At the end of last year, we wrote about the decision of the Detroit newspapers to go to a 3 day a week publication schedule, and asked the question that we had heard posed by a writer for one of the communications trade publications – "will the FCC rules limiting the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers outlive the newspaper itself."  In the last few weeks, that question has become even more relevant.  The FCC’s decision to relax the cross-ownership restrictions in December 2007 drew widespread condemnation from many big-media opponents, and even attempts to overturn the decision, even though its direct effect was limited to the nation’s largest markets.  One now wonders whether, with the current economic condition of newspapers and broadcast stations, the rules should not be revisited, for purposes of further relaxing those rules, not tightening them.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a major newspaper in Denver stop its presses for the last time, and companies owning papers in many major markets, including Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New Haven, all declare bankruptcy.  At the same time, papers in San Francisco and Seattle have warned that they may also shut down if there are not significant savings found or new buyers.  Even venerable papers like the New York Times have been the subject of shut-down rumors, and the Wall Street Journal and other papers in the Rupert Murdoch empire have been said to be dragging down the profits of the News Corporation. 


Continue Reading Will the Newspaper-Broadcast Cross Ownership Rules Outlive the Newspaper?

The FCC late Friday released an Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing a number of issues which arose as a result of the Congressional delay in the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12.  In many cases, the actions taken in the Order are ministerial – e.g. changing the expiration dates on digital construction permits from February to June.  But there were also a number of substantive issues addressed by the order – including the public education requirements for the remainder of the transition and the potential for delaying any further terminations of analog service until at least April, and subjecting any planned termination of analog service before June 12 to additional scrutiny to determine if that termination would serve the public interest.   This is despite what many have termed a relatively uneventful termination of analog service on February 17 by over 400 stations nationwide.  Comments on this change in the transition procedures are to be filed on an expedited basis – within 5 days of the publication of this order in the Federal Register.

The delay of the early termination of service is likely to cause the most controversy, as Senate Republicans backed the transition delay only after specifically including in the legislation language that seemingly permitted such transitions under the rules that were in place at the time that the legislation was adopted (see our post here).  This would seemingly have permitted stations to terminate analog service within 90 days of the June 12 deadline, provided they had given their listeners at least 30 days notice of their plans.  A number of stations have started to provide that notice, planning a termination in March. But the Commission has tentatively concluded that it can amend the process for termination, and has set the date of March 17 for a notice to be filed at the FCC by all stations that want to terminate analog service before June 12.  As the Commission plans to continue to require 30 days public notice of the termination, and as they won’t allow any termination decision to become official until the March 17 filing, the earliest a station can terminate analog service under this proposal (absent a technical issue or other extreme circumstance) would be April 16. 


Continue Reading FCC Releases More Details of Delayed DTV Transition – No More DTV Conversions Until April?

While all the details are not out yet, the trade press has been filled with announcements this evening reporting that SoundExchange and the National Association of Broadcasters have reached a deal on Internet Radio Royalties.  This deal will apparently settle the royalty dispute between broadcasters and SoundExchange for royalties covering 2006-2010 which arose from the 2007 Copyright Royalty Board decision, as well as the upcoming proceeding for the royalties for 2011-2015.  According to the press reports, the royalties are slightly reduced from those decided by the CRB for the remainder of the current period, and continue to rise for the period 2011-2015 until they reach $.0025 per performance in 2015.  According to the press release issued by the parties, there was also an agreement between the NAB and the four major labels that would waive the limits on the use of music by broadcasters that are imposed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

These limits, referred to as the performance complement, set out requirements on how many songs from the same artist or same CD can be played within given time periods which, if not observed, can disqualify a webcast from qualifying for the statutory license.  If a webcaster cannot rely on the statutory license, it would have to negotiate with each copyright holder for the rights to use the music that it plays.  The performance complement imposed requirements including:

  • No preannouncing when a song will play
  • No more than 3 songs in a row by the same artist
  • Not more than 4 songs by same artist in a 3 hour period
  • No more than 2 songs from same CD in a row
  • Identify song, artist and CD title in writing on the website as the song is being played

It will be interesting to see the details of this agreement setting out what aspects of these rules are being waived.


Continue Reading SoundExchange and NAB Announce Settlement on Internet Radio Royalties

As we wrote on Friday, the Senate has passed the Bill that would extend from February 17 to June 12 the deadline for full-power television stations to transition to digital operations.  This leaves the House of Representatives to once again consider the matter – supposedly in committee on Tuesday and perhaps by vote of the full House as early as Wednesday.  In preparation for that consideration, there have been conflicting letters released by Congressmen supporting the bill and those who are oppose.  The opponents claim that the ability of TV stations to transition before the end date, an option that was important to Senate Republicans who unanamously supported the extension of the transition date, may not in reality exist.  The supporters of the bill point to the over 1.85 million people who are on the waiting list for the $40 coupons to be applied against the cost of DTV converters to allow analog televisions to receive digital signals after the transition.  What do these letters add to the debate?

The Republican Congressmen leading the charge against the delay of the transition suggest in their letter that the ability of TV stations to transition before an extended June 12 DTV deadline is largely illusory, as they imply that most stations cannot transition until the last day because of interference concerns.  They have asked the FCC to immediately provide information about how many stations would be precluded from a transition until June 12 if the date is extended.  From our experience, while there are some stations that need to delay their DTV transition until some other station has changed channels, we would be surprised if most stations are precluded from doing so.  Many stations are simply going to continue on the channels on which they are currently operating their DTV transitional facilities.  Thus, if they are already operating their DTV stations on their post-transition channel, by definition they are not suffering from any preclusive interference issues.  And the vast majority of the remaining stations are planning to operate after the transition on their current analog channel which itself, in most cases, is free from interference as the analog operation would have in most cases precluded other stations on interfering channels from operating in too close a proximity to the area served by the station.   We are aware of many stations ready to transition early even if the deadline is extended until June 12, and we would think that these stations had reviewed their situations before deciding to do so, and would have been aware of interference concerns in preparation for their February 17 changeover.  In some cases they may have coordinated an early change with any station that would have presented an interference issue.  Thus, we would be surprised if the FCC report prepared for these Congressmen finds a great number of stations that will be forced to wait until June 12 to do their digital conversion even if they are inclined to make the change early.


Continue Reading Will the House Pass the DTV Extension? – Dueling Congressional Letters Take Opposing Positions

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

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

Today’s morning newscasts were filled with the stories of the passing of George Carlin – a comedian and satirist who effectively wrote the indecency regulations that most broadcasters abide by – without the FCC ever having had to adopt the regulations that he attributed to them.  In the broadcast world, Mr. Carlin was probably best known for his routine about the Seven Words that You Can Never Say on TV.  When that routine was aired by a New York radio station, and heard by a parent who claimed that he had a child in his car when the routine came over his radio in the middle of the day, the resulting FCC action against the station resulted in appeals that ended in the Supreme Court which, in its Pacifica case, upheld the right of the FCC to adopt indecency rules for the broadcast media to channel speech that is indecent, though not legally obscene, into hours when children are not likely to be listening.  But what this case and the FCC ruling did not hold are perhaps more misunderstood than what the case did hold.

First, the case was about "indecency" not "obscenity."  Many of this morning’s newscasts referred to the Pacifica decision as being an Obscenity decision.  Obscenity is speech that can be banned no matter what the time and place, as it is speech that is deemed to have no socially redeeming value.  Indecency, on the other hand, is a far more limited concept.  Indecent speech is speech that is constitutionally protected – it has some social significance such as the social commentary clearly conveyed by the Carlin routine.  It cannot be constitutionally banned.  But the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s decision in the Pacifica case that, because of the intrusive nature of the broadcast media, it can be limited to hours where children are not likely to be in the audience.  Hence, the FCC has a "safe harbor" that allows indecent programming between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, when "obscene" programming is never allowed on the air.


Continue Reading George Carlin – Writing the Indeceny Rules the FCC Never Did