The press was abuzz yesterday with the news that Julius Genachowski is apparently the pick of the Obama Administration for the position of FCC Chairman.  Mr. Genachowski was at the FCC during the Reed Hundt Administration, and has since worked in the private sector in the telecommunications industry, including work with Barry Diller and running a DC-based venture capital fund.  From the positive reactions that the appointment has received from all quarters, the choice would seem to be a great one.  But, in looking at some of the reactions, you have to question whether everyone has to be reading what they want to see into the new Commission.  For instance, while the NAB has praised the choice of Genachowski (stating  that he "has a keen intellect, a passion for public service, and a deep understanding of the important role that free and local broadcasting plays in American life"), so too did media-reform organization Free Press ("This moment calls for bold and immediate steps to spur competition, foster innovation and breathe new life into our communications sector. With his unique blend of business and governmental experience, Genachowski promises to provide the strong leadership we need.")  What will this appointment really mean for broadcasters?

In short – who knows?  When Kevin Martin was appointed Chairman of the FCC, few would have imagined that a former communications attorney, a person deeply involved in the Bush campaign, and a former staffer of FCC Commissioner Harold Furtchgott-Roth (perhaps the most free market Commissioner ever) would have supported sustained, wide-reaching inquiries into the underbrush of FCC regulation – e.g. localism, embedded advertising, indecency.  So we can’t really know what a Chairman will do until he does it.  The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both suggest that the new chairman will be focused on Internet issues, and may be less interested in indecency – but who knows?


Continue Reading Julius Genachowski as New FCC Chair – What Will It Mean to Broadcasting’s Future?

Recently, it seems like you can’t read a broadcast industry newsletter without seeing an article about employment reductions or layoffs at some station – sometimes the whole newsletter seems to be dominated by such reports.  In this climate, broadcasters need to consider the employment law issues that can arise in such situations.  The Davis Wright

As we enter the waning days of this election season, where some candidates get more desperate and the attack ads get sharper, broadcasters are often faced with requests that they pull an ad created by a candidate.  Claims are made that the ad contains untrue claims about an opponent or that the ad contains copyrighted material used without permission.  What is a station to do?  When the ad is an ad purchased by a candidate or their authorized committee, and contains a "use" by the purchasing candidate (a use being a spot where the purchasing candidate’s voice or likeliness appears on the spot) the broadcaster is forbidden from censoring that ad.  Essentially, that means that the candidate can say just about anything in their ad (as long as it does not violate a Federal felony statute), and the FCC’s rules prohibit the broadcaster from refusing to air the ad based on its content.  But, because the station cannot censor the ad, it has no liability for the contents of that ad.  This is in contrast to ads by third parties (e.g. advocacy groups, unions, political parties and others not specifically authorized by the candidate), where the broadcaster theoretically has liability for the content of a political ad (see our post on that subject, here).

Two recent cases illustrate the issue.  In one, according to press reports, in a race for the sole seat in the House of Representatives representing the state of North Dakota, one candidate has claimed that the ads of the other misrepresent the positions of that candidate.  The candidate being attacked has asked that the spots be pulled from the air, while the candidate running the spots has refused to pull them.  Even if requested by the candidate being attacked, and even if the ad is in fact false, broadcasters cannot pull one candidate’s ad if that candidate wants to continue to run it.


Continue Reading Broadcasters Prohibited From Censoring a Candidate’s Ad

The American Issues Project has recently started running a controversial new television ad attacking Barrack Obama for his connections to former Weather Underground figure William Ayers.  The text of the ad is reported here.  While reportedly some cable outlets (including Fox News) have refused to air the ad, numerous broadcast stations are also wondering what the legal implications of running the ad may be.  We have already seen many other attack ads being run by third-party groups – including political parties, long-standing activist groups like Move On.org, as well as from new organizations like American Issues Project which have seemingly been formed recently.  As the use of such ads will no doubt increase as we get closer to the November election, it is important that broadcasters understand the issues that may arise in connection with such ads under various laws dealing with political broadcasting.  Legal issues that must be considered arise not only under FCC rules, but also potentially in civil courts for liability that may arise from the content of the ad.  Broadcast stations are under no obligation to run ads by third party groups, and stations have a full right to reject those ads based on their content.  This is in contrast to ads by Federal candidates, who have a right of reasonable access to all broadcast stations, and whose ads cannot be censored by the stations.  As a candidate’s ad cannot be censored, the station has no liability for its contents.  In contrast, as the station has the full discretion as to whether or not it will run a third-party ad, it could have liability for defamation or other liabilities that might arise from the content of such ads that it decides to accept and put on the air.  

The standards for proving defamation (libel and slander) of a public figure are high, but if the ad does contain some clearly false statements, the standard could in fact be met.   Basically, to have liability, the station needs to run an ad containing a false statement either knowing that the ad is untrue or with "reckless disregard" for the truthfulness of the statements made.  This is referred to as the "malice standard."  Essentially, once a station is put on notice that the ad may be untrue (usually by a letter from the candidate being attacked, or from their lawyers),  the station needs to do their own fact checking to satisfy themselves that there is a basis for the claims made or, theoretically, the station could itself be subject to liability for defamation if the claims prove to be untrue.  A few years ago, some TV stations in Texas ended up having to pay a candidate because they ran an ad by an attack group that was shown to contain false statements, and the ad was run even after the candidate complained that the statements were untrue.  These determinations are often difficult to make as the ad’s creators usually have hundreds of pages of documentation that they say supports their claims, while the person being attacked usually has documentation to refute the claims.  Thus, the determination as to whether or not to run the ad is a decision that each station needs to make after consultation with their lawyers, and after careful review of the spot and the backing documentation.


Continue Reading Independent Groups Start Running Presidential Attack Ads – What Are the Legal Implications for Broadcasters?

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.


Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time

The FCC today adopted new requirements for television broadcasters to quarterly file a report with the FCC quantifying their service to the public.  The order also requires that stations keep their public file on their website, if they have a website.  Broadcasters will also be required to broadcast twice each day a notice as to how listeners can find their public file.  This order resolves some of the issues raised in a rulemaking proceeding (about which we wrote here) begun over 7 years ago as part of the rules to govern TV’s digital transition.  Yet these new rules apply to analog as well as digital television operations.  In fact, the public file rule goes into effect 60 days after the publication of the FCC’s order in the Federal Register.  

The new FCC form will replace the Quarterly Issues Programs lists prepared by licensees since the mid-1980s.  The Quarterly Issues lists were originally adopted to replace more detailed reporting requirements which forced broadcasters to collect and file the same types of information that the FCC is now requesting.  While the new forms are not yet released, from the discussion at the FCC meeting, it appears that they will require the following information:

  • Details about civic and election coverage provided by the station
  • Information about programming from independent producers that is aired by the station
  • Information about the number of Public Service announcements (PSAs) aired by the station
  • A description of efforts that the station has undertaken to serve its community
  • Specifics about emergency information provided by the station
  • Information about how emergency and other information is provided to viewers with disabilities
  • There was also some discussion that indicated that the reports would require information about how stations ascertain the needs of their community that are addressed in their programs.


Continue Reading FCC Adopts Rules Requiring TV Stations to Keep Public File on Website – and Adopts New Requirements for Quantifying Public Interest Obligations

The FCC has released the agenda for its Open Meeting to be held on Tuesday, November 27.  The agenda is full of issues of importance to broadcasters, and several items may resolve issues that may be troubling – including issues relating to low power FM stations (LPFM) and resolving a long outstanding proceeding concerning the possibility of mandatory public interest obligations for TV stations.  The Commission also has on tap initiatives to encourage the entry of minorities and other new entrants into the broadcast business – even though comments on the Commission’s proposals on this matter were received just a month ago.

First, the Commission is to release an Order on Low Power FM.  We have written about some of the issues that could be decided previously – including issues of whether or not to allow the assignment and transfer of such stations (here) and whether to give these stations preferences over translators and even improvements in full power stations (here and here).

On the TV side, the Commission seems ready to issue an order on the public interest obligations of television operators.  We wrote about the proposals – made as part of the Commission’s DTV proceedings (though to be applicable to all TV stations), here.  Proposed rules included the standardization of quarterly issues programs lists, making station’s public fies available on the Internet, and quantifying other public interest obligations. 


Continue Reading FCC Meeting to Consider LPFM Reform, Public Interest Requirements for TV Stations, and Minority Ownership Proposals

A reminder to all radio and television broadcast stations, both commercial and noncommercial, that Quarterly Issues Programs Lists reporting on the important issues facing the stations’ communities, and the programs aired in the months of July, August, and September dealing with those issues must be prepared and placed in the stations’ public inspection file

The FCC released an order today, fining a broadcaster $20,000 for misrepresentations made in its license renewal application about the completeness of its public inspection file.  The fine issued in this case was not a fine for the fact that the file was incomplete (two stations in the cluster had each already been fined $4000 for the actual public file violations), but instead the fine was issued because the licensee had certified in its renewal application that the public file had been complete and accurate at all points during the course of the license term.  This case highlights both the need to keep an accurate public inspection file, and the need to carefully consider all certifications made in FCC applications.  Incorrect certifications can lead to fines and potentially even more severe sanctions if the FCC finds an intentional misrepresentation or lack of candor – the potential loss of a license.  Admitting a minor paperwork transgression like an incomplete public file will result in a fine – an inaccurate certification which appears to try to hide a problem can lead to far more severe consequences. 

In this case, the FCC found that the licensee had not maintained Quarterly Issues Programs lists.  The licensee claimed that its obligations had been met through a listing of public service announcements that the stations had put in their files.  The FCC rejected that argument, citing the requirement in its rules requiring that Quarterly Issues Programs lists contain "a narrative description of what issues were given substantial treatment" by the licensee as well as the programs that treated each issue.  In addition, the time and date of broadcast of each program, as well as its title and duration, is to be provided.  A simple list of PSAs does not meet these requirements – as it does not list the issues addressed, much less provide the detailed program information required by the rule.  For a summary of the Quarterly Issues Programs list obligations, and a model form to be used to meet the obligations, see our most recent memo on the subject, here.   Remember, the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists are a broadcast station’s only official record of how they have served the public interest needs of its community, so be sure that adequate attention is paid to the completion of these forms.


Continue Reading Big Fines for Public File Violation that Escalated