February 1 is the deadline by which broadcast stations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma must place into their Public Inspection files their Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report. The report must also be available on these stations’ websites, if they have such sites. The Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report
With much of the media world celebrating the life of Walter Cronkite this weekend, we have to wonder what he would have thought about press reports that the FCC is considering the commencement of a proceeding to investigate the status of broadcast journalism – assessing its quality, determining whether the Internet and other new sources are making up for any quality that is lost, and potentially deciding to mandate specific amounts of news coverage by broadcast stations. That surprising story about a planned FCC Notice of Inquiry on the state of broadcast journalism was reported in an an online report picked up by the broadcast trade press last week. And even if that story is not true, concerns about the government’s intrusion into a broadcaster’s coverage of controversial issues arise from the recent Congressional committee action voting down a bill that would ban the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. In what should have been a symbolic embrace of the First Amendment (symbolic as, in the last 6 weeks, four of the FCC Commissioners or Commissioners-to-be disavowed any interest in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine in their confirmation hearings ), the defeat of the bill raises questions as to whether someone has an agenda to resurrect the government’s role in assessing broadcast media coverage of controversial issues. In reading one of the many stories of the life of Cronkite (here, at page 3), we were stuck with the contrast between these actions, and the actions of Mr. Cronkite to address controversial issues – regardless of the FCC implications. One anecdote related his questioning of John Kennedy about his religion when Kennedy thought that topic off limits, even in light of the potential president’s veiled threat that, when he took office, he would be appointing the FCC who would be regulating CBS. Do we really want the FCC to have that power to assess what journalism is good, or what opinions each station must air to ensure "fairness"?
In reviewing the many FCC Fairness Doctrine claims that CBS faced in the Cronkite era, we are struck with the amount of time and money that must have been spent in defending its coverage against critics from both the right and the left. We also found one particularly relevant quote from Mr. Cronkite himself:
That brings me to what I consider the greatest threat to freedom of information: the Government licensing of broadcasting. Broadcast news today is not free. Because it is operated by an industry that is beholden to the Government for its right to exist, its freedom has been curtailed by fiat, by assumption, and by intimidation and harassment.
In the last 20 years, since Mr. Cronkite’s retirement as the CBS anchor, the FCC has steadily moved away from the role that he feared. Yet with these recent actions, one wonders if there are some in government now trying to prove Mr. Cronkite’s concerns correct.
In three cases released last week, the FCC made clear that its EEO rules, requiring wide dissemination of information about job opportunities at broadcast stations (and cable systems), are not satisfied by solely posting of information about openings on websites. Instead, the Commission required that additional outreach efforts be undertaken in order to assure that the notice of the job opening reaches all groups within a community. The decisions pointed to the FCC’s 2003 Report and Order adopting the current rules which stated that the FCC did not feel that the Internet was sufficiently ubiquitous that they could feel comfortable with on-line postings being sufficient to reach all groups within a community. In the recent decisions, the FCC staff said that they were not ready to change the determination of the 2003 Commission.
What does this mean on a practical level? The decisions hold that simply using internal station sources plus on-line postings (in one case website postings plus some combination of walk-ins, industry referrals, and internal postings; in another case the use of the station’s website, plus employee referrals) were insufficient to assure wide dissemination. To avoid getting caught in this trap, broadcasters must use some other traditional outreach services (e.g. employment agencies, community groups, educational institutions, and the local newspapers) to assure that they meet the Commission’s wide dissemination requirements.
The FCC today released another Public Notice announcing the random audit of the EEO performance of a number of broadcast stations – listing both radio and television stations that have to respond, with stations spread throughout the country. The FCC has promised to annually audit 5% of all broadcast licensees to assess their compliance with the FCC’s EEO rules. These rules require the wide dissemination of information about job openings at their stations and "supplemental efforts" to educate their communities about employment opportunities at broadcast stations, even in the absence of employment openings. The FCC’s audit letter requires the submission of two years worth of the Annual Public File reports that stations prepare each year on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications. These reports are placed in the station’s public file and posted on their websites (if they have websites). The FCC’s public notice about this audit emphasizes the requirement for posting the Annual Report on a station’s website, perhaps confirming rumors that we have heard about the FCC’s staffers browsing station websites to look for these reports.
Stations are given until May 4 to complete the audit responses and submit them to the Commission. Note that information needs to be supplied not just for the station named on the list, but also for all other stations in the same "station employment unit," i.e. a group of stations under common control, that serve the same general geographic area, and which have at least one common employee. As recent audits have led to significant FCC fines (see our story here about fines issues just before the holidays), broadcasters who are listed on this audit list should take care in preparing their responses. The audit notice should also remind other licensees who are lucky enough to avoid having been selected for inclusion on this audit list to review their EEO programs for FCC compliance purposes, as they could very well find themselves not so fortunate when the next FCC audit is announced.
While it seems like we just finished the election season, it seems like there is always an election somewhere. We are still getting calls about municipal and other state and local elections that are underway. And broadcasters need to remember that these elections, like the Federal elections that we’ve just been through, are subject to the FCC’s equal time (or "equal opportunities") rule. The requirement that lowest unit rates be applied in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election also apply to these elections. "Reasonable access," however, does not apply to state and local candidates – meaning that stations can refuse to take advertising for state and local elections (unlike for Federal elections where candidates must be given the right to buy spots in all classes and dayparts on a station), as long as all candidates for the same office are treated in the same way. So stations can take ads for State Senate candidates, and refuse to take ads for city council, or restrict those ads to overnight hours, as long as all candidates who are running against each other are treated in the same way.
One issue that arises surprisingly often is the issue of the station employee who runs for local office. An employee who appears on the air, and who decides to become a candidate for public office, will give rise to a station obligation to give equal opportunities to other candidates for that same office – free time equal to the amount of time that the employee’s recognizable voice or likeness appeared on the air. While a station can take the employee off the air to avoid obligations for equal opportunities, there are other options for a station. See our post here on some of those options.
Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry. Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion). Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. What’s all the fuss about anyway?
To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not. We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issues. Essentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance. The Fairness Doctrine never required "equal time" in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute for minute basis. In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them. How that was done was in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.
The FCC Equal Time rule (or more properly the "equal opportunities" doctrine) requires that, when a broadcast stations gives one candidate airtime outside of an "exempt program" (essentially news or news interview programs, see our explanation here), it must give the opposing candidate equal time if that opposing candidate requests the time within 7 days of the first candidate’s use. Cable systems are also subject the requirement for local origination programming, and many have surmised that, faced with the proper case, the FCC would determine that cable networks are also likely to be covered by the doctrine. While the FCC has extended the concept of an exempt program to cover all sorts of interview format programs, allowing Oprah, The View, Leno and Letterman and the Daily Show to have candidates on the air without the fear of equal time obligations, the rule still theoretically applies to scripted programming. Yet in this election, we have seen candidates appear on scripted programs repeatedly, seemingly without fear of the equal time obligations. Early in the election season, cable networks ran Law and Order with Fred Thompson without any equal time claims being made. All through the election, candidates seem to have made themselves at home on Saturday Night Live, culminating with Senator McCain’s appearances on the SNL programs on Saturday Night and the SNL special run on election eve. Yet through it all, stations have not seemed reluctant to run these programs, and candidates have not seemed to show any interest in requesting any equal time that may be due to them. This seems to raise the question as to whether there remains any vitality to the equal opportunities doctrine.
This is not just a case of candidates deciding not to appear on a program that they don’t like because they don’t want to appear in a program with that particular format, as the equal time rules free the candidates from format restrictions. Thus, had Senator Obama sought equal time for McCain’s appearances on SNL, he would have been entitled to an amount of time equal to the amount of time that McCain appeared on camera, and Obama could have used that time for any purpose that he wanted, including a straight campaign pitch. He would not have had to appear in an SNL skit just to get that time.
Press Reports (such as this one) have stated that the Obama campaign has purchased half-hour blocks of time on at least NBC and CBS to broadcast a political infomercial to be aired at 8 PM Eastern time on October 29. Some reports indicate that other broadcast and cable networks will also be broadcasting the same program. Did the networks have to sell him the time? In fact, they probably did. Under FCC rules, Federal political candidates have a right of reasonable access to "all classes" of time sold by the station in all dayparts. This includes a right to program length time, a right that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals when the networks did not want to sell Jimmy Carter a program length commercial to announce the launch of his reelection bid. Because of this right, the networks often had to sell Lyndon LaRouche half hour blocks of time to promote his perennial candidacy for President.
How often do networks (or stations) have to make such time available? They only have the right to be "reasonable." While what is reasonable has not been defined, the amount of time that will be requested will probably be limited by the cost of such time. Even were it not limited by cost, the FCC would probably not require that a broadcaster sell such a prime time block more than once or twice during the course of an election – and given the late stage that we are in the current election, it seems unlikely that more than one such request would have to be honored during these last few weeks of the campaign. Stations do not need to give candidates the exact time that they requested – so the rumored reluctance of Fox to sell this precise time to the Obama campaign because it might conflict with the World Series would probably be reasonable – if they offered him the opportunity to buy a half hour block at some other comparable time.
The Barack Obama Channel – a surprising concept to find on your satellite television dial. Yet there appears to in fact be such a channel, according to a columnist at Politico, who found that the Dish Network is dedicating a whole channel to Obama commercials run back to back. Has Dish owner Echostar decided to stake out…
Today’s announcement from John McCain that he is suspending his Presidential campaign to work on issues dealing with the economic bailout, and that he will not participate in Friday’s scheduled Presidential debate if the bailout package has not been enacted, raises an interesting question about the application of the FCC’s equal opportunities rules. If Barack Obama were to appear at the debate and answer questions, and that appearance was televised, would the stations that carried the debates later be subject to a claim for equal opportunities by the McCain campaign? Under FCC precedent, the answer would be "yes." Debates are exempt from equal opportunities because they constitute on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event – one of the exemptions from equal opportunities specified in the Communications Act. However, as we’ve written before, debates were not always considered exempt and, at one time, if all candidates (including all minor party candidates) were not included in the debate, any excluded candidate could demand equal time. Thus, debates rarely occurred. In the 1970s, the FCC loosened the rules to permit debates to be covered as news events, even if minor party candidates were excluded, without triggering equal opportunities obligations – if there were reasonable, objective criteria used to determine which candidates could participate. However, in doing so, the FCC concluded that, if only one candidate showed up for a debate, it was not a true debate, and thus not exempt from the equal opportunities doctrine.
What would this mean if a station was to cover a debate where Obama showed and McCain did not? If the McCain campaign were to timely request equal opportunities, stations would have to provide to McCain time equal to the amount of time that Obama appeared on screen, and McCain could do anything with that time that he wanted – he would not have to answer questions from the debate moderator. Thus, traditionally, if only one candidate shows up for a scheduled debate that is supposed to be broadcast, the debate (or at least the broadcast) is canceled.