lowest unit charge window

On January 18, the lowest unit charge window for Presidential primaries or caucuses begins in Super Tuesday states including Alabama, American Samoa (D), Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.  The LUC window opened on January 15 for South Carolina’s Democratic primary and will open on January 23 for stations in Puerto Rico.  Soon behind, on January 25, lowest unit charge windows for presidential contests open in Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota (D), and Washington State.  The window opens on January 27 in the US Virgin Islands and West Virginia. January 29th is the opening of the window for contests in Guam (R), N. Mariana Islands (D) and Wyoming (R).

In these windows, when broadcasters sell time to candidates for ads in connection with the races to be decided on these dates, they must sell them at the lowest rate that they charge commercial advertisers for the same class of advertising time running during the same time period. For more on issues in computing lowest unit rates, see our articles herehere and here (this last article dealing with the issues of package plans and how to determine the rates applicable to spots in such plans), and our Political Broadcasting Guide, here.
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Here we are, more than a week into the New Year, and already we’ve written about a host of regulatory issues that will be facing broadcasters in the first month of the year (see for instance our articles here and here).  But what about the rest of the year?  As we do most years,

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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The 2020 presidential elections already loom large, with one of the over 20 Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination seemingly appearing on whatever TV talk show you tune into on your TV set. With the first debate among these candidates scheduled for late June, it seems like we have a real election already underway – and it is time for broadcasters to start thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and beginning to make plans for compliance with those rules.

Stations in Iowa and other early primary states have already been receiving buys from Presidential candidates, PACs, and other third-party groups. That spending is sure to increase in the latter part of the year as these early primaries and caucuses are scheduled early in 2020. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2020 elections?

We have written about some of the issues that broadcasters should already be considering in our Political Broadcasting Guide (which we plan to update shortly). Obviously, one of the primary issues is lowest unit rates – as those rates become effective 45 days before the primaries (or before any caucus which is open to members of the general public). Thus, the lowest unit charge windows for Presidential campaigns will start for the political contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in December, and roll across the country early next year as the other primaries and caucuses draw near. In addition to our Political Broadcasting Guide, we wrote about other issues you should be considering in determining your lowest unit rates here.
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It’s February, and we’re back to the normal cycle of FCC filings. Due to be placed in the public files of radio and TV stations with 5 or more full-time employees are EEO Public Inspection File Reports for radio and TV stations in the following states: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma. Radio stations with more than 10 full-time employees licensed in the states of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi also have an obligation to file an EEO Mid-Term Report providing the FCC with their last two EEO Public File Reports, plus providing the FCC with a contact person to provide information about their EEO programs.  For more about the Form 397 Mid-Term Report, see our article here.

Noncommercial Television Stations in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma and Noncommercial AM and FM Radio Stations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York have an obligation to file their Biennial Ownership Reports on February 1. While the FCC just last week adopted new rules to move noncommercial stations to a Biennial Ownership Report filing deadline consistent with commercial stations (by December 1 of odd numbered years), that rule is not yet effective so noncommercial stations in the states listed above need to continue to file their reports as scheduled on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications.
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While January starts off with some regulatory deadlines that apply to all broadcasters – Quarterly Issues Programs lists must be placed in a station’s public file by the 10th of January – there are many other dates that come due this month, dates to which broadcasters need to pay careful attention. For TV stations, they need to file at the FCC by January 11 (as the 10th is a Sunday) Children’s Television Reports, listing all of the programming that they broadcast in the previous quarter addressing the educational and informational needs of children. Records showing a TV station’s compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television should also be placed in the station’s public file.  As we have written, missing Quarterly Issues Programs lists (see our articles here and here) and Children’s Television Reports (and even late Children’s Television Reports) provided the basis for most of the fines during the last renewal cycle (see, for instance, our article here) – even for missing reports from early in the renewal cycle and, for the Children’s Reports, even where the reports were filed (repeatedly) only a few days late. So it is important to meet the obligations imposed by these regular filing deadlines.

Starting on the first day of this new year, there are a host of other obligations and deadlines that arise. On January 1, TV stations need to be captioning clips of video programming that they make available on their websites or in their mobile apps, if those clips came from programming that was captioned when shown on TV. For more on that obligation, see our article on the new online captioning requirements here.
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While many broadcasters’ thoughts are on holiday celebrations, the political process leading to the 2016 elections marches on. Last week, Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Programming and I conducted a webinar for broadcasters in 16 states on the legal issues that need to be considered in connection with the upcoming political season. The slides from that presentation are available here.

The week before last, I wrote about some of the issues that broadcasters should already be considering in connection with the 2016 election. With Lowest Unit Charge windows either open or to open this month in Iowa and New Hampshire, and windows opening in South Carolina and Nevada in the first week in January, stations need to be paying attention to their political obligations. Even though political windows are not yet open in other states, stations in these other states nevertheless need to pay attention to their political obligations. As I explained in the webinar, those windows apply only to Lowest Unit Rates. All other political obligations, including reasonable access for Federal candidates, equal opportunities, and the no censorship provisions of the rules apply once you have legally qualified candidates – not just during political windows. See our article here and here on that subject.
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The month of November is one of those rare months on the FCC calendar when there are few routine regulatory filing deadlines for broadcasters.  In odd years, we would have Biennial Ownership Reports but, being an even year, we can wait until 2015 for that obligation for commercial broadcasters.  There is a new November 28 deadline, about which we wrote here, for TV stations with Joint Sales Agreements with other stations in their markets to file such agreements with the FCC.  While we are getting to the end of the current license renewal cycle, there are still some obligations of television stations for the airing of renewal pre or post filing announcements.  Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, and Saipan need to air License Renewal Post-Filing Announcements on the first and sixteenth of the month, while television stations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont need to air their pre-filing announcements in anticipation of the filing of their license renewal applications on December 1. 

November brings a few other dates of note for broadcasters.  With the end of the political window for lowest unit rates on Election Day, broadcasters have a few last minute issues to remember.  If they sell ads on Election Day, those ads must be sold at lowest unit rates.  If they have opened their stations to take new advertising or changes in copy for any commercial client in the past year, they must be ready to take similar steps for federal candidates over this last weekend before the election.  Even if they never accommodate a commercial advertiser over the weekend, they may still need to provide weekend access to accommodate last minute equal opportunities requests. 
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With the lowest unit charge window for the November elections kicking into effect tomorrow (September 5), we thought that it was a good idea to review the basics FCC rules and policies affecting those charges. With each election seemingly breaking spending records from prior cycles, your station needs to be ready to comply with all of the FCC’s political advertising rules. Essentially, lowest unit charges guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, candidates get the lowest rate for a spot that is then running on the station in any class of advertising time. Candidates get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e. the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.

It is a common misperception that a station has one lowest unit rate, when in fact almost every station will have several – if not dozens of lowest unit rates – one lowest unit rate for each class of time. Even on the smallest radio station, there are probably several different classes of spots. For instance, there will be different rates for spots that run in morning drive and spots that run in the middle of the night. Each of these time periods with differing rates is a class of time that has its own lowest unit rate. On television stations, there are often classes based not only on daypart, but on the individual program. Similarly, if a station sells different rotations, each rotation on the station is its own class, with its own lowest unit rates (e.g. a 6 AM to Noon rotation is a different class than a 6 AM to 6 PM rotation, and both are a different class from a 24 hour rotator – and each can have its own lowest unit rate). Even in the same time period, there can be preemptible and non-preemptible time, each forming a different class with its own lowest unit rate. Any class of spots that run in a unique time period, with a unique rotation or having different rights attached to it (e.g. different levels of preemptibility, different make-good rights, etc.), will have a different lowest unit rate.
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