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

The FCC’s rules limiting the common ownership of radio and television stations, and of television stations and daily newspapers, are triggered by the Grade A contours of the television station encompassing the city of license of the radio station, or the city in which the newspaper is published.  Since June, there has been one problem with the application of that rule (Section 73.3555) – television stations in the digital world no longer have Grade A contours.  When adopting service contours for digital television, the FCC specified a Noise Limited Service Contour ("NLSC") as essentially the equivalent of the Grade B contour of an analog television signal – the contour at which the majority of people can receive the signal a majority of the time.  The FCC also specified a principal city contour – the signal level that needed to be placed over a station’s city of license.  But the FCC never bothered to specify the Grade A contour, despite the fact that the cross-ownership rules were premised on that contour.  In a case decided last week involving the financial restructuring of a radio company, the FCC’s Media Bureau staff decided that they would use the NLSC as a proxy for the Grade A contour until such time as the full Commission otherwise directed.

This decision actually makes common ownership of television stations and either newspapers or radio stations somewhat more difficult, as the noise limited contour, approximating the old analog Grade B contour, actually extends further than where the Grade A contour would have reached (when a digital station replicated its analog service area).  Thus, using this standard, the owners of a television station could be precluded from having attributable interests in radio stations or daily papers in more communities than would have been the case in the analog world.  As the FCC is now embarking on its review of the multiple ownership rules (as we have written before), the FCC may well revisit this issue in the course of that review.

Continue Reading FCC Clarifies Application of the Multiple Ownership Rules After the Digital Transition Makes the Grade A Contour Disappear