FCC business marches on in this time of social distancing and mandatory lockdowns, though with modifications caused by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  The FCC released a Public Notice yesterday announcing that its monthly open meeting scheduled for March 31 will be held by teleconference rather than live in the FCC meeting room.  It can be viewed on the FCC’s website and on its YouTube channel.  Most of the action items will have already been voted on by the Commissioners through the “circulation” process.  This means that the votes will be taken on the written orders without any formal presentations by FCC staff members explaining the actions, and without orally-delivered statements by any of the Commissioners – though the Commissioners can certainly make their feelings known in written statements on the items on which they will have voted.  The meeting itself is likely to consist of Commission announcements and statements by the Commissioners on the current state of affairs.

Issues that were to be considered at the meeting of interest to broadcasters include the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Distributed Transmission System technology for TV stations – making it easier for TV stations to fill in their market coverage with multiple transmitters spread throughout the market, rather than a single big transmitter in the center of the market – a technology made easier as stations transition to the new ATSC 3.0 transmission system (see the draft NPRM here).  FCC Notices of Proposed Rulemaking on significantly viewed TV stations (draft NPRM here) and cable carriage disputes (draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here) are also on the agenda.
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The FCC yesterday issued Notices of Apparent Liability to two pirate radio operators that totaled over $600,000, the largest fines ever issued for those operating radio stations without an FCC-issued license.  Both operated in the Boston area.  One was fined $151,005 for operating one station (press release here, the full Notice of Apparent Liability is available here). The second was fined $453,015 for operating three transmitters in the area (press release here, the full NAL is available here).  The FCC noted that these were the maximum fines that they could impose for these violations under current law, and that the fines were the result of several years of investigations and warnings to the operators.

Commissioner O’Rielly, in a separate statement, noted that he wished that the FCC had the authority to impose even higher fines and to proceed more quickly against these operators than allowed under current FCC procedures.  The Commissioner noted that he would be working with Congress to try to get legislation passed to speed the process and raise the penalties against pirate operators. We wrote about one of those legislative proposals here that would impose fines of $100,000 a day up to $2 million against these pirates and speed the process necessary to impose these fines.  The legislation would also allow fines directly against landowners and others enabling the operations of these stations.
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Last week, Commissioner O’Rielly published an article on the FCC blog, suggesting that one of the next steps in the FCC’s Modernization of Media Regulation initiative should be the review of the FCC rules setting obligations for television stations to air educational and informational programming directed to children.  Stations are required to air an average of 3 hours of educational and informational programming per programming stream, and there are a host of related obligations generally requiring that the programming be run at regular times and be at least 30 minutes in length.  The rules also limit the ability to count repeats of such programs and requires that this programming be advertised in local programming guides.  We have written about fines or warnings that the FCC has issued in many cases, including questioning whether programming classified as educational and informational really should have been classified in that manner, for failing to have an onscreen “E/I bug” labeling, for counting one-time programs to meet the requirement for 3 hours of regularly scheduled programs, the programming as educational, and for failing to publish information about these programs in local program guides.

The Commissioner raised the question of whether the obligation, adopted in the 1990mos (see the FCC order here) really continues to make sense in today’s media marketplace.  So much has changed in the last 23 years, including the explosion of different sources of educational programming for children – including cable, Internet and other sources.  No longer are TV stations the only sources of video programming – and, in a world where even Big Bird has moved to a cable platform, there is a real question as to whether over-the-air television stations are even the best platforms for the delivery of such programs.  With so many competing sources of children’s programming, the Commissioner asked whether there is really a need for each station to do 3 hours of such programming on each of its channels.  Certainly, there have been questions of whether quality programming can be produced to meet the obligations for each channel and subchannel, when the new program sources are splintering the potential audience for any such programs.  The Commissioner also suggests that the current rules limit creativity in programming – forcing broadcasters to spend money on 30-minute on-air programs and not on other potential ways of meeting the needs of children, e.g. through short-form programs or online information.
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Last year, we wrote about legislation adopted by Congress telling the FAA to adopt rules to require the lighting of towers less than 200 feet tall located in rural areas.  That legislation was designed to protect aircraft used for agricultural purposes like crop-dusting from collisions with such towers.  The law surprised most of the

The FCC yesterday issued a Public Notice of the filing of a Petition for Rulemaking asking the FCC to declare that a broadcaster, by using its own airwaves and online sources to publicize job openings at its station, satisfies the requirement that a broadcaster widely disseminate information about job openings to members of all groups within its likely recruiting area. In 2002, when the FCC adopted its current EEO rules, it determined that online recruiting would not widely disseminate information about job openings in the way that a local newspaper would given the digital divide that the FCC thought existed at that time. But, the FCC said that it would later revisit that decision as circumstances change. The petition suggests that circumstances have indeed changed in the 14 years since the rules were adopted, that online recruiting is how people now find and apply for new jobs, and that it is time that the FCC recognize that fact and allow online recruiting to satisfy the obligation that a broadcaster give its community notice of job openings. Comments are due January 30, and replies on February 14.

The FCC has up to this point actively enforced its prohibition on station’s relying solely on its own airwaves and online sources for recruiting purposes, fining stations who meet their wide dissemination obligations solely by relying on such sources (see our articles about such cases here and here). But some at the FCC itself have recognized that this position no longer makes sense – including Commissioner O’Rielly who, in a blog post we wrote about here, suggested that broadcast recruiting in today’s world is appropriately done online, and that the FCC’s rules should reflect that fact. As set out in the Petition, Julius Genachowski, then-chairman of the FCC, recognized in a speech that: “In today’s world, you need broadband to find a job and apply for a job, because companies increasingly require online applications.” The petition notes that the FCC has recognized that the Internet is fine for public files and contest rules, so shouldn’t it also be found to be sufficient to get out the word about job openings?
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An FCC decision fining a cable company $11,000 for not adequately recruiting for job openings should be viewed as a warning to broadcasters as well as well as MVPDs – failure to recruit for job openings by disseminating information about those opening through diverse sources will likely result in a substantial fine under the current rules being enforced by the Commission’s Media Bureau. As the Commission has held before (see our article here), simply recruiting through online sources will not be enough to avoid the imposition of a fine. In this case, the FCC specifically points out that approximately 30% of the cable system’s service area did not have Internet access, so people in that group were likely not exposed to information about the station’s job openings. As the Commission requires that job openings be publicized so as to reach all groups within a system’s (or a broadcast station’s) recruitment area (which is related to its core service area), the decision found that the failure to recruit so as to reach this significant portion of the local population, together with the failure to complete one year’s EEO public inspection file report, merited a fine of $11,000.

One of the interesting aspects of this decision is the emphasis that the Media Bureau continues to put on the distinction between online recruiting and other more traditional means of reaching out to potential job applicants (e.g. using employment agencies, sending notices to community groups, using college job offices, etc.). Even though Commissioner O’Rielly has suggested that the Commission allow recruiting to be done solely using online sources (see our article here), as that is much more in tune with the way that job seekers today look for potential employment opportunities, the Commission continues to insist on station’s using these more traditional outreach efforts regardless of their success rate. In fact, the FCC has never revisited its 2003 EEO order that presumes that the local newspaper is a source that can reach most groups within a community, when it no doubt can be proven that, in today’s world, the circulation of online job sites is significantly greater than that of almost any newspaper. Commissioner O’Rielly notes that the FCC itself has recognized the reach of the Internet through actions such as the requirements that broadcast and MVPD public files be moved online, and that disclosures about contest rules can be made online. Yet, in the EEO world, online recruitment, unless tied with the use of other more traditional outside sources, will bring a fine. Certainly, it is an issue that the FCC needs to revisit – and one that perhaps will be revisited in appeals of decisions like this one, or in response to the calls of Commissioner O’Rielly and others.
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Yesterday, the FCC announced its agenda for its May open meeting to be held on May 25. Among the items on the agenda is a proposal to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to abolish the obligation that broadcasters maintain in their public files copies of letters and emails from the general public about station operations. These letters are the last vestige of the physical public file for TV broadcasters who several years ago migrated the rest of their public file to an online system maintained by the FCC (see our summary of the TV online public file obligations here). The letters from the public were deemed too sensitive to put online, as they could reveal private information about the writers of those letters. Thus TV stations must still maintain a paper file at their main studio. Radio broadcasters too will soon be moving their public files online. In the order adopting the requirement for an online public file for radio (see our summary here), the FCC proposed that the same paper system for letters from the public be maintained. However, it did note that there were calls to abandon entirely the requirement to maintain these letters in a separate file, and promised to initiate this rulemaking to look at that issue.

Commissioner O’Rielly has been a major proponent of that change, tying the issue to one of the security of broadcast stations and personnel. In his concurring statement to the Online Public File order, he noted that the abolition of the requirement that broadcasters maintain these letters from the public would eliminate the need for many broadcasters to open their stations to all comers who enter on the pretext of inspecting the public file. In a blog post, he noted the need for security at broadcast stations. The recent events at Sinclair’s Baltimore TV station, where an individual with emotional or mental issues triggered a police shoot-out at the station, and last year’s tragedy involving the Roanoke TV crew, highlighted the very real threats to safety that broadcasters face every day. Minimizing these threats by removing one pretext for people to enter broadcast studios unchallenged is an important consideration in these deliberations.
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Pirate radio is still a problem. While pirate radio was much in the news a decade ago, and was even glamorized in movies, the popular perception may be that it has disappeared. In fact, particularly in major urban areas, it is still a major issue – causing interference to licensed broadcast stations and even, at times, to non-broadcast communications facilities. The FCC yesterday upheld a previously issued $15,000 fine to an operator of an illegal station in Florida, rejecting arguments that the community service provided on the station should mitigate the fine. The FCC, from time to time, releases this sort of fine, yet these stations keep popping up. A number of Commissioners have recognized the gravity of the issue, and that recognition caused the FCC to last month issue an Enforcement Advisory, warning operators that unauthorized broadcasting is illegal, suggesting that the public turn in those who operate pirate stations, and warning those who support pirate radio (e.g. landlords and advertisers) that their support could “expose them to FCC enforcement or other legal actions.” What is the reality of this actually happening?

A few states, including New Jersey and Florida, have passed criminal statutes making pirate radio illegal, but such enforcement, in the few cases that I have dealt with in those states, has tended to be a low enforcement priority for state authorities. Most defer to the FCC, given their perceived expertise in this area. Thus, there has been a recognition that the FCC needs to do more to combat pirate radio, particularly in urban centers like New York where the problem has been particularly acute. I had the privilege of interviewing FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly at the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters convention the week before last. The Commissioner has been an outspoken advocate of more pirate radio enforcement. In addition to early support for public education on the issue, including the issuance of the Enforcement Advisory, the Commissioner suggested that additional Congressional action may be necessary to give the FCC more enforcement tools to really bring pressure to bear on pirate radio operators and those who support them. What tools are needed?
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