musicfirst FCC petition

Last week, the FCC released a decision denying objections to the sale of the NY Times-owned radio station in New York City – objections based on the fears of certain listeners that the sale would mean the loss of the station’s classical music service.  In rejecting the petitions, the FCC relied on the long-standing policy of the FCC not to get into format questions, citing a thirty year old policy statement, upheld by a Supreme Court decision, which found that such review "would not benefit the public, would deter innovation, and would impose substantial administrative burdens on the Commission."  In other words, the Commission concluded some thirty years ago that it had no place in making programming decisions for broadcasters.  It is ironic that this decision was released on the same date as comments were due at the FCC on the MusicFirst petition arguing that broadcasters should be compelled to air specific content – commercials that advocate the adoption of a performance royalty and music from performers who supported the royalty. 

It appears from a review of the Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System that, while the FCC solicited comments on the MusicFirst petition, MusicFirst itself did not choose to file anything in response to that request.  A few musicians’ groups did file comments, echoing the concerns originally raised by MusicFirst, but with very little specificity to support the implication that there was a nationwide conspiracy of broadcasters to boycott music from royalty supporters.  And, while most of the comments stated that they did not want to abridge the First Amendment rights of broadcasters, they nevertheless went on to say that broadcasters who did not air statements in support of the royalty should have sanctions imposed.  Maybe I’m missing something, but that sure seems to be an invitation to government compelled speech.   The NAB filed extensive comments addressing the First Amendment implications of the complaint. Continue Reading FCC Says It Will Stay Out of Programming Decisions – On Same Day MusicFirst Petition Comments Were Due

The FCC today asked for public comments on the petition of the MusicFirst Coalition asking the Commission to take action against broadcast stations who did not fairly address on air the proposed sound recording public performance royalty for terrestrial radio.  The Petition, about which we wrote here, alleges, with very few specifics, that some radio stations have taken adverse actions against musical artists who have spoken out in support of the royalty, and also that stations have refused to run ads supporting the performance royalty while running their own ads opposing the royalty (opposing ads which MusicFirst claims contain false statements).  MusicFirst submits that these actions are contrary to the public interest.  The FCC has asked for comment on specific issues raised in the Petition.  Comments are to be filed by September 8, and Replies on September 23.  

The specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment are as follows:

(i)      whether and to what extent certain broadcasters are “targeting and threatening artists who have spoken out in favor of the PRA, including a refusal to air the music of such artists";

(ii)    the effects of radio broadcasters’ alleged refusal to air advertisements from MusicFIRST in support of the PRA;

(iii)   whether and to what extent broadcasters are engaging in a media campaign, coordinated by NAB, which disseminates falsities about the PRA; and

(iv) whether certain broadcasters have evaded the public file requirements by characterizing their on-air spots in opposition to the PRA as public service announcements.

 While we were concerned about the fact that the Commission is seeking these comments potentially indicating that the FCC might feel that the broadcaster has some obligation to address all sides of all controversial issues, implying that there is life in some vestige of the Fairness Doctrine, we were heartened by the FCC’s acknowledgment of the First Amendment issues that the petition raises.  The Commission stated:

We recognize that substantial First Amendment interests are involved in the examination of speech of any kind, and it is not clear whether remedies are necessary or available to address the actions alleged by MusicFIRST.

Continue Reading FCC Asks for Comment on MusicFirst’s Petition Against Broadcasters for On-Air Activities Opposing Radio Performance Royalty

The MusicFirst coalition last week asked that the FCC investigate broadcast stations that allegedly cut back on playing the music of artists who back a broadcast performance royalty, and also those stations who have run spots on the air opposing the performance royalty without giving the supporters of the royalty an opportunity to respond.  While the NAB and many other observers have suggested that the filing is simply wrong on its facts, pointing for instance to the current chart-topping position of the Black Eyed Peas whose lead singer has been a vocal supporter of the royalty, it seems to me that there is an even more fundamental issue at stake here – the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.  What the petition is really saying is that the government should impose a requirement on broadcasters that they not speak out on an issue of fundamental importance to their industry.  The petition seems to argue that the rights of performers (and record labels) to seek money from broadcasters is of such importance that the First Amendment rights of broadcasters to speak out against that royalty should be abridged.

While the MusicFirst petition claims that it neither seeks to abridge the First Amendment rights of broadcasters nor to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, it is hard credit that claim.  After all, the petition goes directly to the heart of the broadcasters ability to speak out on the topic, and seems to want to mandate that broadcasters present the opposing side of the issue, the very purpose of the Fairness Doctrine.  As we’ve written, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished as an unconstitutional abridgment on the broadcaster’s First Amendment rights 20 years ago.  As an outgrowth of this decision, FCC and Court decisions concluded that broadcasters have the right to editorialize on controversial issues, free of any obligation to present opposing viewpoints.  What is it that makes this case different?Continue Reading MusicFirst’s Complaint to the FCC: The First Amendment and the Performance Royalty