This past week, I attended the BIAfn Winning Media Strategies Conference in Washington, DC.  During the course of the conference, there was much talk about how broadcasters and publishers need to provide unique service to their communities in order to survive in the competitive media marketplace.  The point was made over and over again that, in each market there are unique attributes and personalities that a station should be covering in its programming, and should be exploiting even more broadly through their digital assets, to tie it to its community.  Only by doing so will the station be able to survive in the new media environment – and by doing so, the station may be able to thrive.  In fact, I was stuck by a statement by USC’s Adam Clayton Powell III that domination of the local online and digital media marketplace was "the broadcasters to lose."  In other words, the broadcaster has such unque promotional abilities with its current audience that it can establish its brand in the online and in the mobile world far easier than other media players.  But there were also the repeated warning that there is more and more competition for this local digital market from new entrants and other media entities and that, if the broadcasters did not take advantage of their current advantage, the local service would come from someone else.  What most stuck me was that there was no question that the superservice to local needs would be coming from someone – broadcaster or not – as a result of marketplace developments, not because of any government mandate.  The broadcaster has to adapt to and compete in this new media marketplace or become culturally and economically irrelevant.  The broadcaster needs to serve the local market to meet these challenges, not because some Washington agency has ordered him to do so.  And the broadcaster needs to serve his community in a way that the public will find compelling, not in a way that the government thinks is best.

At BIAfn, the presentation that made the greatest impact was probably that of Greenspun Media from Las Vegas, which has reinvented a secondary newspaper and a Low Power TV station as an on-line powerhouse, uncovering the aspects of the community that would draw the largest audience and covering that information in great detail.  The Las Vegas Sun site not only covers hard news, but also the gaming industry, University of Las Vegas sports and even state government issues in a way that its audience seems to find interesting.  Even a history of Las Vegas, in great detail, is included.  And video plays a big part of the site, with the company in development of a hip news and events program, 702.tv, that will soon be a daily program on the television station and online (featuring local "celebrities" doing the weather, including strippers and Neil Diamond sound-alikes).  While some attendees at the conference thought that Las Vegas presented unique opportunities that might not be available in all communities, many were immediately speculating on the opportunities in their own communities to find unique personalities and events that could be developed on-air and on-line in ways to maximize their connection with their audience. 


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In a speech to the Free Press Summit, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps suggested that broadcast license renewals should no longer be a "postcard", but instead should be a real test of the broadcaster’s service to the public interest – and should happen every three years, rather than on the eight year renewal cycle that is currently provided for by the law.  While the Chairman acknowledged that many suggest that the old media are in troubled times and may well be supplanted by new forms of communications, "If old media is going to be with us a while still…we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process."  In other words, while broadcasters may be dying, we should regulate them while we can.

First, it should be pointed out that the broadcast license renewal is no longer a postcard, and really hasn’t been for almost 20 years.  The current renewal forms require certifications on many matters demonstrating a broadcaster’s service to the public and its compliance with the rules, and additional documentation on EEO performance and other matters.  TV broadcasters also have substantial renewal submissions on their compliance with their obligations under the Children’s television rules.  Issues of noncompliance with the rules resulted in many fines in the last renewal cycle, demonstrating that this is not a process where the FCC is without teeth.  Yet most of these fines were for paperwork violations (e.g. not keeping detailed records of EEO outreach or quarterly issues programs lists demonstrating the public interest programming broadcast by a station), not for any substantive claims that station licensees were fundamentally unqualified and should forfeit their licenses.  In fact, the Acting Chairman’s speech recognizes that most broadcasters do a fine job serving their communities, yet he believes that more regulation is necessary to police those that don’t.  But is this the time to be imposing additional regulatory burdens on all of the industry, for the actions of a few.  Will the overall public interest be served by such actions?  .


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The deadline for submitting comments in the Commission’s Localism rule making proceeding is fast approaching.  Comments are due by April 28th, and can be filed electronically through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System.  This proceeding contains a number of significant proposals and could possibly re-institute regulations that were lifted from the broadcast industry decades ago.  Formal ascertainment through community advisory boards and possibly other means, requirements for manning main studios during all hours of operation of broadcast stations, imposing quantitative programming requirements, and requiring that main studios be maintained within a station’s community of license are just a few of the many proposals the FCC is considering.  See our more detailed summary here.  This proceeding seeks input on these and other potentially burdensome requirements, many of which were eliminated by the Commission long ago, and some of which go beyond what the FCC has ever required before.   Given the potential impact this proceeding could have on broadcast stations, broadcasters are encouraged to file comments in this important rule making proceeding.   When submitting comments, commenters should be sure to reference the docket number for this rule making, MB Docket No. 04-233.

Some members of Congress have already chimed in in this proceeding and submitted comments opposing the Commission’s localism proposals.  Over 120 members of Congress signed on to a letter addressed to Chairman Martin urging the Commission to avoid imposing additional regulations on broadcasters and to carefully consider the cost and effect that such regulation would have on the industry.  A copy of the letter is available here.  A summary of the letter posted on Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s web site characterizes the localism proceeding as an attempt to "restore a 1970s era regulatory regime for local broadcasters." 


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At its December meeting, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Localism.  At that meeting, while the Commissioners discussed the generalities of the proposals being made, the specifics of the proposals were unknown.  The full text of the NPRM has now been released, and it sets out the areas in which the Commission proposes to re-regulate broadcast stations.  The order also hints at a number of other proceedings that the Commission intends to launch in the near future, and reminds broadcasters of a number of other existing proceedings that will potentially bring about greater regulation.  From the discussion in the NPRM, new rules will apply to all broadcasters – large and small – and potentially place significant burdens on all stations which, as always, are hardest for small stations to deal with.  Given the number of new regulatory initiatives discussed by the Commission, the NPRM is a must-read for all broadcasters, and this proceeding is one in which all broadcasters should participate.

Among the specific proposals on which the Commission asks for comments include the following:

Community Advisory Boards:  The Commission tentatively concludes that all stations will be required to establish a community advisory board to advise the station on the issues of importance to the community that can be addressed in the station’s programming.  The Commission indicated that it did not want to bring back the burden of the ascertainment process that was abolished in the 1980s, but asks how the Board should be established so as to represent the entire community, suggesting that the categories of community leaders that were used in the ascertainment process could be used as a standard to guide the licensee in determining the make-up of the board.  Other questions include how often the board should meet, and how the board members should be selected (or elected – though by whom, the Commission does not suggest).

Other Community Outreach Efforts.  The Commission also suggests that other community outreach efforts should be considered as possible mandates for broadcasters.  These would include the following:

  • Listener surveys by telephone or other electronic means (general public surveys were also part of the ascertainment process abolished in the 1980s, so if this were adopted together with the Community Advisory Board, ascertainment would effectively be back)
  • Focus sessions or town hall meetings
  • Participation of management personnel on community boards, committees, councils and commissions (mandatory civic participation?)
  • Specific phone numbers or email addresses, publicized during programming, for the public to register their comments on station operations.

Remote Station Operations.  Comments are sought as to whether television stations should be forbidden to operate without being manned during all hours of operation.  Radio operations will be addressed in the proceeding to consider the public interest issues posed in the Digital Radio Proceeding (see our summary here).

Quantitative Programming Guidelines.  The Commission proposes to adopt quantitative standards for programming that a station would have to meet to avoid extra processing and scrutiny at license renewal time.  Questions include what categories of standards should be established (just local programs – or more specific requirements to set required amounts of news, public affairs and other categories – and how to define what programming would qualify in each category), should requirements be established as specific numbers of minutes or hours per day or per week or by a percentage of programming or through some other metric, should other specific requirements or measurements be established?

Main Studios.  The commission suggests reverting to the pre-1987 requirement that each station maintain a main studio in its community of license

Network Programming Review.  The Commission asks whether rules should be adopted to require that local network affiliates have some ability to review all network programming before it is aired.  If so, what programs would be exempt from the requirement (e.g. live programs), how much prior review is necessary, would such a right disrupt network operations?

Voice Tracking.  The Commission asks if "voice-tracking," (i.e. a radio announcer who provides announcing on a radio station from outside a local market, sometimes including local inserts to make it sound as if the announcer is local) should be limited or prohibited, or if disclosure should be required.

Local Music.  While the Commission indicates that it did not think that a ban on national playlists was required, it did ask whether broadcasters should be required to report the songs that they play, and how they choose their music.  With that information, the Commission asks if it should consider the amount of local music played when assessing whether a station has served the needs of its community at license renewal time.

Class A TV.  The Commission asks whether it should adopt rules that permit more LPTV stations to achieve Class A status, meaning that they would no longer be secondary stations subject to being forced off the air by interfering uses of the TV spectrum by full-power TV stations.

 


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Twice this week, the FCC released decisions denying applications proposing city of license changes for AM stations proposing to take away the only station licensed to one community and move it to another.  In its order adopting simplified city of license changes (see our previous posts including those here and here), the FCC refused to change its policy of not allowing the removal of an established radio station which is the only station licensed to a community except in cases where an extraordinary showing justifying a  waiver of the rules could be made.  The two cases decided this week show that merely moving to a community with greater population (even one which has no other station licensed to it) will not, in and of itself, justify a waiver of the rules.  Thus, stations which are the only station licensed to their communities are effectively blocked from changing cities of license without  providing a "back-fill", i.e. moving another station so that it can be licensed to the community that would otherwise be abandoned.

In one case decided this week, the broadcaster proposed to move its AM station to a community that had three times the population of the one that it was proposing to leave.  The Commission rejected the move, finding that the residents of the current community should be able to rely on continued service from that station.  This was true even though other stations could be received in the community, as the Commission reminded licensees that their primary responsibility is to serve the needs of their city of license, and that this primary service cannot be duplicated by the secondary service provided by a station licensed to another town or city. 


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The FCC released an order today, fining a broadcaster $20,000 for misrepresentations made in its license renewal application about the completeness of its public inspection file.  The fine issued in this case was not a fine for the fact that the file was incomplete (two stations in the cluster had each already been fined $4000 for the actual public file violations), but instead the fine was issued because the licensee had certified in its renewal application that the public file had been complete and accurate at all points during the course of the license term.  This case highlights both the need to keep an accurate public inspection file, and the need to carefully consider all certifications made in FCC applications.  Incorrect certifications can lead to fines and potentially even more severe sanctions if the FCC finds an intentional misrepresentation or lack of candor – the potential loss of a license.  Admitting a minor paperwork transgression like an incomplete public file will result in a fine – an inaccurate certification which appears to try to hide a problem can lead to far more severe consequences. 

In this case, the FCC found that the licensee had not maintained Quarterly Issues Programs lists.  The licensee claimed that its obligations had been met through a listing of public service announcements that the stations had put in their files.  The FCC rejected that argument, citing the requirement in its rules requiring that Quarterly Issues Programs lists contain "a narrative description of what issues were given substantial treatment" by the licensee as well as the programs that treated each issue.  In addition, the time and date of broadcast of each program, as well as its title and duration, is to be provided.  A simple list of PSAs does not meet these requirements – as it does not list the issues addressed, much less provide the detailed program information required by the rule.  For a summary of the Quarterly Issues Programs list obligations, and a model form to be used to meet the obligations, see our most recent memo on the subject, here.   Remember, the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists are a broadcast station’s only official record of how they have served the public interest needs of its community, so be sure that adequate attention is paid to the completion of these forms.


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The FCC, after taking two years off, is looking to finish their field hearings on Localism by scheduling a hearing in Portland, Maine on June 29.  This hearing is not one of the six hearings to discuss possible new multiple ownership rules, but instead a continuation of the hearings started by Chairman Powell after public controversy over the 2003 multiple ownership rules.  In an ironic twist of fate, this public notice was released on the Friday before the National Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation hosts their Service to America Awards Dinner to honor broadcasters and the public service commitment that they have to their communities.  Thus, while the FCC is looking in the hinterlands for evidence of the responsiveness of the broadcast industry to the needs of their listeners, some of the best evidence of that service was on display some 12 blocks from the FCC’s headquarters.

The Localism hearings were part of a larger proceeding begun in response to the controversy after the 2003 multiple ownership rules.  When the Democratic Commissioners, Congressional legislators from both parties, and a variety of citizen’s groups from across the political spectrum complained about how the public’s input was not sought before the rules were adopted, the FCC tried to respond to some of those complaints by putting out a Notice of Inquiry on Localism.  The proceeding was to assess how well broadcasters were serving their communities, and the Notice asked for public comment on a grab bag of issues including the following:

  • whether a broadcaster’s public interest obligations should be quantified (bringing back obligations abolished in the 1980s that required specific amounts of the programming of broadcast stations to be devoted to news and public affairs programming), 
  • should broadcasters be required to play specific amounts of local music,
  • is payola a major issue,
  • whether more programming should be devoted to political campaigns
  • whether the voices of minorities were being heard on the airwaves.
  • if the FCC should authorize more LPFM stations and take other steps to make airtime available to new entrants


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