The 2020 presidential elections already loom large, with one of the over 20 Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination seemingly appearing on whatever TV talk show you tune into on your TV set. With the first debate among these candidates scheduled for late June, it seems like we have a real election already underway – and it is time for broadcasters to start thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and beginning to make plans for compliance with those rules.

Stations in Iowa and other early primary states have already been receiving buys from Presidential candidates, PACs, and other third-party groups. That spending is sure to increase in the latter part of the year as these early primaries and caucuses are scheduled early in 2020. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2020 elections?

We have written about some of the issues that broadcasters should already be considering in our Political Broadcasting Guide (which we plan to update shortly). Obviously, one of the primary issues is lowest unit rates – as those rates become effective 45 days before the primaries (or before any caucus which is open to members of the general public). Thus, the lowest unit charge windows for Presidential campaigns will start for the political contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in December, and roll across the country early next year as the other primaries and caucuses draw near. In addition to our Political Broadcasting Guide, we wrote about other issues you should be considering in determining your lowest unit rates here.
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The care and feeding of the broadcaster’s public file is a hot topic once again. For many years, the public file was often overlooked, being visited most often by competing broadcasters looking for dirt on their cross-town rivals, or by college journalism students assigned a project by their professor requiring the review of local stations’ files. But, with the debate that occurred earlier this year over the online public file for television stations, the file has received much publicity, being the subject of review and analysis in the popular and academic press, as well as in the broadcast trade journals. This week, the FCC issued a reminder about the obligations of a television broadcaster for complying with the public file rules (see that reminder here). In the past two weeks, I’ve conducted two seminars for broadcast groups on the public file obligations of stations. The first was a webinar for 20 state broadcast associations and their members, organized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. The PowerPoint slides used in that presentation are available here.

The slides set out information about the importance of the file, and provide some description of the required contents of the file, and the retention period for documents that need to be contained in the file. Radio stations have the obligation to place all of the required documents in their local, paper files and maintain them there for the appropriate period of time. TV stations, with the advent of the FCC-hosted public file (see one of our previous posts on the mechanics of the online file here), actually have a somewhat easier time in meeting some of their obligations – as the FCC itself will post to the file all documents that stations are required to file with the FCC – including renewal and technical applications, ownership reports, children’s television reports, coverage maps, the station license and the Public and Broadcasting procedure manual. Radio stations need to find all of these documents and manually place them into their files. TV stations need only upload other information that is not filed at the FCC – like Quarterly Issues Programs lists, annual EEO Public File Reports, and certifications as to the station’s compliance with the Children’s television commercial limits. Beyond these basics, in the seminars that I recently conducted, several other interesting questions were raised.


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 The Online Public File for television stations is now a reality. While appeals of the imposition of the rules remain pending, both the FCC and the US Court of Appeals denied stays of the August 2 effective date for the new requirements, so full-power and Class A television stations should now be complying with the new obligations to maintain their public files online. The Online Public File is hosted by the FCC, and uses the FCC’s newly created system for uploading, storing and accessing the documents. So far, the system seems to be functioning with a minimum of problems, though one or two glitches have been reported here and there.

Documents that stations file with the FCC are supposed to be uploaded to the Online Public File automatically by the FCC, so individual stations do not need to worry about importing them into the new system. We have heard that this may not have occurred in every instance, so stations should check their files to be sure that the proper uploading has in fact occurred. Other documents will need to be uploaded by the stations themselves, and stations will also be responsible for maintaining and monitoring the file, and deleting documents when their retention is no longer required.

Just what are the requirements for the new online public file? The FCC has put out its own Frequently Asked Questions, available here. There are many other questions that will no doubt arise over time.  We have tried to do our own summary of the obligations as we know them in the answers to common questions that we are getting about the obligations under the new rules.  Those questions and answers are set out below.


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On Friday, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit followed the FCC’s lead in denying the NAB’s request for stay of the requirement for TV stations to post their public inspection files online.  Accordingly, that rule goes into effect on Thursday, August 2, 2012.

Effective that date, TV stations should post all new public file documents online in the FCC database created for this purpose.  Stations will have six months in which to post pre-existing public file documents into that database. The online posting requirement applies to TV stations only…not to radio stations or cable systems.

Posting of the political public file will not be required until July 1, 2014, except for the top four network affiliated stations (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) in the top 50 markets.  No station will be required to post political file documents created prior to August 2, 2012.


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At its meeting today, the FCC voted to require that television stations maintain most of their public inspection files online, in a database to be created by the FCC (see the FCC’s Public Notice here).  While the details about this obligation have not yet been released, from the comments at the FCC meeting, much is already evident.   All TV stations will have to post their files to an online server to be maintained by the FCC.  Proposals for new obligations to post information about sponsorship identification and shared services agreements have been dropped, at least for now.  Most documents not already online at the FCC will need to be uploaded within 6 months of the rule becoming effective.  And, in the most controversial action, broadcaster’s political files will need to be posted to the new online database, though in a process that is to be phased in over time.

The political file obligation will apply at first only to affiliates of the Top 4 TV networks in the Top 50 markets.  And only new information for the political file will need to be posted.  Information in the file before the effective date of the order apparently will not need to be posted online, at least not initially.  The requirement for posting the political file online will be reviewed in a proceeding to begin one year after the effective date of the new rules.  As stations outside the Top 50 markets, and other stations in those large markets, will not need to comply with the political file obligations until July 2014, the FCC will be able to reexamine the impact of the disclosure obligations before the compliance obligation for the political file expands to all stations. 


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