commercial limits in childrens television

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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July brings the obligation for each full-power broadcaster to add a new Quarterly Issues Programs List to their online public inspection file. These reports, summarizing the issues facing each station’s community of license in the prior three months and the programs broadcast by the station to address those issues, must be added to the public file by July 10. As we wrote here, these reports are very important – as they are the only documents legally required by the FCC to show how a station served the public interest. With the online file, these reports can be reviewed by anyone with an Internet connection at any time, which could be particularly concerning for any station that does not meet the filing deadline, especially with license renewals beginning again next year.

Also to be filed with the FCC by July 10, by full-power and Class A TV stations, are Quarterly Children’s Television Reports. While the FCC announced last week that it will be considering a rulemaking proposal at its July meeting to potentially change the rules (see its proposed Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here), for now the requirements remain in place obligating each station to broadcast 3 weekly hours of programming designed to meet the educational and informational needs of children for each free program stream transmitted by the station. Also, certifications need to be included in each station’s online public file demonstrating that the station has complied with the rules limiting the amount of commercialization during children’s television programs.
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With the obligation of television stations to file the quarterly Children’s Television Reports on FCC Form 398 by Monday (as the usual January 10 date is on a weekend) and the simultaneous requirement to place into their online public file documentation of compliance with the commercial limits in Children’s programming, it is worth reminding stations of the seriousness with which the FCC continues to view its children’s television rules.  There have been a number of fines and enforcement actions against TV stations in recent weeks, highlighting the need for stations to be vigilant about compliance with all aspects of the children’s television rules.  While the license renewal cycle, during which most of these issues come to light, is coming to an end in 2015 and stations that have already been renewed won’t face renewal scrutiny for at least another 5 years, issues that arise even this far out from the renewal window can haunt the station at the next renewal.  Moreover, with the public inspection files of stations now online, the FCC or other interested parties can view station’s compliance with these obligations at anytime from anywhere, and can easily file FCC complaints.  So TV stations cannot let down their guard simply because their license renewal has been granted.

In the past week, we saw one interesting case, where the FCC proposed to fine a station $3000 for failing to include the “E/I” symbol in the educational and informational programming directed to children on two of its multicast channels.  The FCC rejected arguments by the licensee that the programming on those channels was in Korean, and thus the E/I symbol would not make sense to the Korean viewers of the programing.  The Commission reasoned that, if the station wanted an exemption to the rules, where it could identify the programming as educational and informational in Korean text, the station should have asked for a waiver of the rules. 
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On Friday, the FCC released seven Notices of Apparent Liability for violations of children’s programming rules, proposing forfeitures (i.e. fines) of $25,000 to $70,000 per station.  Most of the violations cited were overages of the commercial limits, which restrict stations to broadcasting 10.5 minutes per hour of commercial material during childrens programming on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.  Many of these overages were for durations of 15 seconds each.  In one case, the FCC found a Pokemon program to be a program length commercial (discussed below) where a Pokemon game card with the letters "MON" was displayed for one second in a Nintendo GameBoy commercial during the show.  In addition to overages of the commercial limits, other cited violations included failing to provide program guide publishers with information regarding the target child audience of core programsfailing to update the public file regarding compliance; and failing to publicize the existence and location of the station’s children’s television programming reports, in addition to the program length commercial issue described above. 

The largest fine, for $70,000, was issued in a case where most of the violations were for "program length commercials", in which a commercial for a memorabilia website shown during a "Yu-Gi-Oh" television program contained a "very brief" reference to Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards.  A program length commercial occurs when an advertisement contains a mention of a character or product that is associated with the program in which the ad appears.  In these situations, the Commission fears that children will not be able to perceive the difference between the programming and the commercial, and thus treats the entire program as a commercial.  In so doing, the station is considered to have exceeded the commercial limits by the entire length of the program less the number of commercial minutes allowed.  This is done even if the commercial image of the character or other program-related material is fleeting.  We’ve written about the difference in treatment between a commercial overage and program length commercial before, and this case makes clear just how seriously the Commission considers the latter and how costly this can be to the offending station.


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