The earthquake in Haiti has caused many to look for ways to help – including broadcasters.  While many broadcasters are already pitching in to do their part to aide relief effortsnoncommercial broadcasters are, in some cases, limited in what they can do.  Noncommercial stations cannot raise funds, even for other noncommercial groups, if that fundraising "substantially alters or suspends regular programming" of the station.  Under these rules, NCE ("Noncommercial educational) stations are thus forbidden to hold a telethon or other pledge drive that suspends normal programming where the proceeds would go to a third party – even a nonprofit third party group.  Thus, recognizing the magnitude of the tragedy in Haiti, the FCC has agreed to grant liberal waivers of these policies, issuing a public notice announcing that NCE stations wishing to conduct such efforts can simply file an electronic request, by email, with certain supervisors in the Media Bureau’s Audio and Video divisions, setting out the nature of the programming, its length, and the beneficiary.

We obviously applaud the FCC’s rapid response on this issue.  But we note that it is interesting that the Public Notice states that applicants for one of these waivers also must state whether the special fund-raising effort is part of the station’s normal fundraising, or if it is a separate program. The public notice does not mention that noncommercial stations can make fundraising appeals for third parties under the current FCC policies, as long as those appeals do not suspend or interfere with normal station programming.  It would seem to me that such appeals would permit a DJ on an NCE station, in a normal programming break, to urge listeners to contribute to the Red Cross or some other charity, or for a regularly scheduled talk show on a station to feature a discussion of the situation in Haiti and of how people can assist with disaster relief, without needing any specific approval of the FCC.  The key to whether a waiver of the FCC policies is necessary is whether there is a substantial alteration or suspension of the normal programming of the station.


Continue Reading FCC Permits Noncommercial Stations to Raise Funds For Haitian Relief – The Limits of Third Party Fundraising By NCE Stations

A decision released by the FCC’s Media Bureau staff this week makes clear that the permittee of a noncommercial station, who was awarded the permit based on a 307(b) preference, cannot change transmitter sites so as to abandon service to the area that it promised to cover in order to get the preference –

The days when noncommercial broadcasters could count on being treated by the FCC with a lighter regulatory touch are over.
Continue Reading FCC Gives No Special Consideration to Noncommercial Broadcasters Who Violate the Rules – Colleges Pay Attention to Your Radio Station!

The FCC today issued a long-awaited public notice, clarifying the relationship between FM educational stations and the analog Channel 6 TV stations that have or will be disappearing after the digital transition.  As we’ve written before, the question of whether noncommercial FM stations could seek improvements in their facilities based on the imminent disappearance

Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial.  In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor.  These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement.  The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.

The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses.   Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address).  But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business.  They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today").  They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ).  The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor.  In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in.  The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines for Noncommercial Stations Having Underwriting Announcements That Were Too Commercial – Even Where the Station Received No Money

In several decisions released on Friday (here, here and here), the FCC fined Class A TV stations for not meeting their obligations under the Children’s Television Rules to notify their viewers about the location of their public file containing information about the educational and informational programming they broadcast directed to children

The Digital Television conversion has allowed the FCC to reclaim significant portions of the TV spectrum for wireless and public safety uses – television channels above 51 will no longer be used for broadcast TV at the end of the analog to digital transition.  But, as part of the FCC’s Diversity proceeding (see our post here), a proposal dealing with the other end of the TV spectrum is being considered – whether to remove Channels 5 and 6 from the television band and instead use these channels for FM radio.  These channels are adjacent to the lower end of the FM band.  Because of this adjacency, the existence of TV Channel 6 in a market can limit the use of the lowest end of the FM band (used for Noncommercial Educational stations) to avoid interference to the TV station.  Similarly, Channel 6’s audio can be heard on many FM radio receivers, a fact that has recently been used by some LPTV operators to use their stations to deliver an audio service that can be received by FM radios (see our post on this subject).  In comments filed in the Diversity proceeding, parties have taken positions all across the spectrum – from television operators who have opposed using the channel for anything but television, to those suggesting that the channels be entirely cleared of television users and turned into a digital radio service.  Proposals also suggest using the band for LPFM operations, and even for clearing the AM band by assigning AM operators to this band to commence new digital operations.

In comments that our firm submitted on behalf of a group of noncommercial FM radio licensees who also rebroadcast their signals on a number of FM translator stations, we suggested that Channel 6 could provide a home for LPFM operations, instead of trying to squeeze those stations into the existing FM band.  There are currently proposals to squeeze more LPFM stations into the FM band by supplanting some FM translators (see our summary of some of those proposals here).  In these comments in the Diversity proceeding, we pointed out that, as there are currently radios on the market that receive 87.9, 87.7 and even 87.5, using these three channels for LPFM service would provide an immediate home to these stations, and far more opportunity for than LPFM would have in the already congested FM band.  These opportunities would exist even in most of the largest radio markets in the country, except in the handful of markets where a Channel 6 television station will continue to operate after the digital transition.  By adopting this proposal, the service that would be provided by FM translators would not be threatened. 


Continue Reading What to Do With TV Channels 5 and 6 – Proposals to Turn Them Over to Radio Services

In a decision released late on Friday, the FCC upheld a $9,000 fine on a noncommercial television operator who broadcast underwriting announcements which, in the opinion of the Commission, were too much like commercials and thus were impermissible on a noncommercial station.  Under the Commission’s policies governing the noncommercial nature of noncommercial stations, it is permissible to air an underwriting announcement acknowledging a commercial entity that makes a financial contribution to the station.  And it is permissible to state the nature of the business, where it is located, and to air the slogan of the company.  What is not permissible is when the underwriting announcement contains "calls to action," qualitative or comparative claims, price information, or other inducements to do business with this particular company.  In this case, the Commission felt that the announcements crossed some or all of these lines.

In the initial Notice of Apparent Liability in this case, released in late 2004, the text of the announcements at issue are set out.  In last week’s order, phrases such as "planning a special occasion?" as the intro line to an announcement about an Ice cream store were deemed to be calls to action, and the description of the ice cream cakes that the store made as "tastefully decorated" were deemed to be qualitative.  Similarly, statements about a real estate company that "we’re all about family" and "we love selling real estate" were deemed to be comparative in nature, trying to distinguish this particular agent from other competitors.  In only one of ten ads, one for a school supply store, did the Commission overturn its previous determination, finding that an announcement for "creative learning materials" was arguably descriptive and not qualitative.


Continue Reading FCC Fines Noncommercial Station for Enhanced Underwriting Announcments that Were too Commercial

In an Order released today, the FCC affirmed its tentative decision limiting the number of noncommercial FM applications that can be filed by one party in the upcoming window for new reserved educational band stations.  Applications for these stations can be submitted starting on Friday.  See our post, here, for details on the filing requirements.  The