The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country.  What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns.  Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of  more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century.  Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked. 

First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers.  As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads.  In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad.  Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads.  This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations. 


Continue Reading What is the Impact on Broadcasters of Supreme Court Decision that Corporations Can Buy Political Ads? More Money, More Ad Challenges and the Return of the Zapple Doctrine

When the Low Power FM service was first authorized, it was as a "secondary service," though a recent court decision shows how that secondary status is becoming less and less a reality.  A secondary service is traditionally one that can be allotted where there are no other uses for a particular frequency, and which is subject to being bumped off the spectrum should there be another demand for that spectrum by a "primary" user.  LPFM stations were originally supposed to provide service to areas between full-power FM radio stations, and to be bumped off the air if there was a new FM station authorized or a change in the frequency or power of an existing station.  A decision of the Court of Appeals released earlier this month , upholding an FCC order giving more protections to LPFM stations, puts this secondary service into question.

The Court decision upheld the Commission’s decision, about which we wrote here, determining that waivers of second adjacent channel interference limitations between LPFM and full power stations should be permitted to help preserve LPFM service.  In addition, the Court upheld the FCC’s process in adopting a new "interim" policy which provides that, where an LPFM is providing 8 hours a day of local programming and would be knocked off the air by an upgrade or city of license change of a full-power station, the LPFM station could apply for a waiver of its secondary status, and there would be a rebuttable presumption in favor of such a waiver.  If the waiver is granted, the LPFM station would be preserved, and the application of the full-power station dismissed.  Thus, effectively, LPFM would no longer be secondary, but instead will have assumed a primary, protected status.


Continue Reading LPFM – When a Secondary Service Becomes Primary

Reading the papers and watching the news this weekend, one would think that analog television is a relic of the past – something that we can all soon look back at fondly as a quaint childhood memory, never to be seen again.  Yet all the reports fail to mention that for populations that watch their over-the-air television from TV translators or Low Power TV stations, analog television is still very much a reality, and in some places will be for years until the FCC sets a deadline for the digital conversion of these stations. Many of these stations operate in rural areas or serve minority or other specialized audiences, perhaps explaining the lack of coverage in the mainstream media.  But, given all the publicity that has been accorded to the "completion" of the conversion, some of these populations may well have been confused by the process.  We’ve writtenabout this issue and how it could have created confusion in smaller markets which have service by both full-power and low power TV stations, here.

The transition of LPTV to digital raises a number of issues – including the ability of these stations to deliver radio-type programming when operating on Channel 6.  As we’ve written, LPTV stations on Channel 6 have been used to provide radio services, as Channel 6 is immediately adjacent to the FM band and can be picked up on most radio receivers..  However, when the ultimate transition of LPTV to digital is completed, the ability of these stations to provide a radio-type service will probably disappear, as the audio system used by digital television will not be picked up by analog radio receivers. 


Continue Reading Analog Television – Not Dead Yet – Not All LPTV Stations are Digital

The FCC today issued a long-awaited public notice, clarifying the relationship between FM educational stations and the analog Channel 6 TV stations that have or will be disappearing after the digital transition.  As we’ve written before, the question of whether noncommercial FM stations could seek improvements in their facilities based on the imminent disappearance

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

The FCC’s staff today issued an Order resolving 26 Groups of mutually exclusive FM applications submitted last year in the filing window for new noncommercial FM stations. We wrote about a previous order in August, processing a smaller group of such applicants.  In each of these groups, the Commission analyzed the coverage proposed by the applicants

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

The Digital Television conversion has allowed the FCC to reclaim significant portions of the TV spectrum for wireless and public safety uses – television channels above 51 will no longer be used for broadcast TV at the end of the analog to digital transition.  But, as part of the FCC’s Diversity proceeding (see our post here), a proposal dealing with the other end of the TV spectrum is being considered – whether to remove Channels 5 and 6 from the television band and instead use these channels for FM radio.  These channels are adjacent to the lower end of the FM band.  Because of this adjacency, the existence of TV Channel 6 in a market can limit the use of the lowest end of the FM band (used for Noncommercial Educational stations) to avoid interference to the TV station.  Similarly, Channel 6’s audio can be heard on many FM radio receivers, a fact that has recently been used by some LPTV operators to use their stations to deliver an audio service that can be received by FM radios (see our post on this subject).  In comments filed in the Diversity proceeding, parties have taken positions all across the spectrum – from television operators who have opposed using the channel for anything but television, to those suggesting that the channels be entirely cleared of television users and turned into a digital radio service.  Proposals also suggest using the band for LPFM operations, and even for clearing the AM band by assigning AM operators to this band to commence new digital operations.

In comments that our firm submitted on behalf of a group of noncommercial FM radio licensees who also rebroadcast their signals on a number of FM translator stations, we suggested that Channel 6 could provide a home for LPFM operations, instead of trying to squeeze those stations into the existing FM band.  There are currently proposals to squeeze more LPFM stations into the FM band by supplanting some FM translators (see our summary of some of those proposals here).  In these comments in the Diversity proceeding, we pointed out that, as there are currently radios on the market that receive 87.9, 87.7 and even 87.5, using these three channels for LPFM service would provide an immediate home to these stations, and far more opportunity for than LPFM would have in the already congested FM band.  These opportunities would exist even in most of the largest radio markets in the country, except in the handful of markets where a Channel 6 television station will continue to operate after the digital transition.  By adopting this proposal, the service that would be provided by FM translators would not be threatened. 


Continue Reading What to Do With TV Channels 5 and 6 – Proposals to Turn Them Over to Radio Services