In July, we wrote about the effective date of the FCC’s new rules allowing non-CPB noncommercial stations to interrupt their normal programming to raise funds for third-party charitable and non-profit organizations (we wrote here about the decision itself), for up to 1% of their total airtime. In July, we noted that the new rules on
Hurricane Sandy (or "Superstorm Sandy as it now seems to be called) has resulted in an outpouring of support from broadcasters across the nation, looking for ways to raise funds for those that have been affected by the storm and its aftermath. Noncommercial broadcasters who are interested in joining in the fundraising efforts were aided by…
As Federal funding to public broadcasters faces serious challenge in a Washington looking to cut the budget for all but the most essential government services, and where voluntary contributions to all noncommercial broadcasters have been constrained by the economic issues faced by the entire nation, more and more noncommercial broadcasters are facing tough questions about the future. We’ve seen colleges and municipalities sell stations that have been community fixtures for decades, and noncommercial groups (including some religious broadcasters) deciding to call it a day and liquidate their holdings. At the same time, the ratings success of many noncommercial broadcasters (both public broadcasters and those owned by religious or other community organizations), especially in the radio world, are showing much success in developing a large listening audience. With noncommercial stations, by law restricted to raising funds without commercial advertising, many are looking for new ways of operating. How are FCC regulations and interpretations reacting to these new realities?
The FCC’s Future of Media Study (and the resulting Report on the Information Needs of Communities that we summarized here) recognized the importance of the diversity provided to communities by noncommercial broadcasters and, without detailing any proposals, indicated support for the development of new funding sources for those stations. Similar general statements were echoed in the hearing on the report recently held by the FCC in Arizona. But the options of the FCC in pursuing solutions are limited. In a recent decision, a noncommercial entity that operated a number of stations in small rural markets asked for a waiver of the FCC’s underwriting rules to allow it to air a limited amount of advertising for commercial entities, restricted to the top of the hour, and presented so as to not break up normal programming. The applicant justified the request on the current financial climate that made donations and grants hard to come by, especially in the rural areas where this group operates its stations. While the Commission’s staff expressed sympathy for the applicant’s financial plight, it stated that it was powerless to waive the Communications Act, which prohibits noncommercial stations from broadcasting "any advertising." Faced with this prohibition, and a fear of opening the floodgates to similar requests, the FCC denied the waiver.
Under FCC policies, stations licensed as noncommercial educational (NCE) stations cannot conduct fundraising for parties other than the station licensee if such fundraising will disrupt the normal program schedule of the station. So the Jerry Lewis Telethon and similar charitable programming efforts cannot be conducted by noncommercial stations without a waiver from the FCC. In recent…
Stations that are licensed as "noncommercial educational" stations are prohibited by the FCC from running commercials – seemingly a pretty straightforward prohibition. Yet drawing the line between a prohibited commercial and a permissible sponsorship acknowledgment is sometimes difficult in these days of "enhanced underwriting." In a recent case, the FCC fined a noncommercial radio station $12,500 for repeatedly airing 4 announcements from sponsors that the Commission found to have crossed the line by being overly promotional. These announcements, which appear to have been recordings of unscripted sponsor acknowledgments, demonstrate how carefully noncommercial stations must police their sponsorship announcements to avoid risking an FCC sanction.
The announcements in these cases are worth reviewing. Some have subtle promotional messages, while the areas of concern are more clear in others. But in reaching its decision, the Commission goes through a close analysis of the wording of each announcement to see if the announcement contains "comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease", all prohibited language in a noncommercial sponsorship identification. So, when one of the announcement referred to "beautiful Harley Davidson light trucks" sold by a local auto dealer who sponsored the station, the FCC found that this was a qualitative claim that went over the line. Similarly, statements that "we have it here" or "where we are proud to be Mexicans" (these announcements having been run on a Spanish-language station in California) were found to be attempts to qualitatively distinguish this dealer from others, or to be inducements to buy – a prohibited call to action. And a specific statement that "no downpayment" would be required on a purchase constituted the kind of price information that should not be contained in a sponsorship acknowledgment. Another announcement for a local tire store had similar problems in the content of the ads, using phrases such as stating that the company "knows about tires" and that the company’s product "reduces [the] loss [of tire] pressure" and "has less risk of suffering damages . . . last longer and [is] not too expensive cause you to save more . . . [and] save more in gas per mileage."
The earthquake in Haiti has caused many to look for ways to help – including broadcasters. While many broadcasters are already pitching in to do their part to aide relief efforts, noncommercial broadcasters are, in some cases, limited in what they can do. Noncommercial stations cannot raise funds, even for other noncommercial groups, if that fundraising "substantially alters or suspends regular programming" of the station. Under these rules, NCE ("Noncommercial educational) stations are thus forbidden to hold a telethon or other pledge drive that suspends normal programming where the proceeds would go to a third party – even a nonprofit third party group. Thus, recognizing the magnitude of the tragedy in Haiti, the FCC has agreed to grant liberal waivers of these policies, issuing a public notice announcing that NCE stations wishing to conduct such efforts can simply file an electronic request, by email, with certain supervisors in the Media Bureau’s Audio and Video divisions, setting out the nature of the programming, its length, and the beneficiary.
We obviously applaud the FCC’s rapid response on this issue. But we note that it is interesting that the Public Notice states that applicants for one of these waivers also must state whether the special fund-raising effort is part of the station’s normal fundraising, or if it is a separate program. The public notice does not mention that noncommercial stations can make fundraising appeals for third parties under the current FCC policies, as long as those appeals do not suspend or interfere with normal station programming. It would seem to me that such appeals would permit a DJ on an NCE station, in a normal programming break, to urge listeners to contribute to the Red Cross or some other charity, or for a regularly scheduled talk show on a station to feature a discussion of the situation in Haiti and of how people can assist with disaster relief, without needing any specific approval of the FCC. The key to whether a waiver of the FCC policies is necessary is whether there is a substantial alteration or suspension of the normal programming of the station.