The FCC has taken the unusual step of issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability, i.e. an announcement that it has fined a broadcaster, against two TV station owners for failing to provide a sponsorship identification for political material sponsored by another Federal agency–the Department of Education ("DOE").  The proposed fines for these two broadcasters totaled over $70,000.  In connection with the same broadcasts, the Commission also issued a citation against the producer of the programs for failing to include a disclosure of the sponsor of the programs, warning that company that it would be fined if it were to engage in such activity in the future, even though the entity was not an FCC licensee.  These actions demonstrate the concern of the Commission over programs that attempt to influence the public, particularly those dealing with controversial issues of public importance, where those who have paid to do the convincing are not evident to the public.

These cases all stem from programs associated with conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid by DOE to promote the controversial No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLBA") supported by the current administration.  He did so on two television programs:  his own show, titled "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" and on "America’s Black Forum," where he appeared as a guest.  These shows were aired by various television stations without any sponsorship identification to indicate that Williams was paid by DOE to promote NCLBA on the air.

In one case, the television broadcaster received $100 per broadcast for airing Right Side, but failed to reveal that it had received any consideration.  The broadcaster claimed that the consideration received was "nominal," which is generally an exception to the sponsorship ID requirement.  However, the FCC noted that the exception for "nominal" consideration applies only to "service or property" and not to "money," holding that receipt of any money, even if only a small sum, triggers the requirement for sponsorship identification.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Fines for Political Sponsorship ID Violations

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article on its Opinion/Editorial page written by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, suggesting that enforcement of the public interest obligations of broadcaster become more stringent. Commissioner Copps suggested that broadcasters needed to have their responsiveness to the needs of their community scrutinized more closely, and more often. Among other actions, the Commissioner suggested that license renewal period for broadcasters be shortened from the current eight year term, to once every three years – as well as a host of more stringent and specific programming obligations. Coming on the heels of the FCC’s proposal in the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Digital Radio (see our summary, here) to explore the local service of broadcasters through a checklist public file report quantifying their public interest service, as well as mandating more local program origination and a greater local presence for stations, local service seems to have emerged as a major issue of concern that may be played out in FCC proceedings in this year leading up to the 2008 Presidential election.

The Copps proposal to shorten license renewal terms back to the three years, and to stiffen the renewal process, asks that the FCC return to a system that required broadcasters to spend significant sums of money on administrative matters that could have better gone to broadcast operations. And the sums that used to be spent on license renewal applications had minimal real impact on the public interest.   While from time to time, broadcasters did run into scrutiny at renewal time, the vast majority of broadcasters’ applications were reviewed in a perfunctory manner and renewed – just as they are today. And with the Commission’s depleted resources that are already stretched thin, it seems unlikely that its staff would be able to provide much greater scrutiny to renewal applications that are filed more than twice as often as they are currently – more than doubling the workload of the already overburdened Commission staff.


Continue Reading You Can Force A Broadcaster to Program, But You Can’t Make People Watch: Proposals for More License Renewal Obligations