In 2012, the proceeding was put on hold to take more comments on the effect of a change in the cross-interest policy on minority ownership (see our article here), and it has sat there since.  This week’s rumors suggest that, as part of the same action (or through a simultaneous action), the FCC will ask about the public interest benefits and harms of Shared Services Agreements in the TV industry.

For investors in television companies and the general public, these rumored actions raise many questions.  How can the FCC take such a decision on the JSA/SSA issue when such agreements have become an integral part of the TV business over the last few years?  What is the difference between a JSA and an SSA?  How can the FCC not recognize that newspapers are in difficult economic times, and some degree of consolidation may well help these economics?  Does the FCC recognize that the media landscape in broadcasting has changed dramatically in the last few years?
Continue Reading TV Shared Service and Joint Sales Agreements Back in the News – Is the FCC Poised to Act Soon, and To Also Reject Relaxation of Broadcast-Newspaper Cross-Ownership?