I’m writing this entry as I return from the annual convention of the Iowa Broadcasters Association, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa. Anyone who has read, watched or listened to the national news this week knows of the terrible tornadoes that devastated a Boy Scout camp in that state, and the floods ravaging many of its cities and threatening others. I arrived in Iowa on Wednesday having just completed the filing of reply comments in the FCC’s localism proceeding, and after reviewing the many comments filed in that proceeding. After talking with, watching and listening to the Iowa Broadcasters, I was struck by the contrast between the picture of the broadcast industry contained in the Commission’s notice of proposed rulemaking and that which I saw and heard reflected in the words and actions of the broadcasters. I could only think of how the broadcasters of Iowa and the remainder of the country have dealt admirably in their programming with the disasters that nature has sent their way, and with the other issues facing this country every day, and have been able to do this all without any compulsion by the government. Why, when we have probably the most responsive broadcast system on earth, do we need the government to step in and tell broadcasters how to serve their communities?

At dinner on Wednesday, I watched one station general manager repeatedly getting up from his meal to take calls from his station about their coverage of a tornado that had come within a quarter mile of his studio, and how he had to insist that his employees take shelter from the storm rather than continuing to broadcast news reports from their exposed location as the tornado bore down on them. Another told me of how he and another employee had spent the previous day piling sandbags around the station to keep the water from flooding the studio, all the time reporting between every song the station played updates on the weather and travel conditions in their community. Other stations had continued to operate after their tower sites flooded by gerry-rigging antennas on dry land to permit their continued operation. In one of the more minor inconveniences, one station talked about operating for a few days after their city’s waterworks had been inundated by floods , meaning that their studio (and the rest of town) had no running water for drinking or even for flushing the toilets.  Yet, between these inconveniences, large and small, the broadcasters continued their service, without being told how by the government.


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In recent months, the broadcast industry has experienced one of the most active periods of regulatory activity in recent memory. Since November, the FCC has adopted enhanced disclosure obligations concerning the public interest programming of television broadcasters and requirements for an on-line public inspection file; rejected most calls for increased deregulation of broadcast ownership (allowing only the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in the largest markets); established specific prohibitions against advertising practices that involved “no Spanish, no urban dictates”; placed mandatory disclosure obligations on television broadcasters in connection with promotion of the DTV transition; proposed rules that could favor low power FM stations over improvements in full-power broadcast services and existing FM translator licensees; and proposed sweeping regulation of broadcasters which could potentially require specific amounts of nonentertainment programming by all stations, restrict the flexibility of broadcasters’ location of their main studios, require 24-7 live staffing for all stations that operate on that basis, and perhaps even evaluate the music selection process of radio operators. Rumored to be in the offing are proposals to regulate embedded advertising, to adopt enhanced rules on sponsorship identification in connection with video news releases and payola-like practices, and perhaps even expand EEO reporting requirements (as the FCC recently asked for public comment on the employee-classification information for its long-suspended requirements for the filing of FCC Form 395 – the Annual Employment Report in which stations categorize all their employees by their employment duties, race and gender). And Congress has not been idle, with proposals introduced for the adoption of a performance royalty on over-the-air radio for the use of sound recordings, hearings about potential restrictions on prescription drug advertising, and a proposal to roll back the limited ownership reform adopted by the Commission in December.

With all this activity in a six month period under a Republican administration with a Republican majority on the FCC, during a time of great turmoil in the broadcast industry itself, as television prepares for the digital transition and broadcast revenue growth is slow or nonexistent (based on a variety of factors including general economic conditions and competition from the plethora of new media choices), many broadcasters are wondering what’s going on? And some fear even more changes could come about in any new administration that may come to Washington after the November elections, no matter what the result of that election. The one candidate with the most experience in the regulation of broadcasting, Senator McCain who has chaired the Senate Commerce Committee which regulates the broadcast industry, has by no means been a captive of the broadcast industry – leading efforts to enhance the use of LPFM and at one point pushing a spectrum tax proposal for television broadcasters for the use of the digital spectrum.


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The deadline for submitting comments in the Commission’s Localism rule making proceeding is fast approaching.  Comments are due by April 28th, and can be filed electronically through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System.  This proceeding contains a number of significant proposals and could possibly re-institute regulations that were lifted from the broadcast industry decades ago.  Formal ascertainment through community advisory boards and possibly other means, requirements for manning main studios during all hours of operation of broadcast stations, imposing quantitative programming requirements, and requiring that main studios be maintained within a station’s community of license are just a few of the many proposals the FCC is considering.  See our more detailed summary here.  This proceeding seeks input on these and other potentially burdensome requirements, many of which were eliminated by the Commission long ago, and some of which go beyond what the FCC has ever required before.   Given the potential impact this proceeding could have on broadcast stations, broadcasters are encouraged to file comments in this important rule making proceeding.   When submitting comments, commenters should be sure to reference the docket number for this rule making, MB Docket No. 04-233.

Some members of Congress have already chimed in in this proceeding and submitted comments opposing the Commission’s localism proposals.  Over 120 members of Congress signed on to a letter addressed to Chairman Martin urging the Commission to avoid imposing additional regulations on broadcasters and to carefully consider the cost and effect that such regulation would have on the industry.  A copy of the letter is available here.  A summary of the letter posted on Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s web site characterizes the localism proceeding as an attempt to "restore a 1970s era regulatory regime for local broadcasters." 


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At its December meeting, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Localism.  At that meeting, while the Commissioners discussed the generalities of the proposals being made, the specifics of the proposals were unknown.  The full text of the NPRM has now been released, and it sets out the areas in which the Commission proposes to re-regulate broadcast stations.  The order also hints at a number of other proceedings that the Commission intends to launch in the near future, and reminds broadcasters of a number of other existing proceedings that will potentially bring about greater regulation.  From the discussion in the NPRM, new rules will apply to all broadcasters – large and small – and potentially place significant burdens on all stations which, as always, are hardest for small stations to deal with.  Given the number of new regulatory initiatives discussed by the Commission, the NPRM is a must-read for all broadcasters, and this proceeding is one in which all broadcasters should participate.

Among the specific proposals on which the Commission asks for comments include the following:

Community Advisory Boards:  The Commission tentatively concludes that all stations will be required to establish a community advisory board to advise the station on the issues of importance to the community that can be addressed in the station’s programming.  The Commission indicated that it did not want to bring back the burden of the ascertainment process that was abolished in the 1980s, but asks how the Board should be established so as to represent the entire community, suggesting that the categories of community leaders that were used in the ascertainment process could be used as a standard to guide the licensee in determining the make-up of the board.  Other questions include how often the board should meet, and how the board members should be selected (or elected – though by whom, the Commission does not suggest).

Other Community Outreach Efforts.  The Commission also suggests that other community outreach efforts should be considered as possible mandates for broadcasters.  These would include the following:

  • Listener surveys by telephone or other electronic means (general public surveys were also part of the ascertainment process abolished in the 1980s, so if this were adopted together with the Community Advisory Board, ascertainment would effectively be back)
  • Focus sessions or town hall meetings
  • Participation of management personnel on community boards, committees, councils and commissions (mandatory civic participation?)
  • Specific phone numbers or email addresses, publicized during programming, for the public to register their comments on station operations.

Remote Station Operations.  Comments are sought as to whether television stations should be forbidden to operate without being manned during all hours of operation.  Radio operations will be addressed in the proceeding to consider the public interest issues posed in the Digital Radio Proceeding (see our summary here).

Quantitative Programming Guidelines.  The Commission proposes to adopt quantitative standards for programming that a station would have to meet to avoid extra processing and scrutiny at license renewal time.  Questions include what categories of standards should be established (just local programs – or more specific requirements to set required amounts of news, public affairs and other categories – and how to define what programming would qualify in each category), should requirements be established as specific numbers of minutes or hours per day or per week or by a percentage of programming or through some other metric, should other specific requirements or measurements be established?

Main Studios.  The commission suggests reverting to the pre-1987 requirement that each station maintain a main studio in its community of license

Network Programming Review.  The Commission asks whether rules should be adopted to require that local network affiliates have some ability to review all network programming before it is aired.  If so, what programs would be exempt from the requirement (e.g. live programs), how much prior review is necessary, would such a right disrupt network operations?

Voice Tracking.  The Commission asks if "voice-tracking," (i.e. a radio announcer who provides announcing on a radio station from outside a local market, sometimes including local inserts to make it sound as if the announcer is local) should be limited or prohibited, or if disclosure should be required.

Local Music.  While the Commission indicates that it did not think that a ban on national playlists was required, it did ask whether broadcasters should be required to report the songs that they play, and how they choose their music.  With that information, the Commission asks if it should consider the amount of local music played when assessing whether a station has served the needs of its community at license renewal time.

Class A TV.  The Commission asks whether it should adopt rules that permit more LPTV stations to achieve Class A status, meaning that they would no longer be secondary stations subject to being forced off the air by interfering uses of the TV spectrum by full-power TV stations.

 


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The FCC today adopted a Report on its Localism proceeding, accessing the evidence that it gathered in its three year long investigation of whether broadcasters were adequately serving the interests of their local communities.  We wrote long ago about some of the specific issues that the FCC was reviewing in this proceeding – everything from the public interest programming of broadcasters to their music selection process to their response to local emergencies.  Among the report’s conclusions were findings that not all broadcasters were adequately assessing the needs of their communities or serving the public interest through coverage of local news and other local events.  Because of these perceived weaknesses in broadcaster performance, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, much as we expected in our post here, tentatively concluding that re-regulation of the broadcast industry was necessary, bringing back some form of ascertainment and some specific quantifiable requirements for public interest programming

As in the case of the Multiple Ownership order adopted today (summarized here), the full text of the FCC Report and the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking has not been released.  Instead, only a short Public Notice, and the statements of the Commissioners at the meeting, are available to determine what was done.  From these notices, it appears that three tentative conclusions were reached.  They are, as follows:

  • More Low Power TV stations should be able to get Class A status, meaning that they are no longer a secondary service that can be "bumped" by a new full power television station or by changes to the facilities of a full-power station
  • Each licensee should be required to establish a community advisory board made up of specific groups of community leaders, with whom the station would meet on a regular basis to assess the needs of the community
  • The FCC’s license renewal standards should contain specific quantitative requirements for public service programming

While these may sound like noble decisions, there are many details and much history that the Commission needs to address before these proposals become final FCC rules.


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As the Commission held its last localism hearing in Washington on Halloween night, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s views on how the FCC should insure that stations are responsive to their communities became somewhat clearer.  In his opening statement, the Chairman outlined a set of actions that could be taken by the FCC to insure more service to the public.  While emphasizing the importance of efforts to encourage new entrants into broadcast ownership, the Chairman’s proposals to add new regulatory requirements, including requiring that a station be manned during all hours of operation, may well have the result of making it more difficult for any new entrant (or for existing smaller operators) to profitably operate their stations.  In addition, he has offered proposals that would seemingly require cable and satellite carriage of in-state television stations not in a system’s DMA – a proposal sure to cause concern to stations in DMAs that straddle state lines.

The Chairman’s statement includes the following proposals:

  • Requirements for uniform filings by broadcasters quantifying their public service – presumably their news and information programming and the public service announcements that they provide
  • Requiring that stations have manned main studios during all hours of operations (not just during business hours)
  • Allowing flexibility for LPFM stations to be sold, but adopting new rules to insure that such stations are used for local programming, not something provided from a network or other programming source
  • Providing television viewers the ability to get an in-state television stations on cable and satellite even if the county in which they reside is "home" to a DMA with stations in another state
  • Capping the number of applications accepted from the 2003 FM translator filing window – which might result in the dismissal of hundreds of applications that have effectively been frozen for 4 years


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