At its meeting today, the FCC decided to revamp its Ownership Report filing process – requiring all stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 on November 1 of this year – even stations that have just filed those reports in the normal course in the last few months.  All stations will have to file every two years thereafter – on November 1 of every other year.  Reports will also be required from Low Power TV stations and Class A TV stations, which have not in the past had to file reports.  Reports will also be required from stations that are owned by an individual, and by general partnerships in which all of the partners are individuals (or, in the FCC’s legalese, "natural persons").  In the past, such stations did not have to file reports as any change in ownership would have required, at a minimum, the filing of a Form 316 short-form assignment or transfer application.  Finally, the Commission will require the reporting of the interests of currently non-attributable owners who are not attributable simply because there is a single majority shareholder in the licensee.

The FCC is not asking for this information because it wants to track improper transfers, but instead so that it can gather information about the racial and gender make-up of the broadcast ownership universe.  This information has been required on ownership reports for the last ten years, but the FCC did not believe that the system was extensive enough to capture all information about the ownership of broadcast properties, as so many stations were not covered by the requirements.  Why does the FCC want racial and gender information about the owners of stations?  To potentially take more aggressive actions to encourage minority ownership.  The FCC has considered such actions in the past, but has not felt that it take actions specifically targeted to minority and female applicants, as there was no record of past discrimination in the broadcast industry.  The government can constitutionally only make racial or gender-based decisions if these decisions are to remedy the effects of past discrimination.  To justify such acts, the government agency must demonstrate the past discrimination – and these new filing requirements are meant to gather that information through what is called an Adarand study.  In the recent past, when it adopted certain diversity initiatives for designated entities (like the ability of a designated entity to buy an expiring construction permit and get an extension, which we recently wrote about here), the Commission had to define a designated entity as a "small business" defined by SBA standards.  Chairman Copps today said that this definition did not truly benefit diversity as favoring small businesses "generally benefit white males."


Continue Reading FCC to Require New Ownership Reports from all Commerical Broadcasters on November 1

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

With the recent spate of severe weather throughout the country, a reminder about the FCC’s rules on the presentation of specific emergency information is in order.  The FCC rules requires that any specific emergency information – not a generalized warning, but a specific warning directed at a specific location – must be presented visually as

As more and more broadcasters create and use websites (and, to some extent, are required to post more information on those sites by the FCC, see our post here), they should be cautious about the legal liabilities that arise from these sites.  For instance, as websites are used to gather personal information for listener’s clubs