In recent weeks, tragic events in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere engender thoughts for the victims, their families and their communities.  Events like these have become all too common, and certain normal routine has developed, with broadcast stations devoting substantial amounts of airtime to coverage of the event until some new story takes away their attention. While the events are ones that cause us to think about those involved, and perhaps the broader political and policy issues that each raises, broadcasters also need to consider, to some degree, the legal implications of the coverage of such events and the questions that are sometimes raised about the FCC issues that can arise in such coverage.  Why isn’t EAS invoked?  Can we interview political candidates about the events?  What other legal issues should broadcasters be considering in connection with events like these?

One question that seemingly arises whenever events like these occur is why isn’t EAS used more often?  Even during 9-11, there was no activation of the EAS system, and there were some questions of why that was.  In fact, EAS is not intended to provide a source for blanket coverage of events like those that occurred recently, or even of those with broader national implications like the events of 9-11.  There are no reporters or information-gathering sources at the other end of the EAS alert system putting together updates on the news and ready to start providing substantive coverage of any news event.  Instead, EAS is meant to provide immediate alerts about breaking, actionable events – like the approach of a severe storm, the need to evacuate a particular area in the advance of a fire or after a tanker spill or, in its origins during the Cold War, the possibility of a nuclear attack.  In any of these events, it is not EAS, but the broadcasters themselves and other journalists who are the ones that need to provide the in-depth coverage of events as they occur.  While the FCC is looking at revamping the EAS system in many different proceedings, the basic workings of the system do not change.  A weather alert or a Presidential address on a catastrophic event may occur through EAS, but the full coverage of that event, with all the developments and details, is going to come from the broadcasters themselves, not from Federal, state or local EAS alerts.
Continue Reading Covering Breaking News and Local Emergencies – FCC Issues to Consider

In another sign of just how closely the FCC monitors contests conducted by broadcast stations, the FCC this week issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (a notice of a fine of $4000) to Nassau Broadcasting for being imprecise in the wording of the contest rules for a contest to be held at one of its stations.  In the rules of the contest, the station stated that entries would be accepted "through June 13, 2008."  In fact, the contest was conducted on the evening of June 12, and the station cut off entries to the contest on June 12.  When a listener went to enter the contest on June 13, and was told that she could not enter as the prize had already been awarded, the listener filed a complaint at the FCC.  The FCC, reading the language "through June 13" to mean that listeners could enter the contest up to and including that day, fined the licensee $4000 for misleading its listeners as to the proper rules for the contest it conducted.  This is another indication of just how seriously the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is taking the enforcement of Section 73.1216 of the Commission’s rules, which requires licensees "to fully and accurately disclose the material terms" of any contests that it conducts, and to "conduct the contest substantially as announced or advertised."  Broadcasters need to be very precise in their wording of contest rules, and make sure that they carefully observe the details of the rules that they adopt.

In this case, it seems likely that the licensee was simply imprecise in its wording – stating that entries would be taken "through June 13" when it meant "before June 13."  This would have seemed evident from the fact that the rules said that the winner would be announced on the morning show on June 13.  Clearly, if the winner was going to be announced on the morning of June 13, it wouldn’t do much good entering after that time.  But the ambiguity in the rules is construed by the FCC against the party who prepared the rules – as is evident from the finding in this case that these rules did not fully and accurately describe the rules of the contest (and actually holding the contest on the night of the 12th instead of the morning of the 13th probably didn’t help much).  So what should a broadcaster do to make sure that this kind of ambiguity does not hit them in one of their contests?


Continue Reading A $4000 Fine After a Complaint About a Broadcast Contest – Make Sure that Contest Rules are Precise

The FCC has now joined the Nevada Courts (see our post here) in denying Dennis Kucinich entry into the Presidential debates.  In a decision released this week, the FCC found that they could not force CNN to include Kucinich in its Democratic Presidential Debate, as such an action would violate the First Amendment.  The FCC only has the jurisdiction to determine if Kucinich was entitled to equal opportunities for not being included, and the Commission rejected that claim as well, finding that the carriage of the debate was on-the-spot coverage of a news event, exempt from equal opportunities. 

This decision is what we predicted in our post when the court’s denied Kucinich access to the Nevada Presidential debate.  As we set out in that post, to encourage political debates, the FCC has determined that debates are on-the-spot coverage of news events as long as more than one candidate is included, and the decision as to which candidates to invite is made based on some rational criteria that is not exercised in some discriminatory, partisan fashion.  In this case, the Commission found that CNN’s criteria – that a candidate had to have finished in the top 4 in a previous primary and be polling over 5% in an established national Presidential preference poll were not standards that were being applied arbitrarily for partisan reasons. The Commission concluded that the mere fact that Kucinich was receiving Federal funds and had unique positions on the issues was not enough to conclude that CNN was required to either include him in the debate or provide him equal time.


Continue Reading FCC Rules Against Kucinich Request for Inclusion in CNN Presidential Debate