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

The FCC today released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking for public comment on its proposed Regulatory Fees for 2010. These fees are paid annually by most commercial entities that are regulated by the FCC for the privilege of being regulated. Noncommercial broadcasters are exempt from the annual regulatory fees. Collectively, the FCC is proposing to collect over $335 million in fees this year from licensees across the various regulated services. The fees are normally paid in September, and the specific deadline for the payment of this year’s fees will be set by a future Order after the FCC has received comments on, and formally adopted, this proposed fee schedule. The FCC has set a short time for comments, with initial Comments on the proposed fees due by May 4, 2010, and Reply Comments due on May 11, 2010.

As in the past, the Regulatory Fees for broadcast stations are generally based on the Class of Service and the population covered by a station. For the most part, the fees proposed for 2010 for broadcast stations are not much different from the 2009 rates, with the fees for a few categories of television stations actually going down slightly. Additionally, there is no change in the fee proposed for LPTV, Class A, and television translator stations.  The full list of proposed fees across the various categories of broadcast stations is provided below.  A few things to note with respect to the fees with respect to digital television stations. The NPRM proposes to collect annual regulatory fees from all digital full-service television stations, including any that may have been operating pursuant to Special Temporary Authority (rather than a license) on October 1, 2009.  With respect to low power and Class A television stations, the FCC has proposed that if a station is operating both an analog and a paired digital signal, then only a single regulatory fee will be assessed for the analog facility and no fee would be required for the digital companion channel.

Not surprisingly, the Commission has proposed to make the use of its electronic Fee Filer database  for the submission of the annual regulatory feesmandatory again, as it was in 2009.  It has also proposed that 2010 will be the last year that it will send out reminder letters to broadcast stations about the fees. Starting in 2011, the FCC is proposing to discontinue sending out media notification letters. As the payment deadline will be sometime in September, watch for an Order this Summer adopting the proposed fees, after folks have had a chance to comment. 


Continue Reading FCC Proposes 2010 Annual Regulatory Fees

Last month, the FCC released its proposal to restrict the movement of FM stations from rural areas into larger markets (which we summarized here).  The proposals that the FCC has put forward would greatly restrict the ability of broadcast owners to move stations to cover larger population areas – in many senses reversing the decision of the FCC just two

In a speech to the Free Press Summit, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps suggested that broadcast license renewals should no longer be a "postcard", but instead should be a real test of the broadcaster’s service to the public interest – and should happen every three years, rather than on the eight year renewal cycle that is currently provided for by the law.  While the Chairman acknowledged that many suggest that the old media are in troubled times and may well be supplanted by new forms of communications, "If old media is going to be with us a while still…we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process."  In other words, while broadcasters may be dying, we should regulate them while we can.

First, it should be pointed out that the broadcast license renewal is no longer a postcard, and really hasn’t been for almost 20 years.  The current renewal forms require certifications on many matters demonstrating a broadcaster’s service to the public and its compliance with the rules, and additional documentation on EEO performance and other matters.  TV broadcasters also have substantial renewal submissions on their compliance with their obligations under the Children’s television rules.  Issues of noncompliance with the rules resulted in many fines in the last renewal cycle, demonstrating that this is not a process where the FCC is without teeth.  Yet most of these fines were for paperwork violations (e.g. not keeping detailed records of EEO outreach or quarterly issues programs lists demonstrating the public interest programming broadcast by a station), not for any substantive claims that station licensees were fundamentally unqualified and should forfeit their licenses.  In fact, the Acting Chairman’s speech recognizes that most broadcasters do a fine job serving their communities, yet he believes that more regulation is necessary to police those that don’t.  But is this the time to be imposing additional regulatory burdens on all of the industry, for the actions of a few.  Will the overall public interest be served by such actions?  .


Continue Reading Even Though Old Media May Be Dying – Let’s Regulate Them While We Can – Broadcast License Renewals Every Three Years?

The days when noncommercial broadcasters could count on being treated by the FCC with a lighter regulatory touch are over.
Continue Reading FCC Gives No Special Consideration to Noncommercial Broadcasters Who Violate the Rules – Colleges Pay Attention to Your Radio Station!

Rural communities – do their radio stations need government protection? The FCC seems to think so, proposing a series of new rules and policies that restrict the ability of the owners of rural radio stations to move their stations into Urban areas. These rules would make it harder for entrepreneurs to do “move in” applications – taking stations from less populated areas and moving them to communities where they can serve larger populations in nearby cities. The Commission states that it is making these proposals to attempt to live up to its obligations under Section 307(b) of the Communications Act to ensure a “fair, efficient and equitable” distribution of radio services to the various states and communities in the country. While this may be a noble goal, one wonders if it is a solution in search of a problem. Are there really rural communities that have an unmet demand for missing radio services – and which can economically support such services? And do these proposals conflict with other goals of the new Commission, by effectively decreasing the opportunities for minorities and other new entrants from acquiring stations in major markets – by taking away move-in stations that are often the only stations that these broadcast station owners can afford in urban markets?  These are questions that the FCC will need to resolve as part of this proceeding. 

A Section 307(b) analysis is done by the FCC when it faces conflicting proposals, specifying different communities of license, for new AM stations or requests for new FM allotments. It is also required when an applicant proposes to move a station from one community to another, as the applicant must demonstrate that the move to the new community would better serve the objectives of Section 307(b) than would the current location of the station. In the past, the 307(b)  analysis looks at several factors, or “Priorities.” These include:

 

  1. Service to white areas – when a proposed station will serve “white area,” an area where residents currently receive no predicted radio service (no “reception service” in FCC parlance). 
  2. Service to gray areas – when a proposed station will serve areas that currently receive only a single reception service
  3. Provision of a first local “transmission” service – where the proposed station will be the first station licensed to a particular community, and thus the first station that has the primary responsibility to serve the needs of that community
  4. Other public interest factors – usually meaning which proposal will provide the service to the most people (with service to “underserved areas,” i.e. those that receive 5 or fewer “reception services,” getting somewhat more weight).


Continue Reading FCC Proposes to Encourage Rural Radio By Making it More Difficult to Move Radio Stations to Urban Areas

In a decision released this week, the FCC granted the application of an FM station for license renewal, denying petitions filed by two former employees who contended that the station had violated a number of FCC rules.  After the FCC inspected the station and found only a few minor issues with the station’s public file

The battle over the broadcast performance royalty has begun anew, with the introduction of legislation to impose a performance royalty for the use of sound recordings on broadcast stations.  This royalty would be in addition to the royalties paid to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (which go to compensate composers of music), as this royalty would be paid to the performers of the music (and the copyright holders in the recorded performance – usually the record companies).  The statement released by the sponsors of the bill cites numerous reasons for its adoption – including the facts that most other countries have such a royalty, that satellite and Internet radio have to pay the royalty, and that it will support musicians who otherwise do not get compensated for the use of their copyrighted material.  The NAB has countered with a letter from its CEO David Rehr, arguing that musicians do in fact get  compensation through the promotional value that they get from the exposure of their music on broadcast stations.  The 50 state broadcast associations also sent a resolution to Congress, taking issue with the premises of the sponsors – citing the differences in the broadcast systems of the US and that of other countries where there is a performance royalty, and arguing that broadcasting is different from the digital services who have a greater potential for substitution for the purchase of music.  What does this bill provide?

The bill introduced this year are very similar to the legislation proposed last year (which we summarized here); legislation that passed the House Judiciary Committee but never made it to the full House, nor to the Senate.  Some of the provisions of this year’s version include:

  • Expansion of the public performance right applicable to sound recordings from digital transmissions to any transmission
  • Royalties for FCC-licensed noncommercial stations would be a flat $1000 per year
  • Royalties for commercial stations making less than $1.25 million in annual gross revenues would pay a flat $5000 per year.  There is no definition of what constitutes "gross revenues," and how a per station revenue figure could be computed in situations where stations are parts of broadcast clusters
  • Excludes royalties in connection with the use of music at religious services or assemblies and where the use of music is "incidental."  Incidental uses have been defined by Copyright Royalty Board regulations as being the use of "brief" portions of songs in transitions in and out of programs, or the brief use of music in news programs, or the use in the background of a commercial where the commercial is less than 60 seconds – all where an entire sound recording is not used and where the use is less than 30 seconds long
  • Allows for a per program license for stations that are primarily talk
  • Establishes that the rates established for sound recordings shall not have an adverse effect on the public performance right in compositions (i.e. they can’t be used as justification for lowering the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC rates)
  • Requires that 1% of any fees paid by a digital music service (such as a webcaster, or satellite radio operator) for the direct licensing of music by a copyright owner (usually the record company) be deposited with the American Federation of Musicians to be distributed to non-featured performers (background musicians), while the distribution of any fees to the featured performer be governed by the contract between the performer and record company
  • Requires that any 50% of any fees paid by a radio station for direct licensing of music be paid to the agent for collection of fees (i.e. SoundExchange) for distribution in the same manner that the statutory license fees are distributed (45% to the featured performer, 2.5% to background musicians, and 2.5% to background vocalists)


Continue Reading Broadcast Performance Royalty Battle Begins Anew – Bills Introduced in the House and Senate

The FCC last week issued a decision that should make Buyers think twice in determining how sales of broadcast stations are concluded – especially in the days of $325,000 potential fines for indecency violations.  In the case decided last week, the Commission concluded that the licensee of a broadcast station was liable for fines for violations