When the FCC initiated its most recent EEO audits, we mentioned that the Commission was planning a rulemaking to review the effectiveness of its EEO rules for broadcasting and multi-channel video operators. The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking to review these rules has now been released. This review was prompted by complaints
On Friday, the FCC issued its first EEO audit of almost 300 radio and TV stations across the country (see the model audit letter and list of stations affected here), the day after announcing its intent to abolish the Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Report (see our articles here and here). In the Order announcing the forthcoming abolition of the Mid-Term Report, the FCC also noted its intent to being a proceeding in the next 90 days to reexamine the effectiveness of its EEO program – signaling that EEO remains a priority of the FCC and that this audit should be taken very seriously. While the FCC each year promises to audit 5% of all full-power broadcast stations, and this audit is likely but the first of a number of EEO audits for the coming year, this upcoming review of the effectiveness of the FCC’s EEO process highlights the continued importance of EEO enforcement to the FCC.
The response to the audit must be completed by April 1. As the response (and the audit letter itself) must be uploaded to the public file, it can be reviewed not only by the FCC, but also by anyone else anywhere, at any time, as long as they have an internet connection. The upcoming license renewal cycle adds to the importance of this audit, as a broadcaster does not want a recent compliance issue to headline the record the FCC will be reviewing with its license renewal (see our article here about the upcoming license renewal cycle). The audit requires that the broadcaster submit their last two EEO Public File Reports (which should already be in the online public file) and backing data to support all of the outreach efforts listed on those public file reports. Broadcasters subject to the audit should carefully review the audit letter to see the details of the filing.…
The FCC yesterday adopted an order moving broadcast EEO enforcement from the FCC’s Media Bureau to its Enforcement Bureau. The change will be effective later, after certain procedural approvals are obtained and after notice is published in the Federal Register. As EEO enforcement is primarily aimed at broadcasters and cable companies, and has been part of the Media Bureau responsibilities since the Bureau existed, why was this change made and what does it mean?
The FCC makes clear in its order that the reason for the move is that the Enforcement Bureau is for better enforcement of the EEO rules. Specifically, the FCC said this about the transfer of authority from the Media Bureau to the Enforcement Bureau:
The Enforcement Bureau’s staff has extensive experience conducting investigations and pursuing enforcement in a wide range of areas. They therefore are well positioned to provide assistance and guidance with EEO review, audit, and enforcement work. Further, the Enforcement Bureau has expertise in, and maintains tools and databases to aid with, the tracking of statutory deadlines, including those relevant to EEO audits and investigations, that the Media Bureau does not.
Thus, broadcasters need to be ready for more rigorous enforcement of the EEO rules.…
Last week, I participated in an FCC-sponsored webinar to discuss its EEO rules. Along with two other private firm lawyers, the chief of the FCC’s Office that administers its EEO rules and one of his senior staff members participated on a panel to discuss the legal obligations of broadcasters and MVPDs in meeting the EEO rules. The panel, which lasted almost two hours, was a very thorough discussion of the requirements of the FCC rules. It provided insight into how the FCC identifies problems, and even suggested some ideas as to how broadcasters can assure compliance with the requirements in the easiest way possible. While lengthy, the webinar, which is archived on the FCC’s website, is worth viewing to get a very good summary of the FCC rules. If a station or MVPD has its management employees and others with hiring responsibility sit down and watch the video, and use it as part of a training program for management employees on EEO matters, it may even count as one of the non-job specific supplemental outreach initiatives that the FCC requires each entity subject to the EEO rules to conduct.
We wrote last week about a recent set of FCC fines to two broadcasters that had not widely disseminated information about all of their job openings – relying instead on only a combination of internal sources (word-of-mouth, station websites, intra-company referrals) and Internet websites for their outreach efforts for a substantial number of job openings. At the webinar, the FCC officials said that there were a number of other enforcement actions in the pipeline that should be public soon. The FCC is reviewing every license renewal application that is filed with the FCC to determine if its accompanying Form 396 provides information necessary to demonstrate compliance with the three prongs of the FCC’s EEO program – wide dissemination for all job openings, notice of job openings to community groups that request such notice, and non-vacancy specific initiatives that are designed to educate a community about the nature and requirements of broadcast jobs. Stations are also reviewed when the FCC conducts random audits (5% of all stations and MVPDs are supposed to be audited annually) and when complaints or other information comes to the attention of the FCC staff. Staff members remarked that they have even called stations to discuss issues when visiting a station website for personal reasons and noting the absence of the most recent Annual EEO Public File Report that needs to be posted on a station website on the anniversary date of the filing of the license renewal applications for stations in the state of the station’s city of license.
Every year, about this time, I dust off the crystal ball to offer a look at the year ahead to see what Washington has in store for broadcasters. This year, like many in the recent past, Washington will consider issues that could fundamentally affect the broadcast industry – for both radio and TV, and affecting the growing on-line presence of broadcasters. The FCC, Congress, and other government agencies are never afraid to provide their views on what the industry should be doing but, unlike other members of the audience, they can force broadcasters to pay attention to their views by way of new laws and regulations. And there is never a shortage of ideas from Washington as to how broadcasters should act. Some of the issues discussed below are perennials, coming back over and over again on my yearly list (often without resolution), while others are unique to this coming year. Issues unique to radio and TV, and those that could affect the broadcast industry generally, are addressed below.
Spectrum issues have been the dominant TV concerns in past years, first with the digital transition, and more recently with the "white spaces" rulemaking and the proposals advanced as part of the FCC’s Broadband Plan to reclaim part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband uses. These issues remain on the FCC’s agenda, as do new issues dealing with the carriage of television stations by cable and satellite television providers. Specific issues for TV include:
Spectrum reclamation: The initial proposals for the reclamation of part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband were laid by the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in November, looking at how the TV spectrum could be used more efficiently, and how incentive auctions encouraging some TV stations to vacate their channels could be conducted. Congress still has to pass legislation to allow such auctions, and it will probably also mandate a spectrum inventory to determine if the reclamation of the TV spectrum is really necessary to provide for wireless broadband needs. At the same time, some TV operators have begun to talk about television stations themselves providing broadband service with their excess spectrum. While Congress will probably act on the auction bills this year, and there will be much debate about the details of the reallocation issue, so don’t expect final resolution of this matter in 2011.
White Spaces: The FCC has authorized the operation of wireless devices in the television spectrum, resolving many of the concerns about interference to television operators by requiring all wireless users to protect operating TV channels in specific areas based on databases of existing users, not on spectrum sensing techniques. But implementation issues still need to be worked out – including finding parties to compile and administer the databases to make sure that all existing spectrum users who are to be protected are registered. Expect action on these matters this year, but no actual white spaces use until after these implementation efforts are completed.
LPTV Digital Transition: While many members of the general public may consider the digital television transition to be complete, many Low Power TV stations and TV translators are still operating in analog. The FCC has commenced a proceeding to require the transition of these stations to digital, suggesting that the transition be complete as early as the end of 2012. Expect controversy on this issue. Many LPTV stations feel that being forced incur the costs to covert to digital is premature and could imperil broadcast service, especially to rural areas and minority populations who rely on translators and LPTV stations, if spectrum repacking caused by any future repurposing of TV spectrum for broadband forces further technical changes. These issues will be considered by the Commission this year.
Retransmission Consent Reform: At the end of 2010, there was much controversy over retransmission consent issues, as there were instances where broadcasters and cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors had difficult negotiations over the carriage fees to be paid to the TV stations. FCC sources stated at the end of the year that a proceeding will be initiated to determine if the rules governing the negotiation process should be changed. The multichannel video programming distributors and some public interest groups argue that the FCC should protect viewers who may have their TV service disappear if a TV station does not reach a deal with a MVPD, while the broadcasters argue that the ability to remove the station is the heart of the negotiation, and removing the risk of the MVPD losing the right to carry the station would negate the negotiation. Look for this proceeding to commence early in the year but, as it will no doubt be very controversial, it may take some time to resolve.
DMA Boundary Issues: The FCC has also begun a proceeding to look at DMA boundaries that cross state lines to see if every television viewer should be guaranteed to receive service from cable or satellite providers of a station in his or her state. Television stations fear that this guarantee could upset traditional television markets, and could have an impact on retransmission consent negotiations in border counties. Comments in this proceeding are due on January 24th, 2011.
The nuts and bolts of legal issues for broadcasters were highlighted in two sessions in which I participated at last week’s joint convention of the Oregon and Washington State Broadcasters Associations, held in Stephenson, Washington, on the Columbia River that divides the two states. Initially, I conducted a seminar for broadcasters providing a refresher on their …
So what Washington issues should be keeping broadcasters up at night? At the Connecticut Broadcasters Association Annual Convention in Hartford on October 14, and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention in Wichita on October 18, I presented my Top 10 list of issues for broadcasters – dealing with issues both practical and policy-based. The PowerPoint presentation from Connecticut is available here, and that from Kansas is available here. At these sessions, we discussed a variety of legal issues of importance to the industry, including the need for broadcasters to consider the upcoming license renewal cycle. As we wrote a few weeks ago, that cycle begins with stations in Virginia, Maryland, DC and West Virginia in June 2011, and will continue across the country for the next few years, with radio stations in Kansas filing renewals in February 2013, and radio stations in Connecticut filing on December 1, 2013. Television stations in each state will have applications due a year later. To be sure that stations are prepared for the renewal, they should be checking their public inspection files to make sure that they are complete, and should be preparing quarterly programs-issues lists detailing the programming that they broadcast to serve the public interest. A copy of Davis Wright Tremaine’s most recent advisory on the Quarterly issues programs list is available here. The most recent Quarterly Programs Issues List should have, by October 10, have been placed in the public files of all stations around the country, covering issue-responsive programming that was broadcast in the last quarter. The DWT Advisory covering all of the other materials that should be in the public inspection file, and the retention period for that content, is availablehere.
We also discussed compliance with the FCC’s EEO rules, and how important such compliance is – and how each station’s EEO performance will be evaluated at license renewal time or if the station is randomly audited in the FCC’s EEO random audit process. We wrote about some of the complaints of certain public interest organizations about how they felt that the FCC had not been aggressive enough in EEO enforcement, here. With the scrutiny given to this issue, broadcasters should be observing their obligations carefully. DWT’s advisory on EEO compliance is available here, and our most recent reminder on the annual public inspection file reports for broadcasters is available here. A PowerPoint presentation from a seminar that I just completed for the Washington and Oregon Broadcasters Associations will be posted on our blog shortly, which will highlight some of these EEO obligations.