Noncommercial Broadcasting

The FCC denied reconsideration on the last phase of the digital television transition – requiring that all LPTV stations and TV translators cease analog operations and be operating digitally by September 1, 2015. See our summary of the original ruling on the digital conversion of LPTV and TV translator stations here. In denying reconsideration, the FCC determined that the September 1, 2015 date will hold – denying requests that the final decision be postponed while the FCC considers the repacking of the television band as part of the incentive auction process to clear part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband purposes. The FCC also noted that some parties wanted to keep operating in an analog mode on TV channel 6, as the audio can be received by FM receivers (so-called "Franken FMs"). The Commission determined that using Channel 6 to provide an audio service this was not a sufficient reason to keep analog operations on TV channels alive past the deadline that they have established. (See our articles about these hybrid LPTV/FM stations, which take advantage of the fact that Channel 6 is adjacent to the FM band and that analog TV used an FM audio system, here).

The Commission did note that, in response to some petitions for reconsideration, that any LPTV station or translator moving to Channel 6 for digital operations be required to protect noncommercial FM stations that would be operating on adjacent frequencies. While the Commission does not expect that such interference will occur frequently, they made clear that LPTV and TV translators are secondary services, and they cannot continue to operate if they cause interference to primary services, including primary noncommercial FM stations.


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Every two years, broadcasters are to file Biennial Ownership Reports on Form 323 to detail the ownership of the companies that hold FCC licenses. Since 2009, all commercial broadcasters across the country are to file such reports in the same window of time. Theoretically, these reports are supposed to be filed between October 1 and November 1 of odd numbered years, yet since the adoption of the uniform date, the November 1 deadline has never held. This year, too, the deadline has been moved (as we wrote here) to December 2.  The window for filing such reports is now open, according to an FCC Public Notice released on Friday. As the reports are supposed to detail a company’s ownership report as of October 1, at this point companies should know what that ownership is, so that they can begin the process of completing the forms and getting them on file.

Noncommercial broadcasters are still on a system where they file their biennial reports on the anniversary dates of their license renewals, so the December 2 deadline does not apply to them (except for stations in those few states where December just happens to be the anniversary of their renewal filings, e.g. noncommercial radio stations in New England). However, as we wrote here when the rules for new Biennial Ownership Reports were adopted, the FCC is considering bringing all noncommercial broadcasters into the same system as their commercial brethren. The report forms used by commercial broadcasters for their biennial reports is more complicated than the normal ownership report form, requiring all individuals who have attributable interests in a licensee to get their own FCC Registration Number (or an “FRN” as it is commonly known), which in turn normally requires that the individuals provide a Social Security Number (or Taxpayer ID Number for entities that have interests in licensees). Having to provide that information has been a controversial requirement, with the FCC offering a work around for owners who refuse to provide that information (a work-around that the FCC has proposed to eliminate, a proposal that has not yet been adopted). Why the need for this FRN for every individual?


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The FCC has just announced that the Form 323 Biennial Ownership Reports for commercial broadcasters, due to be filed on or before November 1 of this year, will now be due instead by December 2. This is the third straight time that the obligation to file these reports has been extended, due to the complexity and confusion that surrounds the completion of the information that is required on the form. All commercial broadcasters, including LPTV licensees, need to file this form by the new deadline. As set forth in more detail below, at this point, this obligation does not extend to noncommercial educational licensees.

In 2009, the FCC adopted a requirement for modified Biennial Ownership Reports for all commercial stations, requiring that such reports be filed by all commercial broadcasters – including LPTV licensees, sole proprietors, general partnerships and other licensees who had previously been exempt from such obligations. The reports were to be filed on an expanded form that gathers information not just about who the owners of broadcast stations are, but also the race or ethnicity and gender of such owners. This information was to be gathered so that the FCC could better assess the minority ownership of broadcast stations.  This was to be used for purposes such as developing new ownership rules for the broadcast industry.  In fact, the information gathered from the first set of these forms was recently the subject of comment in the ongoing multiple ownership proceeding at the FCC (see our article here).

The forms were also supposed to be searchable by individual, so that the FCC or interested parties could easily cross-reference the broadcast interests of various individuals. To do so, however, required the gathering of new information, and required that every individual obtain an FCC Registration Number (an FRN), which required that they provide a Social Security or Taxpayer ID Number (for corporate owners of licensees) to the FCC. This obligation stirred much controversy. In addition, the format of the reporting of the other broadcast interests of individuals required much more time than had previous reports.  That complexity has not disappeared over time. 


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Another month is upon us, along with all of the FCC regulatory obligations that accompany it. August brings a host of license renewal obligations, along with EEO public file obligations in a number of states, as well as noncommercial Biennial Ownership Report filings in several states. We also expect that the FCC will notify stations of the date for the payment of their regulatory fees (which will either be due late this month or early next). As we reported yesterday, the filing of long-form translator applications for over 1000 applicants from the 2003 FM translator window also comes at the end of the month. There are comments due in a number of FCC proceedings. We’ll talk about some of those issues below. For TV broadcasters, we also suggest that you review our article that recently ran in TV NewsCheck, updating TV broadcasters on issues of relevance to them not only this month, but providing a description of the full gamut of issues facing TV broadcasters. We prepare this update for TV NewsCheck quarterly.

Today brings the deadline for the filing of license renewal applications for radio stations in California and for TV stations in Illinois and WisconsinStations in these states, and in North and South Carolina also have EEO public inspection file reports that should be placed in their public inspection files no later than today. Noncommercial TV stations in Illinois and Wisconsin also need to file Biennial Ownership Reports today, and noncommercial radio stations in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina should also file their Biennial Ownership Reports by today.


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As is the case with most months, June brings a number of FCC deadlines for broadcasters, both standard regulatory filings and comment deadlines in important regulatory proceedings. The regular filing deadlines include license renewal applications due on June 3 (as June 1 is a Saturday) for Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations, TV Translators, and LPTV Stations in Ohio and Michigan; and Commercial and Noncommercial AM and FM Radio Stations, FM Translators, and LPFM Stations in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada. Noncommercial stations in the states with renewals also have to file their Biennial Ownership Reports, as do noncommercial radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Renewal pre-filing announcements must begin on June 1 for Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations in Illinois and Wisconsin and for Commercial and Noncommercial AM and FM Radio Stations in California. Post-filing announcements for radio stations in Texas should continue on June 1 and 16, as well as for TV stations in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

In addition to these regular filings, broadcasters also have many other deadlines that are coming up either in the month, or soon thereafter. Broadcasters who were successful bidders in the recent FM auction have payment deadlines on June 12, and then have a July 24 deadline for the filing of "long-form" applications on FCC Form 301 specifying the technical facilities that they plan to build (see the FCC Public Notice here). Applicants for new FM translators left over from the 2003 filing window are now in a settlement window, with deadlines for settlements between competing applicants due on July 22 (see the FCC public notice here). 


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Fines against noncommercial stations may that are primarily student run may not be as harsh as they have been in the past under a ruling issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau earlier this week. The new policy came about as part of a consent decree entered into by an Iowa college-owned broadcaster whose student-run station had failed in its obligation to keep quarterly issues programs lists during most of the prior license renewal term, and also was late in meeting its obligations to file biennial ownership reports with the Commission. Instead of imposing what could have been as much as a $25,000 fine on the broadcaster, the FCC instead agreed to a consent decree by which the broadcaster contributed only $2500 to the government and agreed to certain ongoing obligations to insure its compliance with FCC rules going forward. The FCC also announced, as part of its decision in the case, that it would apply this policy of more leniency in other cases involving student-run stations in the future.  See, for instance, this decision from last year for evidence of how this policy marks a change in the FCC’s policy.

However, this new policy will apply in only very limited circumstances – only to noncommercial stations that are primarily student run. In the decision, the FCC recognized that these stations often had very limited budgets and also a high staff turnover as students graduated and new students took their place. As such, the potential for these kinds of errors increased, and yet the ability to pay for fines was small. In this case, the station involved had an annual budget of less than $7000. Were the Commission to impose big fines, these stations might be forced off the air, as the Commission noted a trend where many noncommercial student-run stations had been sold recently by colleges and universities – often leading to protests about the sales and inevitable format changes (see, for instance the decision we wrote about here).


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In a decision granting the license renewal of a noncommercial radio station, the FCC’s Media Bureau addressed a number of interesting issues – including the requirements for noncommercial underwriting announcements, whether PSAs meet a station’s public service obligations, and the ability of stations to run cigarette ads in historical radio programs from early radio days. These issues all came up in a decision to renew the station’s license despite a petition from a former manager alleging that the station had violated a number of Commission rules or policies – a petition raising all of these issues.

The $3000 fine that the FCC proposes to levy on the station was for what the FCC found to be improper underwriting announcements. Two different issues were found to violate FCC standards – one fairly straightforward, one less so. The relatively easy issue was whether the underwriting announcement by a musical group stating that it was voted “Canada’s #1 bluegrass band” made a qualitative claim. The station argued that the #1 claim was simply a statement of fact based on the vote in Canada. The FCC, not surprisingly,  found that the “#1” label, no matter how it was derived, was a qualitative claim and thus prohibited as part of an underwriting acknowledgment on a noncommercial station.   Such announcements cannot be commercial in nature – meaning that they cannot contain a call to action, price information or qualitative claims about the products or services offered by the sponsor.  See articles that we have previously written on underwriting issues: here and here and here, as well as a presentation on that issue that is discussed here.


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Another radio topic sure to be discussed at the NAB convention this week is the ongoing story of the thousands of FM applications translators still pending at the FCC from the 2003 FM translator window. While this has been a topic at many of the NAB Conventions in the last 10 years, it looks like the end is near. On Tuesday, the FCC adopted yet another order in the processing of these translators, allowing applicants who specified that they were noncommercial operators to amend their applications in a window from April 8 to April 17 to specify commercial operations. That is important to such applicants as, soon after these applications were filed back in 2003, the FCC adopted a policy that said that applicants who elect noncommercial processing could not participate in an auction – and that they would be dismissed if they were mutually exclusive with commercial applicants. Not allowing these applicants the opportunity to amend (as the FCC has done in several other auctions from this period), would mean that the applicants would be dismissed for a defect that had not been announced at the time of their filing.

This is but one more step in the ongoing attempts to complete the processing of these applications so as to permit a new LPFM window later in the year. This will probably mean that thousands of new FM translators will be granted in the coming months – providing opportunities for the expansion of broadcasters’ signals, either in the traditional way of filling in holes in the coverage of FM broadcast stations, or by allowing for the retransmission of AM and FM-HD signals. This should prompt many discussions at the NAB Convention as broadcasters look at the opportunities that these new translator stations will present.


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The FCC proposed that a noncommercial broadcaster be fined $10,000 for its failure to allow a visitor unquestioned and immediate access to the public inspection files for 6 noncommercial radio stations operated from the same main studio. Though the delay in allowing access was only a few hours long, that delay, together with questions asked of the person who requested access as to his reasons for the inspections, led to the Notice of Apparent Liability issued by the FCC. In the decision, the Commission reminded all broadcasters that their obligation is to make the file available immediately upon a request made during normal business hours. The person inspecting the file cannot be asked why they want to see the file, or for their business or professional affiliation.

In this case, an individual apparently representing a competing broadcaster showed up at the station at about 10:30 in the morning. While it was disputed as to whether the individual immediately asked the receptionist to see the public file,  or whether he simply asked to talk to the general manager of the station, the Commission found that both parties agreed that, when the general manager was reached by phone, the individual did ask to see the file. The general manager did not immediately tell his staff to allow inspection of the file, instead telling the visitor that the manager would return to the office at about noon, and the file could be seen then. It was that delay – putting the visitor off for a few hours- that the Commission found was sufficient to trigger the violation. In the decision, the FCC went further to make this case instructive for broadcasters by laying out some of the specifics of the obligations of a broadcaster to allow access to its public file.


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April is one of those months in which many FCC obligations are triggered for broadcasters. There are the normal obligations, like the Quarterly Issues Programs lists, that need to be in the public file of all broadcast stations, radio and TV, commercial and noncommercial, by April 10. Quarterly Children’s television reports are due to be submitted by TV stations. And there are renewal obligations for stations in many states, as well as EEO Public File Reports that are due to be placed in station’s public files and on their websites. The end of March also brings the obligation for television broadcasters to start captioning live and near-live programming that is captioned on air, and then rebroadcast on the Internet. Finally, there are comment deadlines on the FCC’s proposal to relax the foreign ownership limits, and an FM auction and continuing FM translator filing requirements.

Radio stations in Texas and television stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana have renewal applications due on April 1. The license renewal pre-filing broadcast announcements for radio stations in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and for TV stations in Michigan and Ohio, must begin on April 1. All of these stations will be filing their renewals by June 1. EEO Annual Public file reports for all stations (radio and TV) with five or more full-time employees, which are located in Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Delaware, Pennsylvania or Indiana, must be placed in their public files (which are now online for TV broadcasters) by April 1.   Noncommercial radio stations in Texas, and noncommercial TV stations in Tennessee, Indiana Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky must also file their Biennial Ownership Reports by April 1


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