The FCC, apparently not in a holiday mood, yesterday released a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing a $13,376,200 fine against Sinclair Broadcast group for alleged violations of the sponsorship identification requirements of Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC rules. The FCC alleges that program segments contained in news broadcasts of certain Sinclair stations and certain program-length reports featured stories about the Huntsman Cancer Institute which were not tagged as being sponsored – even though they were broadcast as part of a contract that required that Sinclair air advertising for the Institute and develop programming about the Institute’s activities.

While the amount of the fine is large given the thousands of alleged broadcasts missing the sponsorship tags, the Commission’s basis for the fines are not new. The FCC has previously fined stations for news segments that were sold as part of a commercial package and aired without sponsorship identification tags (see our article here.)  Accepting any consideration, even video footage, from a commercial entity, can be seen by the FCC as consideration requiring sponsorship identification. See, for instance, our article here about one such case. The stand-alone programs that Sinclair argued were identified as having been sponsored were found wanting by the FCC as, while the fact that the programs were sponsored was made clear, the actual sponsor’s name was not explicitly stated in the announcement. The Commission rejected claims that the visual depiction of the Institute’s logo that was shown visually just before the sponsorship announcement, and a welcome from the announcer thanking the audience for joining in the broadcast “from the Huntsman Cancer Institute,” were sufficient to notify the audience as to the sponsor of the broadcast. As in cases we wrote about here and here, the FCC takes a hard line on these cases, requiring that the name of the sponsor, and the fact that they sponsored the programming be presented clearly so that any viewer will know who is sponsoring a broadcast program.
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The FCC yesterday released, and trumpeted, a Consent Decree reached with Cumulus Radio for a violation at one of its New Hampshire stations where full sponsorship identification announcements were not made on issue ads promoting an electric company’s construction project in New Hampshire.  In the Consent Decree, Cumulus agreed to pay a $540,000 penalty to the FCC for the violations of the rules – plus it agreed to institute a company-wide compliance program to make sure that similar violations did not occur in the future.  In connection with the fine, the FCC released a press release highlighting the fine and the importance of identifying the true sponsor of issue advertising.  Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau stated “While failure to disclose these identities generally misleads the public, it is particularly concerning when consumers are duped into supporting controversial environmental projects.”  This fine is yet another example of the enhanced enforcement of all FCC rules by the new Enforcement Bureau, enforcement that has been controversial both among those being regulated and even among the FCC Commissioners themselves.  What was behind this extreme penalty, which probably dwarfs the profits that this radio station will make for the next several decades?

According to the FCC’s Consent Decree, the Cumulus station broadcast 178 announcements promoting the Northern Pass Project, a proposed hydro-electric project involving the construction of 180 miles of power lines in Canada and New Hampshire.  While the actual texts of the announcements were not provided in the FCC decision, and apparently included several versions of the ad, all supported the approval of the Northern Pass project, but none included the language “paid for” or “sponsored by” Northern Pass Transmission LLC, the full name of the company that paid for the ads and was behind the project.  Cumulus claimed that the station’s employees believed that references in the ads to the Northern Pass project were sufficient to inform the public of who was behind the ads, the FCC says that is not enough – the full name of the sponsor, making clear that it was the sponsor of the ad, is required.  This is not the first time that the FCC has, in the context of the Consent Decree, imposed a big penalty for a lack of a full sponsorship identification on broadcast programming but, outside of the context of “payola” violations, this may well be the largest fine imposed on a radio station for this kind of violation.
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A recent stir was created when a Midwestern television company was reported to have signed a contract with a state government agency, promising to market the agency and its programs throughout the state.  This promotion was to include a segment in the company’s televised news promoting the effects of the work of the agency.  Questions were immediately raised about whether this was prohibited by FCC rules.  But, when the news pieces ran, the company was very careful to state after these segments that they were sponsored by the station and the state agency.  As the FCC has no rules about what can be included in the "news" (and probably could not consistent with the First Amendment), the only real issue was one of sponsorship identification.  As the licensee did here, if the sponsor of the story is identified, making clear to the public who was attempting to persuade them on the issue addressed, there should be no FCC issues.

This is different from the issues that have arisen previously at the FCC, where there have been fines levied against television stations and cable systems for airing programming that was sponsored, but for which no sponsorship identification was provided (see our posts here and here).  This includes the video news release or VNR issues, where the FCC has fined stations for using news actualities provided by groups with a financial interest in the issue that was being addressed, but without identifying the fact that the material was provided by the interested parties.  Where a program addresses a controversial issue of public importance, the disclosure rules are more strict, requiring that the station not only disclose that it received money to air a story – but to also disclose anything that it got from the interested party – including tapes or scripts.


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