The MusicFirst coalition last week asked that the FCC investigate broadcast stations that allegedly cut back on playing the music of artists who back a broadcast performance royalty, and also those stations who have run spots on the air opposing the performance royalty without giving the supporters of the royalty an opportunity to respond.  While the NAB and many other observers have suggested that the filing is simply wrong on its facts, pointing for instance to the current chart-topping position of the Black Eyed Peas whose lead singer has been a vocal supporter of the royalty, it seems to me that there is an even more fundamental issue at stake here – the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.  What the petition is really saying is that the government should impose a requirement on broadcasters that they not speak out on an issue of fundamental importance to their industry.  The petition seems to argue that the rights of performers (and record labels) to seek money from broadcasters is of such importance that the First Amendment rights of broadcasters to speak out against that royalty should be abridged.

While the MusicFirst petition claims that it neither seeks to abridge the First Amendment rights of broadcasters nor to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, it is hard credit that claim.  After all, the petition goes directly to the heart of the broadcasters ability to speak out on the topic, and seems to want to mandate that broadcasters present the opposing side of the issue, the very purpose of the Fairness Doctrine.  As we’ve written, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished as an unconstitutional abridgment on the broadcaster’s First Amendment rights 20 years ago.  As an outgrowth of this decision, FCC and Court decisions concluded that broadcasters have the right to editorialize on controversial issues, free of any obligation to present opposing viewpoints.  What is it that makes this case different?


Continue Reading MusicFirst’s Complaint to the FCC: The First Amendment and the Performance Royalty

This past week, I attended the BIAfn Winning Media Strategies Conference in Washington, DC.  During the course of the conference, there was much talk about how broadcasters and publishers need to provide unique service to their communities in order to survive in the competitive media marketplace.  The point was made over and over again that, in each market there are unique attributes and personalities that a station should be covering in its programming, and should be exploiting even more broadly through their digital assets, to tie it to its community.  Only by doing so will the station be able to survive in the new media environment – and by doing so, the station may be able to thrive.  In fact, I was stuck by a statement by USC’s Adam Clayton Powell III that domination of the local online and digital media marketplace was "the broadcasters to lose."  In other words, the broadcaster has such unque promotional abilities with its current audience that it can establish its brand in the online and in the mobile world far easier than other media players.  But there were also the repeated warning that there is more and more competition for this local digital market from new entrants and other media entities and that, if the broadcasters did not take advantage of their current advantage, the local service would come from someone else.  What most stuck me was that there was no question that the superservice to local needs would be coming from someone – broadcaster or not – as a result of marketplace developments, not because of any government mandate.  The broadcaster has to adapt to and compete in this new media marketplace or become culturally and economically irrelevant.  The broadcaster needs to serve the local market to meet these challenges, not because some Washington agency has ordered him to do so.  And the broadcaster needs to serve his community in a way that the public will find compelling, not in a way that the government thinks is best.

At BIAfn, the presentation that made the greatest impact was probably that of Greenspun Media from Las Vegas, which has reinvented a secondary newspaper and a Low Power TV station as an on-line powerhouse, uncovering the aspects of the community that would draw the largest audience and covering that information in great detail.  The Las Vegas Sun site not only covers hard news, but also the gaming industry, University of Las Vegas sports and even state government issues in a way that its audience seems to find interesting.  Even a history of Las Vegas, in great detail, is included.  And video plays a big part of the site, with the company in development of a hip news and events program, 702.tv, that will soon be a daily program on the television station and online (featuring local "celebrities" doing the weather, including strippers and Neil Diamond sound-alikes).  While some attendees at the conference thought that Las Vegas presented unique opportunities that might not be available in all communities, many were immediately speculating on the opportunities in their own communities to find unique personalities and events that could be developed on-air and on-line in ways to maximize their connection with their audience. 


Continue Reading Localism Without Government Regulation

In a speech to the Free Press Summit, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps suggested that broadcast license renewals should no longer be a "postcard", but instead should be a real test of the broadcaster’s service to the public interest – and should happen every three years, rather than on the eight year renewal cycle that is currently provided for by the law.  While the Chairman acknowledged that many suggest that the old media are in troubled times and may well be supplanted by new forms of communications, "If old media is going to be with us a while still…we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process."  In other words, while broadcasters may be dying, we should regulate them while we can.

First, it should be pointed out that the broadcast license renewal is no longer a postcard, and really hasn’t been for almost 20 years.  The current renewal forms require certifications on many matters demonstrating a broadcaster’s service to the public and its compliance with the rules, and additional documentation on EEO performance and other matters.  TV broadcasters also have substantial renewal submissions on their compliance with their obligations under the Children’s television rules.  Issues of noncompliance with the rules resulted in many fines in the last renewal cycle, demonstrating that this is not a process where the FCC is without teeth.  Yet most of these fines were for paperwork violations (e.g. not keeping detailed records of EEO outreach or quarterly issues programs lists demonstrating the public interest programming broadcast by a station), not for any substantive claims that station licensees were fundamentally unqualified and should forfeit their licenses.  In fact, the Acting Chairman’s speech recognizes that most broadcasters do a fine job serving their communities, yet he believes that more regulation is necessary to police those that don’t.  But is this the time to be imposing additional regulatory burdens on all of the industry, for the actions of a few.  Will the overall public interest be served by such actions?  .


Continue Reading Even Though Old Media May Be Dying – Let’s Regulate Them While We Can – Broadcast License Renewals Every Three Years?

National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr today announced his decision to leave the Association, leaving the NAB without a leader at a time when the Association is facing an incredible number of challenges in Washington. One can only hope that the NAB acts quickly to replace Rehr with someone prepared to aggressively address the needs of an industry hobbled by the current economic climate, and challenged by regulatory issues that could further undermine the ability of radio and television operators to compete in today’s media marketplace. The potential broadcast performance royalty, which could require that radio operators pay musicians and record labels for the rights to play their music on the air, is but one of a number of fundamental challenges that need to be addressed very shortly by broadcaster’s representatives in Washington – perhaps in the next week or two when the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee may take up the "performance tax" issue (as the NAB has called it in their arguments on Capitol Hill).

What else will a new NAB President have to contend with?  In addition to the performance royalty, there seems to be a perception in many quarters that broadcasting is no longer the special medium that it once was that demands regulatory deference because of the public interest service that it provides.  Because of the lessening of some of Washington’s regard for broadcasters,  there are many issues now before the FCC, Congress, the courts, and other agencies in Washington – all of which could have a serious impact on broadcasters – including:

 

  • The final days of the DTV transition
  • The FCC’s implementation of their White Areas order allowing wireless users to use parts of the TV spectrum – and the appeals and other attempts to overturn or modify that decision
  • The reauthorization of SHVERA, to continue to allow satellite companies to beam local television signals into local markets – where parties are raising all sorts of extraneous issues about carriage rights and retransmission consent, possible changes in TV market boundaries, and changes in the rights of satellite carriers to import distant signals.
  • The FCC’s localism proceeding, which could impose new obligations on broadcasters at a time when broadcast competition has never been so intense – when the marketplace should dictate how broadcasters best serve their communities
  • Potential Congressional effort to bring back the Fairness Doctrine in some form or another
  • A number of FCC proceedings that could affect new methods of advertising meant to combat technological changes – like embedded advertising and product placement that are meant to partially overcome the effects of DVRs.
  • Congressional attempts to regulate advertising and programing – including potential efforts to restrict prescription drug ads, ED treatments, violent programming and programming that promotes unhealthy foods
  • FCC attempts to reign in technical changes in FM stations to allow them to take steps to increase power and to move into larger markets
  • Congressional moves to remove restrictions on LPFM stations on channels that are third-adjacent to full power facilities – and to potentially give these new stations rights to replace existing FM translators


Continue Reading NAB President David Rehr to Leave – What’s Next for His Replacement?

We’re not even in what most would consider election season – except for the two states with off-year governor’s contests and those other states with various state and municipal elections. Yet political ads are running on broadcast stations across the country.  Republican groups have announced plans to run ads attacking certain Democratic Congressmen who are perceived as vulnerable, while certain Democratic interest groups have run ads about the positions of Republicans on the Obama stimulus package and the President’s proposed budget.   In addition to these ads targeting specific potential candidates, there are issue ads running across the country on various issues pending before Congress, or likely to be considered by Congress in the near term. These ads often have a tag line “write or call your Congressman and tell him to vote No” on whatever bill is being discussed. While these are not ads for political candidates that require lowest unit rates or specific equal opportunities, they do give rise to political file issues.  Stations need to remember to observe these requirements and put the required information into their public file to avoid FCC issues.

Under provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, when a station runs an ad addressing a “Federal issue”, the station must keep in its public file essentially all the same information about the ad that it would maintain for a candidate ad. The station must identify the spot and the schedule that its sponsor has purchased, the identify of the sponsor (name, address and list of principal executive officers or directors), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the ads.  Federal issues are ones that deal with a Federal election or with any issue to be considered by Congress or any Federal government agency.


Continue Reading Remember FCC Public File Obligations When Running Issue Advertising

The dates and minimum bids are set – and the next auction for new FM stations is a go for September 1, 2009Applications to participate in the auction are due during the period June 16 to June 25, and must be filed electronically at the FCC, specifying on which of the 122 available channels an applicant is interested in bidding. Full, detailed auction instructions can be found in the FCC’s Public Notice, and the list of available channels and the minimum bids for each is available here. To give time for applicants to prepare their applications, the Commission has also initiated a variety of freezes on the filing of certain FM applications.

A freeze on any application or Petition for Rulemaking seeking a change in the channel of any channel proposed for use in this auction has been imposed effective immediately. Applications that shortspace any of the reference points for any of these stations are also barred. A subsequent freeze on the filing of any minor change application by an FM licensee will also be imposed during the June window. These freezes are to give applicants for channels the opportunity to evaluate which channels are worth bidding for, and to specify specific transmitter sites for certain channels (different than the reference coordinates) which will be protected during the auction process. Thus, applicants who see the potential for an increase in value of one of these channels that may come through the location of the station at a particular transmitter site can specify that site, protecting it and the value that they see. 


Continue Reading Rules for September Auction for New FM Stations Set – Application Filing Deadline Is June 25

This weekend, the Broadcast Law Blog is scheduled for a makeover, with a new look that goes with the new Davis Wright Tremaine website and other changes in our firm’s branding materials.  But, for our loyal readers, the look may change, but the content will remain the same – covering legal issues and developments of interest

At its meeting today, the FCC decided to revamp its Ownership Report filing process – requiring all stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 on November 1 of this year – even stations that have just filed those reports in the normal course in the last few months.  All stations will have to file every two years thereafter – on November 1 of every other year.  Reports will also be required from Low Power TV stations and Class A TV stations, which have not in the past had to file reports.  Reports will also be required from stations that are owned by an individual, and by general partnerships in which all of the partners are individuals (or, in the FCC’s legalese, "natural persons").  In the past, such stations did not have to file reports as any change in ownership would have required, at a minimum, the filing of a Form 316 short-form assignment or transfer application.  Finally, the Commission will require the reporting of the interests of currently non-attributable owners who are not attributable simply because there is a single majority shareholder in the licensee.

The FCC is not asking for this information because it wants to track improper transfers, but instead so that it can gather information about the racial and gender make-up of the broadcast ownership universe.  This information has been required on ownership reports for the last ten years, but the FCC did not believe that the system was extensive enough to capture all information about the ownership of broadcast properties, as so many stations were not covered by the requirements.  Why does the FCC want racial and gender information about the owners of stations?  To potentially take more aggressive actions to encourage minority ownership.  The FCC has considered such actions in the past, but has not felt that it take actions specifically targeted to minority and female applicants, as there was no record of past discrimination in the broadcast industry.  The government can constitutionally only make racial or gender-based decisions if these decisions are to remedy the effects of past discrimination.  To justify such acts, the government agency must demonstrate the past discrimination – and these new filing requirements are meant to gather that information through what is called an Adarand study.  In the recent past, when it adopted certain diversity initiatives for designated entities (like the ability of a designated entity to buy an expiring construction permit and get an extension, which we recently wrote about here), the Commission had to define a designated entity as a "small business" defined by SBA standards.  Chairman Copps today said that this definition did not truly benefit diversity as favoring small businesses "generally benefit white males."


Continue Reading FCC to Require New Ownership Reports from all Commerical Broadcasters on November 1

As part of its order in it proceeding to encourage diversity in broadcast ownership, the FCC adopted a number of new rules, including a rule allowing parties holding construction permits for new broadcast stations to sell those permits to "qualified entities."   The buying qualified entity would then then get 18 months to construct the new station, even if the construction permit would otherwise expire in less than 18 months.  Under prior policy, an FCC construction permit would expire 3 years after it is issued, with no real opportunity for extension (though the construction period could be "tolled" for the period that certain impediments to construction existed, i. e. litigation over zoning, FCC litigation over the validity of the permit, or Acts of God that temporarily stopped construction – but only for the limited period that such an impediment existed).   The new rule was adopted to encourage the sale to new entrants to broadcast ownership who could purchase construction permits that might otherwise expire.  Today, the FCC issued some clarifications of the new rule.

The clarification was issued principally to set out when the sale must take place in order for the buyer to qualify for the 18 month extension.  The FCC’s staff looked at the literal language of the new rule, and concluded that the sale must be approved by the FCC and consummated before the expiration date of the construction permit in order for the buyer to get the 18 month extension.  If the sale is not completed before expiration, the permit would expire.  Thus, the Commission warned applicants planning to take advantage of this new rule to file for the FCC approval of the sale at least 90 days before the expiration of the permit, to give time for the FCC approval of the sale and a consummation.  However, because of the uncertainty of the rule, the Commission decided that it would allow any party wanting to buy an unbuilt construction permit and who files to acquire that permit by May 31 to get the 18 month extension, even if the permit expires while the FCC application for approval of the sale is pending.  But after June 1, the buyer will not get the extension if the sale is not completed before the expiration of the permit. 


Continue Reading FCC Clarifies Rules on Extension of Broadcast Construction Permits Upon Sale to Qualified Entity