Life has been upended for most Americans due to the spread of the coronavirus and that tumult is, of course, reaching broadcasters as it reaches others throughout the country.  As we wrote here, like many agencies and businesses, as part of its COVID-19 response, the FCC has moved most of its workforce to teleworking in an attempt to keep FCC staff and their families safe.  With most FCC forms and filings being submitted electronically, and remote work already being routine for many FCC employees, there should be minimal disruption to broadcasters’ routine daily dealings with the Commission.  Broadcasters should continue to comply with all FCC rules, including meeting filing deadlines, though it does appear that the FCC is willing to be flexible with some deadlines, especially when a broadcaster can point to virus-related reasons that the deadline cannot be met.  Check with your attorney on specific deadlines.  And check our article from yesterday highlighting some issues to consider while preparing for whatever comes next.

While there is much disruption to normal routines, the routines of regulatory life largely carry on.  For instance, before moving on to April deadlines, we should remind TV broadcasters that, if they have not already done so, their first Annual Children’s Television Report is due to be submitted to the Commission by March 30.  See our articles here and here on that new report.
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While many of us were trying to enjoy the holidays, the world of regulation kept right on moving, seemingly never taking time off.  So we thought that we ought to highlight some of the actions taken by the FCC in the last couple weeks and to also remind you of some of the upcoming January regulatory deadlines.

Before Christmas, we highlighted some of the regulatory dates for January – including the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists due to be placed in the online public file of all full-power stations by January 10.  Also on the list of dates in our post on January deadlines are the minimum SoundExchange fees due in January for most radio stations and other webcasters streaming programming on the Internet.  January also brings the deadline for Biennial Ownership Reports (postponed from their normal November 1 filing deadline).

In that summary of January regulatory dates, we had mentioned that the initial filing of the new Annual Children’s Television Programming Report would be due this month.  But, over the holiday week, the FCC extended that filing deadline for that report until March 30 to give broadcasters time to familiarize themselves with the new forms.  The FCC will be doing a webinar on the new form on January 23.  In addition, the FCC announced that many of the other changes in the children’s television rules that were awaiting review under the Paperwork Reduction Act had been approved and are now effective.  See our article here for more details.
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With many Americans using the holiday season to rest and recharge, broadcasters should do the same but not forget that January is a busy month for complying with several important regulatory deadlines for broadcast stations.  These include dates that regularly occur for broadcasters, as well as some unique to this month.  In fact, with the start of the lowest unit rate windows for primaries and caucuses in many states, January is a very busy regulatory month.  So don’t head off to Grandma’s house without making sure that you have all of your regulatory obligations under control.

One date applicable to all full-power stations is the requirement that, by Friday, January 10, 2020, all commercial and noncommercial radio and television stations must upload to their online public file their quarterly issues/programs list for the period covering October 1 – December 31, 2019.  The issues/programs list demonstrates the station’s “most significant treatment of community issues” during the three-month period covered by each quarterly report.  We wrote about the importance of these reports many times (see, for instance, our posts here and here).  With all public files now online, FCC staff, viewers or listeners, or anyone with an internet connection can easily look at your public file, see when you uploaded your Quarterly Report, and review the contents of it.  In the current renewal cycle, the FCC has issued two fines of $15,000 each to stations that did not bother with the preparation of these lists (see our posts here and here on those fines).  In past years, the FCC has shown a willingness to fine stations or hold up their license renewals or both (see here and here) over public file issues where there was some but not complete compliance with the obligations to retain these issues/programs lists for the entire renewal term.  For a short video on the basics of the quarterly issues/programs list and the online public inspection file, see here.
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On Friday, the FCC released a Public Notice setting out the rules for the auction for new FM channels, which will being in April. We wrote about that auction when it was first announced here. The Public Notice sets out the bidding process for the auction, and the dates for pre-auction filing deadlines necessary to participate in the auction. The notice also rejects several petitions asking that additional channels be added to the auction and one request for a deletion from the auction list. Thus, the channels to be sold in the auction remain the same as originally proposed. A list of the 130 available FM construction permits, with the minimum bid necessary for each of these channels, is available here.

The Public Notice sets out the following pre-auction dates and deadlines that those planning to participate in the auction must observe. These dates are as follows:

  • Auction Tutorial Available (via Internet) by January 22, 2020
  • Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Opens January 29, 2020, 12:00 noon Eastern Time (ET)
  • Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Deadline February 11, 2020, 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Upfront Payments (via wire transfer) March 20, 2020, 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Mock Auction April 24, 2020
  • Auction Bidding Begins April 28, 2020

The “short-form” is an application that anyone wishing to participate in the auction must file. This short-form application sets out the channels in which the applicant is interested and some basic information about the applicant. Specific site locations that an applicant wants to protect can also be listed in the short form. Upfront payments are required monetary deposits that must be made by auction participants in amounts sufficient to cover the minimum fees for the channels on which the applicant is interested in bidding. More details on the information required in the forms, and the mechanics of the auction, are set out in the Public Notice which should be carefully reviewed by parties interested in any of these construction permits authorizing the new stations. 
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November is not one of those months with due dates for renewal filings, EEO public file reports or quarterly issues programs reports. Some of those obligations wait until December, when renewal filings for radio stations in Georgia and Alabama are due by December 2 (as December 1 falls on a weekend). Due for uploading on or before December 1 are EEO public file reports for station employment units with 5 or more full-time employees for radio or television stations in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont.

November 1 does signal the first day on which radio and TV stations can file their Biennial Ownership Reports. As we wrote here, the FCC has extended the deadline date for those filings until January 31, 2020 as the FCC is making refinements in its forms in the LMS filing system. Reports are to reflect the licensee’s ownership as of October 1, 2019 so stations have the information that they need and can start filing their reports later this week.
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It has been many years since the FCC conducted an auction of new FM channels, principally due to its preoccupation with the TV incentive auction. But that is about to change as the FCC announced yesterday that it is planning a new FM auction starting on April 28, 2020, and issued a request for comment on the procedures to be used for the auction. The FCC is taking comment on the proposed auction procedures through November 6, with reply comments due by November 20. 130 vacant channels will be available for bid. The list of vacant channels is available here. Channels will be available across the country, with Texas and Wyoming having the most vacant channels in this auction list.

Working backward from the anticipated April 28 start date and using prior auctions as a guide, initial filings for the channels would likely be due early in the new year. “Upfront” payments equal to or greater than the minimum payments for the channels that an applicant ultimately wins in the auction will probably be due a month or so before the start of the auction. To protect the allotments during an auction, the FCC typically imposes a freeze on the filing of FM modification applications. So be on the alert for an announcement of such a freeze. (Addendum, 10/14/2019 – the Freeze was imposed on Friday – see our post here for details).
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The FCC has finalized the rules for its auction for about 130 new FM channels to be auctioned in July. The Order setting the rules for the auction is available here, and the list of channels to be sold, and the opening minimum bid for each such channel, is available here. The minimum bids also constitute the “upfront payments” which must be made before the auction in order to be able to bid on the channels in which you may be interested. We wrote about these channels here, when the FCC first proposed the auction. As can be seen by reviewing the list, while there are channels across the country, the greatest number of available channels, by far, is in Texas. As we noted when we first wrote about this auction, many of the channels cover small communities in rural areas, and some are leftovers that went unsold in previous auctions. But in every auction there are a few channels that may prove to have some value, so we expect that there will again be interest in many of those on the list. Such interest must be expressed through the filing of “short-form” Form 175 applications by May 28. The actual auction will begin on July 23.

The FCC also announced a freeze on the filing of FM construction permit applications for changes in existing stations from May 18 through May 28 to stabilize the FCC’s engineering database during the period when applicants will be filing their applications. As auction applicants can specify in their short-form applications transmitter sites to be protected, a minor change application by an existing station could end up mutually exclusive with a transmitter site specified by an auction applicant, meaning that the existing station could end up in the auction. To avoid that, the FCC has frozen minor change applications during the filing window.
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The FCC today released its further Public Notice in connection with FCC Auction No. 93, which offers for sale 119 construction permits for new FM radio stations in various communities across the country.  Further details about the auction can be found in our earlier post here as well as on the Commission’s auction page here.  In all, 145 applicants