In a recent decision, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau ruled that a tower owner should pay a fine for a single day where the required tower lights were not operational, and where no required monitoring of the tower to discover such outage was taking place.  On top of the penalty for the non-working lights, the FCC also fined the owner for the failure to report a change in ownership of the tower.  The total fine in the case was $4000 (reduced from an initial fine of $13,000 because of the tower owner’s past record of compliance).

As with any FCC fine, while the fine was for one day of tower light outage, there was more to the story.  The FCC inspected the tower after receiving a complaint stating that the lights were out on a day that was almost a month before the inspection – indicating that the outage may have been in place for far longer than the one day revealed by the FCC inspection.  The tower owner admitted that the person who was supposed to conduct the required daily inspection of the tower lights had moved from the area in which the tower was located, and the owner did not know exactly when that occurred.  The owner did not get someone new to do the inspection until after the FCC inspection.  And the tower had no automatic monitoring system to determine if the lights were in fact operational.  With these admissions, it seemed clear that there was the potential that there had been a problem for a long time, so perhaps the fine was not unexpected, even though the lights were fixed within hours of the FCC report of the problem, as the issue was a simple one that the tower owner blamed on a careless repair person who had recently visited the site.


Continue Reading Tower Lights Out for Even One Day? – Pay A Fine, Says the FCC

Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial.  In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor.  These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement.  The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.

The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses.   Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address).  But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business.  They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today").  They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ).  The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor.  In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in.  The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines for Noncommercial Stations Having Underwriting Announcements That Were Too Commercial – Even Where the Station Received No Money

On Thursday, the Obama administration appointed FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to be the Acting FCC Chairman until the administration selects its permanent Chairman, and that person is confirmed by the Senate.  As we’ve written, the rumors are that the permanent Chair will be Julius Genachowski, a former classmate of the President.  But, as far as we know (and according to the White House website’s list of appointments made so far), that appointment has not yet been formally made and sent to the Senate Commerce Committee for the initiation of hearings on the qualifications of the nominee.  Commissioner Copps is the most senior of the remaining three Commissioners (Democrat Jonathan Adelstein and Republican Robert McDowell being the other two remaining Commissioners), and has been an outspoken advocate of more stringent regulation of the public interest performance of broadcasters (see, for instance, our posts here and here).  What will his appointment as interim FCC chairman mean for broadcasters?

Initially, it would seem reasonable to assume that the Acting Chair will be principally occupied with the DTV transition, as least for the next few weeks, and perhaps longer if the pending legislation to delay the transition deadline until June 12 is adopted.  It would also seem reasonable to assume that the Commission, at least for the short term, will not be tackling major regulatory initiatives (like the localism proceeding), until the permanent FCC Chair has taken office.  One of the initial Executive Orders that was issued by the Obama administration was to freeze the actions of administrative executive agencies until the political appointments made by the administration have been confirmed and taken their places, so that the new administration is not saddled by regulations that don’t fit with its overall political agenda.  While many in DC believe that this order does not apply to an "independent agency" like the FCC (which technically does not report to the administration, but instead to Congress), it would be reasonable to assume that the spirit of the order would be followed by the FCC.


Continue Reading Commissioner Michael Copps Named As Acting FCC Chairman – What Does It Mean for Broadcasters?

Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

This week, an interesting concept has been advanced in a series of applications filed with the FCC.  Ion Media Networks, the successor to Paxson Television, has proposed to transfer some of its broadcast stations to a new company, Urban Television LLP, to be owned 51% by Robert Johnson, the former owner of BET, and 49% by Ion itself.  But, when we say that they are transferring "some" of its stations, we don’t mean that any of its stations are being transferred, but instead only that a piece of its stations are proposed to be transferred.  Ion proposes to continue to own and operate stations in every market where it currently operates, but proposes to sell digital multicast channels to Johnson. Unlike any LMA or other programming agreement, the proposal is to actually take one 6 MHz television channel and break it up so that Ion continues to program one channel with its programming and the Urban Television will program the other channel with its programming, and become the actual license of that portion of the spectrum.  The FCC has accepted the applications and issued a Public Notice, giving parties 30 days to file comments on the proposal. 

It is not unheard of for two licensees to share the same channel – though where it is currently occurs most frequently is in connection with noncommercial broadcasters who share a single radio or TV channel, they divide it by time, so that one licensee operates, say midnight to noon and the other operates from noon to midnight.  Obviously, in these shared-time arrangements, both broadcasters are not operating on the same channel at the same time.  This new proposal, though, does not come out of the blue.  The idea of allowing a broadcaster to sell a digital channel to a different company, has been proposed before, for both Digital Television and Digital HD Radio channels when the original station is multicasting, as a way to increase diversity of ownership.


Continue Reading Splitting a Television Station License – Ion and Robert Johnson Propose a Unique Concept for Increaing Media Ownership

Press Reports (such as this one) have stated that the Obama campaign has purchased half-hour blocks of time on at least NBC and CBS to broadcast a political infomercial to be aired at 8 PM Eastern time on October 29.  Some reports indicate that other broadcast and cable networks will also be broadcasting the same program.  Did the networks have to sell him the time?  In fact, they probably did.  Under FCC rules, Federal political candidates have a right of reasonable access to "all classes" of time sold by the station in all dayparts.  This includes a right to program length time, a right that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals when the networks did not want to sell Jimmy Carter a program length commercial to announce the launch of his reelection bid.  Because of this right, the networks often had to sell Lyndon LaRouche half hour blocks of time to promote his perennial candidacy for President. 

How often do networks (or stations) have to make such time available?  They only have the right to be "reasonable." While what is reasonable has not been defined, the amount of time that will be requested will probably be limited by the cost of such time.  Even were it not limited by cost, the FCC would probably not require that a broadcaster sell such a prime time block more than once or twice during the course of an election – and given the late stage that we are in the current election, it seems unlikely that more than one such request would have to be honored during these last few weeks of the campaign.  Stations do not need to give candidates the exact time that they requested – so the rumored reluctance of Fox to sell this precise time to the Obama campaign because it might conflict with the World Series would probably be reasonable – if they offered him the opportunity to buy a half hour block at some other comparable time.   


Continue Reading Obama Buys A Half Hour of Time on Broadcast Networks – What FCC Legal Issues are Involved?

Broadcasting and Cable magazine today reported that the FCC is looking to back off some of the requirements for the "enhanced disclosure" of television broadcaster’s public interest programming (see our summary of the new requirements of FCC Form 355, here).  B&C reports that the FCC may lessen or at least better explain

Political Broadcasting season is now in full swing, with the Democrats just ending their convention, and the Republicans beginning theirs next week.  Already, we’ve seen disputes about third party attack ads (see our post here), and there are bound to be many more issues about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules that arise during what looks to be a very contentious political season.  For guidance on many political broadcasting issues, you can check out our Political Broadcasting Guide, with discussions of many common political broadcasting issues (including reasonable access, equal opportunities, lowest unit rates, public file issues, and political disclosure statements) in what we hope is an easy to follow question and answer format.   Broadcasters should also remember that the Lowest Unit Rate "political window" opens on September 5, meaning that stations cannot charge political candidates any more than the lowest rate that is charged a commercial advertiser for the same class of time run at the same time as the candidate’s spot. 

We have reminded broadcasters that the Lowest Unit Rate (or "Lowest Unit Charge,"  often abbreviated as" LUC" or "LUR")must be available to all candidates for public office – including state and local candidates.  While state and local candidates have no right of reasonable access (meaning that a station can decide not to sell time to those candidates, or to restrict their purchase of time to particular limited dayparts), if the station sells state and local candidates time, it must be at Lowest Unit Rates during the political window. 


Continue Reading Lowest Unit Rates for Political Candidates Begin on September 5; Get Answers to Political Broadcasting Questions from Our Political Broadcasting Guide