The FCC on Monday released a Public Notice announcing that its next test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) is scheduled for August 7 with a back-up date of August 21 (back-up dates being provided in the event that there are severe weather situations or other emergencies in early August which could increase the potential for public confusion on the originally scheduled date). This test will, unlike the last test we wrote about here, rely solely on the broadcast-based daisy chain where the test is initiated on certain broadcast primary stations, then rebroadcast by stations that monitor those primary stations, who then pass on the test to other stations that monitor these secondary stations and so on down the line to all the EAS participants. This test will not use the Internet-based IPAWS system used in other recent tests.

Thus, in the run-up to the August test, broadcasters should be sure that their EAS receivers are in working order and are tuned to receive the correct stations that they should be monitoring in order to receive alerts. Check your state EAS plan to make sure you know what stations you are to monitor. Make sure that you have been receiving and logging (in your station log) weekly and monthly tests as required by the FCC rules. If you have not been receiving these tests, that likely indicates problems either with your receivers or with the stations that you are monitoring – so find out the reasons for missing tests now and take any corrective actions (as you are required to by the rules). Check out all of your other EAS equipment to make sure that everything is working properly and prepare for the other paperwork obligations that arise because of the upcoming test.
Continue Reading

The FCC this week published a Small Business Compliance Guide for companies looking to take advantage of the FCC’s elimination of the main studio rules and the studio staffing requirements associated with those rules (see our articles here and here summarizing the rule changes). The Compliance Guide points out that stations looking to eliminate their main studios still must maintain a local toll-free telephone number where residents of the community served by the station can call to ask questions or provide information to the licensee. The Guide also references the requirement that access to the public file must be maintained. While, by March 1, all broadcast stations (unless they have obtained a waiver) will have their public files online (see our article here), it is possible that some stations may have a remnant of their file still in paper even after the conversion date. “Old political documents” (documents dealing with advertising sales to candidates, other candidate “uses,” and issue advertising) that were created before the date that a station activates its online file for public viewing need not be uploaded but can be kept in a paper file for the relevant holding period (generally two years). If the station decides not to upload those old political documents, or closes its main studio before they have gone live with their online public file, they will need to maintain a paper file in their community of license. The Guide also mentions how Class A TV stations, which are required to show that they originate programming from their local service area, will be treated since they will no longer have a legally mandated main studio. But are there questions that the Guide does not address?

We think that there are, and that broadcasters who are considering doing away with their main studio need to consider numerous other matters. First, and most importantly, the obligation for a station to serve its local community with public interest programming remains on the books. So stations need to be sure that they are staying in touch with the local issues facing their communities, and they need to address those issues in their local programming. Addressing these issues needs to be documented in Quarterly Issues Programs lists which are the only legally-mandated documents that demonstrate how a station has served its community. There are other issues to consider as well.
Continue Reading

With so much going on at the FCC and in connection with other topics that we consider, I’m sometimes late getting to all of the issues that arise, and sometimes never mention some of them.  But there is one interesting and important proceeding that the Commission has recently resuscitated and is worthy of mention – the proposal to mandate multilingual emergency alerts by broadcast stations – even when the station broadcasting in a language other than English is knocked off the air by some local emergency.  The proposal would require that all primary EAS stations broadcast national alerts in both English and Spanish, and that state EAS plans should designate stations to provide emergency information in other languages where there are significant populations that have a primary language other than English or Spanish.  Not only that, but English language stations in these areas are proposed to have to play a back-up role, ready to step in and provide emergency information in one of these languages should the primary station serving a particular non-English speaking population be forced off the air.  Comments on this proposal are due on April 28, and replies by May 12.

This is not a new proposal, having first been raised by MMTC (the Minority Media Telecommunications Council) in 2005 after there was a perceived failure to get information to minority populations in the area of Hurricane Katrina.  In recent filings, MMTC has suggested that broadcasters need to work together with local authorities to develop a plan that communicates each party’s responsibility based on likely contingencies. Specifically, MMTC stated, “Such a plan could be modeled after the current EAS structure that could include a ‘designated hitter’ approach to identify which stations would step in to broadcast multilingual information if the original non-English speaking station was knocked off air in the wake of a disaster.” What are the potential issues with such an approach? 
Continue Reading

The FCC has recently staked out a policy that the any use of EAS tones, or tones that sound like those alerts, outside of a real emergency, will lead to big fines.  Since the beginning of the year, the FCC has issued notices proposing fines totaling over $2.2 million against some of the biggest media companies in the country for such violations (see this decision proposing a $300,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System Inc. for tones mimicking the EAS alerts that were included in a commercial transmitted nationwide in cable network programming, and this decision imposing cumulative fines of over $1.9 million on 3 cable network programmers for transmitting ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that included portions of the EAS alert tones).  Only days after the latter decision, a new warning about EAS tones or sound effects made to mimic those tones was sent out by the Southern California Broadcasters Association alerting broadcasters to a commercial for a charcoal briquettes company that seemingly contained such tones.  Given the strict liability that the FCC has been imposing for such commercials, watch for this recent ad and any other programming that might contain EAS tones or anything that sounds like them – and keep them off the air. 

With past warnings on this issue (see our article from November about another set of FCC fines for similar broadcasts,  and the release of an FCC press release warning media companies about the issue) and the recent large fines imposed on major media companies – both broadcast and cable – it is clear that all media companies need to be on the alert to monitor their broadcast material for the any content sounding like EAS alerts, and advertisers and program producers need to be aware that anything they produce that contains the alert tones is likely to cause problems at the FCC.  Note that these recent decisions imposed penalties on cable networks – so it is not just licensees who need to be vigilant.  In these decisions, the FCC has rejected any arguments that the media companies that transmitted the advertising containing the alert tones should be excused from liability as they did not themselves produce the ads.  So watch for these tones – even if they are packaged in someone else’s programming. 
Continue Reading

In the last few weeks, the FCC has fined a number of broadcast stations for failing to keep up with their EAS obligations. In one case, a low power FM operator was fined $1750 for not having any EAS receiver installed at its station – and not knowing that it was required. LPFM stations must

Now that we’ve completed last week’s first-ever Nationwide test of the EAS system, designed to alert Americans in the event of an emergency, the FCC is in the process of collecting information about the successes and failures of the test, through the submissions of participants.  Forms reporting on the results of the test are due by December 27.  At the same time, there has been at least one Congressional call for an expansion of the system in order to provide alerts not only by broadcast, cable and direct broadcast satellite systems, but also through on-line social networking communications tools

According to press reports (see, e.g. this article from the NY Times), the nationwide test uncovered many shortcomings in the system, as many broadcast stations (including all stations in two states) never received the alerts from the station that they were monitoring, in some cases because the message was never delivered to primary stations which were supposed to start the relay of the message to other stations along the daisy-chain system that is supposed to be in place.  Cable and satellite also had many problems.  Despite the fact that there may have been issues at your station or in your area, all participants should report on how their facilities fared in the test.  The FCC will take this information to assess what needs to be done to repair the problems that were witnesses.  The necessary Forms to report on the results of the test are available on the FCC’s website.  In adopting the rules for the test, the FCC stated that it was not intending that the reporting system be a way to punish stations whose facilities did not receive or transmit the test, but instead to be a diagnostic tool to determine whether or not the system worked.  So the failure to file the forms to report on the success of the test on your stations is much more likely to bring an FCC enforcement action against your station than is reporting that, for one reason or another, the test did not work.  These forms are due on December 27.


Continue Reading

Tomorrow (November 9) will be the first ever Nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, and last minute questions and issues continue to come in.  One caution relayed to us from a very experienced broadcast technical consultant concerns post-test news coverage.  This consultant surmises, probably accurately, that news reports, and perhaps comedy writers, will

With less than a week to go before the first ever Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System ("EAS"), changes are being made for the November 9 test.  In a Public Notice released today, the FCC announced that the EAS message that will be conveyed will be only 30 seconds long, not the two or three minutes that were originally planned.  There were some concerns expressed by certain groups, include groups representing cable television operators, that while the test was underway, certain automatic systems would kick in, overriding the visuals from the programming channel being broadcast.  The automatic EAS alerts that would be transmitted in a textual format would not specifically say that they were being conveyed as part of a test.  While the audio accompanying the test would provide that information, representatives of the hearing-impaired community were concerned that some people might believe that a real emergency was taking place.  While the FCC and FEMA had initially indicated that a two or three minute test was necessary to make sure that the message could be conveyed throughout the whole daisy chain system and that the system would be capable of conveying a long message that might be necessary in the event of a real emergency, it appears that they have now agreed that a 30 second message will be sufficient, and less likely to start a "War of the Worlds" panic among those who don’t hear the audio message from the test.

The EAS Handbook for this Nationwide test (which we wrote about last week, here) is supposed to be at the control point of all stations and has been revised to take into account the new length of the test.  The revised handbook is available here.  Also, the Commission has made heard complaints about Form 1 on its on-line reporting system for this test, which we also wrote about last week.  One complaint was that the form required information about the location of the station in geographical minutes in decimal format, not in the minutes and seconds as expressed on the face of FCC licenses and in most FCC databases.  Many broadcasters had complained about that requirement – not knowing how to convert from minutes and seconds to minutes in a decimal format.  In response to those complaints, the Form has been revised to provide a link to a decimal converter program – where you can put in the minutes and seconds as expressed on your license and get the decimal expression of the transmitter site location.  Other minor changes in the form have also been made – including making some information (like a cell phone number for someone at the station) optional.


Continue Reading

The FCC’s recent Notice of Proposed Rule Making outlining changes to the FCC’s Part 11 Rules governing the Emergency Alert System ("EAS") was published in the Federal Register today.  Today’s publication establishes the timing for submitting Comments in this proceeding.  Comments will be due by July 20, with Reply Comments due by August 4th.  By its

In yet another example of the importance that the FCC places on emergency communications and safety issues, an FCC Enforcement Bureau District Field Office issued a Notice of Apparent Liability, proposing to fine a radio station $25,000 for violations including an EAS system that was not operational, as well as a tower that needed repainting and with lights that were not functioning properly.  Together with various other issues – including missing quarterly issues programs lists – the FCC found that a $25,000 fine was appropriate.  This is another in a series of recent notices of apparent liability from FCC District Offices, demonstrating the high cost of noncompliance with technical and operational issues at broadcast stations.

On the tower issues, the FCC found that the tower lights, which were required to be flashing, were in either not operational at all or not flashing, and that the licensee admitted that no visual inspection of the lights had occurred in at least a week.  Citing Section 17.47 of the FCC rules, which require a visual inspection of tower lights every 24 hours unless there is an automatic inspection system (which was not present at this tower), the FCC found that there was a violation here.  In addition, the inspection revealed that the tower paint was faded and, in some places, had peeled to reveal bare steel, as the tower had not been painted since 1996.  Towers must be cleaned and painted "as often as necessary to maintain good visibility" under Section 17.50 of the FCC Rules.  The failure of the tower owner to monitor the tower lights resulted in a $2000 fine, and a $10,000 fine was imposed for the failure to repaint the tower.


Continue Reading