Last week, the FCC fined yet another broadcaster for violations of its contest rules, issuing a fine of $4,000 to a station that had not disclosed to its listeners all of the material terms of a contest that it conducted on the air. In this case, the station promised a give-away of three cars, but
In three recent cases, the FCC revisited the issue of broadcast contest rules – fining stations for not following the rules that they set out for on-air contests, and reiterating that the full rules of any contest need to be aired on the station (see our previous post on this issue here). The most recent case also made clear that a broadcast station’s contests that may be primarily conducted on its web site are still subject to the FCC’s rules if any mention of the contest is made on the broadcast station. Thus, even though the contest itself may be conducted on the website, with entries being made there and prizes being first announced on the site, if the station uses its broadcast signal to direct people to the site to participate in the contest or otherwise promote it, the broadcaster must announce all of the rules on the air.
In one case, a listener called a station with what she believed to be the correct answer to a question that needed to be answered to win a prize. The listener gave the answer, only to be asked a second unexpected question that she did not answer correctly. The next day, she heard another listener call in, answer the original question in the same way that she did – and win the prize without ever even being asked the second question. When the first listener complained, station employees agreed that the second question was not part of the rules, but did nothing to correct their mistake until after the listener filed her complaint with the FCC. The Commission fined the station $4000 for failing to follow the contest rules and for failing to fully publicize all of the material terms of the contest on the air.
Failing to meet the obligations set out under the law for required sponsorship identification on Federal political ads could, theoretically, cost candidates significant amounts of money – if stations decide to hold the candidates to the letter of the law. Under the terms of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Federal candidates airing television commercials that refer to a competing candidate must specifically state, in the candidate’s own voice, that he or she has approved the ad, while a full-screen image of the candidate appears on the screen. In addition, the name of the sponsoring candidate’s campaign committee must appear in text on the screen for at least 4 seconds at 4 percent of screen height, with sufficient color contrast to make the text readable. If the proper identification is not contained in an ad, the candidates forfeit their right to lowest unit rates for the entire pre-election period (45 days before a primary or 60 days before an election), even with respect to future ads that comply with the rules. In recent days, representatives of Democratic Congressional candidates have reportedly filed complaints that argue that Republican competitors have not complied with the rules in several cases, as their written disclosures did not air for the full four seconds. The challengers argue that television stations must take away LUR for these candidates. While the statute say that the candidates forfeit their rights to such rates, the law is unclear as to whether stations are obligated to deny that rate to candidates after the right has been forfeited – and these cases could resolve this issue.
Television stations undeniably have the power to charge full rates to candidates whose ads have not complied with the requirements of the campaign statute. However, many stations have been reluctant to do so for minor infractions such as the ones identified in this complaint. Why wouldn’t television stations want to charge more money? For several reasons. First, denying one candidate lowest unit rates will no doubt trigger a fly-specking of every commercial by the competitor who filed the complaint against the first candidate, to try to trigger a forfeiture of the second candidate’s right to Lowest Unit Rates, and adjudicating such complaints will no doubt make the station’s political sales process much more difficult and costly to administer. In addition, there is the question of whether, for a minor violation, a station really wants to give the other candidate a political advantage – especially if the candidate who gets charged more more wins the election and gets to vote on laws that may effect business in the future. But can stations legally continue to charge the lowest unit rate even when a candidate has not complied with the legal requirements for sponsorship identification?
Broadcasting and Cable magazine today reported that the FCC is looking to back off some of the requirements for the "enhanced disclosure" of television broadcaster’s public interest programming (see our summary of the new requirements of FCC Form 355, here). B&C reports that the FCC may lessen or at least better explain…
Last week, the Office of Management and Budget determined that the FCC’s new rules on Leased Access to cable channels (see our bulletin describing those rules) violated the Paperwork Reduction Act. This means that the new rules, which would have significantly lowered the cost for parties who wanted to lease cable channels to provide their own programming, will be sent back to the FCC for further consideration. These rules are also on appeal to the Courts, which had stayed the effectiveness of the rules while the appeal is being considered, which is usually a good indication that the Court had issues with the rules as well. The OMB action has the effect of returning the rules back to the FCC to be considered anew in light of the OMB findings. Our firm has prepared a memo detailing the decision, here. Given the OMB decision that these rules imposed too great a burden on cable systems, one wonders if this decision portends a similar result when the OMB reviews the FCC’s rules on Enhanced Disclosure and an on-line public inspection file – rules that would impose a significant burden on television broadcasters (about which we wrote here).
The OMB decision on the leased access rules highlighted some of the perceived shortcomings of the FCC decision, including that the FCC had not shown that they had taken steps to minimize the burden on companies who would have to hire staff to comply with the new rules, and they had not provided reasons why reduced timeframes for responses to requests for leased access were necessary. Looking at these standards, one would have to think that much of the same reasoning would apply to the FCC’s Enhanced Disclosure requirements for TV stations as set out in the new Form 355. The completion of the Form would clearly require the hiring of new staff. We’ve also questioned whether the Commission has given any justification for the increased paperwork requirements, as the information itself has no regulatory purpose as the FCC has not adopted any quantitative standards for public interest programming. With no purpose and increased costs, how could the OMB treat the enhanced disclosure requirements differently than it did the leased access requirements?
In recent months, the broadcast industry has experienced one of the most active periods of regulatory activity in recent memory. Since November, the FCC has adopted enhanced disclosure obligations concerning the public interest programming of television broadcasters and requirements for an on-line public inspection file; rejected most calls for increased deregulation of broadcast ownership (allowing only the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in the largest markets); established specific prohibitions against advertising practices that involved “no Spanish, no urban dictates”; placed mandatory disclosure obligations on television broadcasters in connection with promotion of the DTV transition; proposed rules that could favor low power FM stations over improvements in full-power broadcast services and existing FM translator licensees; and proposed sweeping regulation of broadcasters which could potentially require specific amounts of nonentertainment programming by all stations, restrict the flexibility of broadcasters’ location of their main studios, require 24-7 live staffing for all stations that operate on that basis, and perhaps even evaluate the music selection process of radio operators. Rumored to be in the offing are proposals to regulate embedded advertising, to adopt enhanced rules on sponsorship identification in connection with video news releases and payola-like practices, and perhaps even expand EEO reporting requirements (as the FCC recently asked for public comment on the employee-classification information for its long-suspended requirements for the filing of FCC Form 395 – the Annual Employment Report in which stations categorize all their employees by their employment duties, race and gender). And Congress has not been idle, with proposals introduced for the adoption of a performance royalty on over-the-air radio for the use of sound recordings, hearings about potential restrictions on prescription drug advertising, and a proposal to roll back the limited ownership reform adopted by the Commission in December.
With all this activity in a six month period under a Republican administration with a Republican majority on the FCC, during a time of great turmoil in the broadcast industry itself, as television prepares for the digital transition and broadcast revenue growth is slow or nonexistent (based on a variety of factors including general economic conditions and competition from the plethora of new media choices), many broadcasters are wondering what’s going on? And some fear even more changes could come about in any new administration that may come to Washington after the November elections, no matter what the result of that election. The one candidate with the most experience in the regulation of broadcasting, Senator McCain who has chaired the Senate Commerce Committee which regulates the broadcast industry, has by no means been a captive of the broadcast industry – leading efforts to enhance the use of LPFM and at one point pushing a spectrum tax proposal for television broadcasters for the use of the digital spectrum.
The FCC Form 355 requiring "enhanced disclosure" by television stations was a frequent topic of discussion at this week’s NAB Convention in Las Vegas. That form will require that television broadcasters report significant, detailed information about their programming, providing very detailed reports of the percentage of programming that they devote to news, public affairs, election programming, local programming, PSAs, independently produced programs and various other program categories, as well as specifics of each program that fits into these categories (see our detailed description of the requirements here). Obviously, all broadcasters were concerned about how they would deal with the expense and time necessary to complete the forms, and the potential for complaints about the programming that such reports will generate. At legal sessions by the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law and the Federal Communications Bar Association, held in connection with the NAB Convention, it became very clear to me that the obligations imposed by these new rules are obligations adopted for absolutely no reason, as the Commission has not adopted any rules mandating specific amounts of the types of programming reported on the form. In fact, one of the Commissioner’s legal assistants confirmed that, unless and until the FCC adopts such specific programming requirements, the Commission’s staff will not need to spend any time processing these forms. Thus, if the form goes into effect, broadcasters will be forced to keep these records, and expend significant amounts of staff time and station resources necessary to complete the forms, for essentially no purpose.
Of course, public interest advocates will argue that the forms will allow the Commission to assess the station’s operation in the public interest, and will allow the public to complain about failures of stations to serve local needs. But, as in a recent license renewal case we wrote about here, the Commission rejected a Petition to Deny against a station based on its alleged failure to do much local public affairs programming as, without specific quantitative program requirements, the Commission cannot punish a station for not doing specific amounts of particular programming. If the Commission adheres to this precedent, it will not be able to fine stations for the information that they put on the Form 355, but only for not filing it or not completing it accurately. Thus, unless the Commission adopts specific programming requirements, the form will be nothing more than a paperwork trap for the unwary or overburdened broadcaster. And, as is usually the case with such obligations, the burden will fall hardest on the small broadcaster who does not the staff and resources to devote to otherwise unnecessary paperwork.
As more and more broadcasters create and use websites (and, to some extent, are required to post more information on those sites by the FCC, see our post here), they should be cautious about the legal liabilities that arise from these sites. For instance, as websites are used to gather personal information for listener’s clubs…
The FCC has released the full text of its Order adopting enhanced disclosure requirements for broadcast television stations – requiring that they post their public files on their websites and that they quarterly file a new form, FCC Form 355, detailing their programming in minute detail, breaking it down by specific program categories, and certifying that the station has complied with a number of FCC programming rules. The Commission also released the new form itself and, as detailed below, the form will require a significant effort for broadcasters to document their programming efforts – probably requiring dedicated employees just to gather the necessary information. The degree of detail required is more substantial than that ever required of broadcasters – far more detailed than the information broadcasters were required to gather prior to the deregulation of the 1980s – though, for the time being, much (though not all) of the information is not tied to any specific programming obligations set by the FCC.
Before getting to the specifics of the new requirements, the thoughts of the Commission in adopting this order should be considered. The Commission’s decision focuses on its desire to increase the amount of citizen participation in the operation of television stations and the decisions that they make on programming matters. While many broadcasters protested that the public rarely cared about the details of their operations, as evidenced by the fact that their public files were rarely if ever inspected, the Commission suggested that this was perhaps due to the difficulty the public had in seeing those files (the public actually had to go to the station to look at the file) and the lack of knowledge of the existence of the files (though broadcasters routinely broadcast notice of the public file’s existence during the processing of their license renewal applications, rarely producing any viewers visiting the station to view the file). With respect to the new Form 355 detailing the station’s programming, the Commission rejected arguments that reporting of specific types of programming in excruciating detail imposes any First Amendment burden on stations, as the Commission claims that it has imposed no new substantive requirements. Yet the Commission cites its desires that the public become more involved in the scrutinizing of the programming of television stations, which it states will be aided by the new form, and also emphasizes the importance that the Commission places on local service (an item detailed in Form 355). At the same time, in its proposals detailed in its Localism proceeding (summarized here), the Commission is proposing rules requiring specific amounts of the very programming that is reported on Form 355, the very numbers that, in this proceeding, it claims have no significance. Moreover, citizens will be encouraged by the Commission’s actions to scrutinize the new reports, and file complaints based on the perceived shortcomings of the broadcaster’s programming. Broadcasters in turn will feel pressured to air programming that will head off these complaints. So, implicitly, the Commission has created the First Amendment chilling effect that it claims to have avoided.