children's television reports

The FCC at its open meeting last week took two actions important to TV broadcasters – modifying its children’s television rules and changing the process by which TV stations give notice to MVPDs of their must carry or retransmission consent elections.  On the children’s television rules, the FCC largely adopted the proposals in their draft order, which we summarized here.  The major additions to the final version of the Order (here) were the individual statements of the Commissioners, where the Republicans supported the decision as a common-sense reaction to changing market conditions (including an increase in the number of over-the-air stations since the rules were initially adopted, as well as all sorts of new media competition), while the Democrats worried that moving some long-form educational and informational programming addressed to children off the broadcaster’s primary program streams, and the replacement of some of that programming with short-form programming, would have an adverse impact on children – particularly children in lower-income households with less access to digital alternatives.  The new rules will become effective after their publication in the Federal Register.  Comment dates on the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider whether TV broadcasters can be relieved of some children’s television obligations by supporting the development of educational and informational programming on other TV stations will also be determined after Federal Register publication.

Also adopted at the meeting was a Report and Order setting out new rules allowing TV broadcasters to give notice of their next set of must-carry or retransmission consent notifications electronically rather than by certified mail, as is currently required.  The Order sets out a process where, before the next election deadline in October 2020, broadcasters need to include in their online public files a statement as to whether they have elected must-carry or retransmission consent on MVPDs in their market (and, if the station has elected one carriage option for all systems, the notice can be as simple as “Station WXYZ has elected must-carry on all cable systems in the Anytown DMA”).  If the station decides to change that election for any MVPD, they notify the MVPD of the change by email.  MVPDs must register a contact person for the receipt of such notices in their public files and in the FCC’s COALS database, so that broadcasters know who to contact if they are planning to change their election.  The broadcaster emails its notice of a changed election to the cable system (with a copy to a new FCC email address) and puts a copy of the election in its online public file.  The cable system is supposed to electronically acknowledge the receipt of the notice (if it does not, the broadcaster is supposed to call the COALS-registered person at the registered phone number to make sure that the notice has been received – but if there is no response, the FCC and public file notices will suffice.  Of course, not having this information in a TV station’s public file would be a violation of the public file rules.
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July is an important month for regulatory filings – even though it is one of those months with no FCC submissions tied to any license renewal dates. Instead, quarterly obligations arise this month, the most important of which will have an impact in the ongoing license renewal cycle that began in June (see last month’s update on regulatory dates, here).  Even though there are no renewal filing deadlines this month, radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and DC must continue their on-air post-filing announcements on the 1st and 16th of the month.  On these same days, pre-filing announcements must be run by radio stations in North and South Carolina, who file their renewals by August 1.  Stations in Florida and Puerto Rico, who file on October 1, should be prepared to start their pre-filing announcements on August 1.  See our article here on pre-filing announcements.

Perhaps the most important date this month is July 10, when all full power AM, FM, Class A TV and full power TV stations must place their quarterly issues/programs lists in their online public inspection files.  The issues/programs list should include details of important issues affecting a station’s community, and the station’s programming aired during April, May, and June that addressed those issues.  The list should include the time, date, duration and title of each program, along with a brief description of each program and how that program relates to a relevant community issue.  We have written many times about the importance of these lists and the fact that the FCC will likely be reviewing online public files for their existence and completeness during the license renewal cycle – and imposing fines on stations that do not have a complete set of these lists for the entire license renewal period (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here).  So be sure to get these important documents – the only official documents that the FCC requires to show how a station has met its overall obligation to serve the public interest – into your online public file by July 10. 
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We typically publish our article about upcoming regulatory dates before the beginning of each month, but this month, the looming FCC shutdown and determining its effect on filing deadlines pushed back our schedule. As we wrote on Friday, the effect of the shutdown is now becoming clear – and it has the potential to put on hold a number of the FCC deadlines, including the filing of Quarterly Children’s Television Reports due on January 10 and the uploading of Quarterly Issues Programs lists, due to be added to station’s public inspection files on January 10. The FCC-hosted public inspection file database is offline, so those Quarterly Issues Programs lists can’t be uploaded unless the budget impasse is resolved this week. Certifications as to the compliance of TV stations with the commercial limits in children’s television programs would also be added to the public file by January 10 – if it is available for use by then. While these and other dates mentioned below may be put on hold, there are deadlines that broadcasters need to pay attention to that are unaffected by the Washington budget debate.

We note that the FCC’s CDBS and LMS databases are up and operating, though most filings will be considered to be submitted the day that the FCC reopens. As the databases are up and operating, many applications can be electronically filed – so TV stations might as well timely upload their Children’s Television Reports on schedule by January 10, to avoid any slow uploading that may result from overloading of the FCC’s system as the FCC reopens. Other FCC deadlines are unaffected by the shutdown – most notably, as we wrote on Friday, those that related to the repacking of the TV band following the TV incentive auction. The FCC has money to keep its auction activities operating so staff are working to keep the repacking on track. Deadlines coming up for the repacking include a January 10th deadline for stations affected by the repacking to file their Form 387 Transition Progress Report. Auction deadlines proceed whether or not the FCC is otherwise open for business.
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While January starts off with some regulatory deadlines that apply to all broadcasters – Quarterly Issues Programs lists must be placed in a station’s public file by the 10th of January – there are many other dates that come due this month, dates to which broadcasters need to pay careful attention. For TV stations, they need to file at the FCC by January 11 (as the 10th is a Sunday) Children’s Television Reports, listing all of the programming that they broadcast in the previous quarter addressing the educational and informational needs of children. Records showing a TV station’s compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television should also be placed in the station’s public file.  As we have written, missing Quarterly Issues Programs lists (see our articles here and here) and Children’s Television Reports (and even late Children’s Television Reports) provided the basis for most of the fines during the last renewal cycle (see, for instance, our article here) – even for missing reports from early in the renewal cycle and, for the Children’s Reports, even where the reports were filed (repeatedly) only a few days late. So it is important to meet the obligations imposed by these regular filing deadlines.

Starting on the first day of this new year, there are a host of other obligations and deadlines that arise. On January 1, TV stations need to be captioning clips of video programming that they make available on their websites or in their mobile apps, if those clips came from programming that was captioned when shown on TV. For more on that obligation, see our article on the new online captioning requirements here.
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October is one of those months where the regulatory stars align, when not only do broadcasters in many states have EEO Public File report obligations, but also Quarterly Issues Programs Lists need to be placed in the public files of all commercial and noncommercial stations, and Quarterly Children’s Television Reports need to be filed at the FCC and placed in the public files of television stations.  On top of these routine obligations, there are a number of actions likely to be taken by the FCC that may affect many segments of the broadcast industry.  So let’s look at some of the specifics.

First, by October 1, EEO public file reports should be placed in the public file of stations with 5 or more full-time employees, if those stations are located in the following states and territories: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.  In addition to those obligations, radio stations that are part of employment units with 11 or more full-time employees and are located in the states of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands must prepare and file with the FCC EEO Mid-Term Reports on FCC Form 397, submitting specifics of their employment practices in the last two years (through the submission of their Public File reports) as well as some additional information.  The Mid-Term report for those stations are due by October 1.  More information about these EEO obligations can be found in our article here.
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April is one of those months with many routine FCC obligations. Quarterly Issues Programs lists need to be in your public file by the 10th of the month. This is an obligation for all full-power broadcast stations – commercial or noncommercial. Similarly, all TV stations have an obligation to submit their Children’s Television Reports on FCC Form 398 demonstrating compliance with the obligations to provide educational and informational programming directed to children, and at the same time put into their public files documents showing their compliance with the limitations on commercials within programming directed to children.

EEO public file reports are due for stations that are part of an employment unit with 5 or more full-time (30 or more hours per week) employees which is located in any of the following states: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. Noncommercial TV stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee; and noncommercial radio stations in Texas, need to file their Biennial Ownership Reports with the FCC on April 1. Finally, license renewal applications in the last license renewal window for this license renewal cycle are due to be filed on April 1 by TV stations (and TV translators and LPTV stations) in Delaware and Pennsylvania. The next regularly scheduled license renewal will be filed by radio stations in certain states – but not until June 2019!
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Fines of $20,000 for violations of the obligations to prepare and file Children’s Television Reports have been flowing out from the FCC as it works its way through license renewal applications filed by television stations over the last year. We wrote about a number of these fines here, when the first wave of fines was issued by the FCC, mostly dealing with Class A TV stations. In the last two weeks, the fines have continued, with a few targeting full power television stations, and many others hitting Class A stations. In several cases, the fines reached $20,000, and included fines not only for the failure to file the reports with the FCC on a timely basis, but also the late placement of the reports into the station’s public file, and the failure to report the deficiencies in compliance on the license renewal forms. There were new cases involving Class A television stations and, as with the last batch of these cases, the Commission made clear that the licensees could give up their Class A status to avoid the proposed fines – not mentioning that, if they did so, they would also be giving up their status as primary station licensees, meaning that they would be secondary to any new full power TV construction (for a new station or a modification of an existing station) and would also lose any protection that they otherwise would have in the repacking of the television band in the upcoming incentive auctions that will sell part of the current TV spectrum to wireless users for wireless broadband uses.

The cases decided in the last two weeks include a $20,000 proposed fine to a full-power station in Louisiana that did not timely file 18 Form 398 Reports during the license term ($17,000 for the late filings and $3000 for not reporting the late filings in the renewal application). In another case involving a proposed $20,000 fine, a Georgia Class A station had failed to timely file 20 Form 398 Reports, and also did not complete 15 Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and place those reports in its public file on a timely basis. With the online public file, compliance with the Quarterly Issues Programs list requirement can be monitored by the FCC, even though such reports are not filed at the FCC. A third $20,000 fine was given to a Class A station that was late with 25 children’s television reports, and failed to identify the failures on the renewal, even though the FCC had inquired about the status of 7 of those reports before the renewal was submitted, and the licensee had admitted its failures to comply with the rules. $10,000 of the fine was attributed to the late-filed public file documents, $7000 to the late-filing of the Form 398s, and $3000 to the failure to admit the violations in the license renewal. 


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In at least 7 decisions released last week, the FCC fined TV stations between $3000 and $18,000 for failure to timely file Form 398 Children’s Television Reports – reporting on the programming broadcast by the stations to address the educational and informational needs of children. In these cases, the fines were not for failing to file the reports at all, but instead for the failure to timely file the reports. All but one of the cases involved Class A television stations, which, as we’ve written before, are being subject to very strict scrutiny as the FCC looks to find some willing to give up their protected status before the upcoming incentive auctions (Class A stations being protected from being bumped off the air by new users – but subject to all the rules applicable to full power stations). In each of the cases involving Class A stations, the FCC has offered to forget the fines for noncompliance, if the station gives up its Class A status and becomes an LPTV station, which has no protections.  If the station gives up its protected status, it will have no rights to receive compensation if it gives up its channel in the incentive auction, or if it is forced to change channels in the repacking of TV channels after that auction. 

These cases all stem from the FCC review of the license renewal of the station. With the obligation to file a Form 398 only two weeks away – the quarterly report being due on July 10 – TV stations, especially stations that have not yet filed their renewals, need to pay attention now to make sure that they don’t miss the upcoming deadline.  With public files now online, the FCC late-filing becomes more visible, and with the television renewal cycle in full swing, many TV stations are either now or soon to be under the scrutiny of the FCC. So meeting these obligations becomes important – as the failures can be costly. And, as set forth below, any time that there are multiple late filings – late by more than 10 days (which the FCC note that it might excuse as de minimis) – a fine is likely.


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