Here are some of the regulatory developments of significance to broadcasters from the last week, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • In the run-up to the August 11 National EAS Test, the FCC released a Public Notice reminding broadcasters to ensure

Last week, it was announced that the FCC would be considering some changes to its political broadcasting rules at its monthly open meeting in August.  In some quarters (see, for example, this article), that raised concern that significant changes were coming in time for the 2022 Congressional elections.  But, when the draft of the proposed changes was released last week, it turned out that the changes were instead very minor – almost ministerial.  The proposed rule changes revise the Commission’s rules on two matters that are already part of the practices of stations and the lawyers who advise them on political broadcasting matters.  Two changes are being proposed – one dealing with the showing that needs to be made by a write-in candidate to show that the candidate is “legally qualified” and entitled to take advantage of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules, and the second being just a rule change to conform FCC rules to statutory requirements that broadcasters include, in their online public files, information about the sale of advertising time to non-candidate buyers who convey a message on a matter of national importance, i.e., a federal issue ad.

The first proposal would add use of social media and creation of a campaign website to the factors specified in the rules as factors to consider when determining if a write-in candidate has made a “substantial showing” of a bona fide campaign for office so that they can be considered a “legally qualified candidate.”   Legally qualified candidates, even write-ins who have made this substantial showing, are entitled to all the protections of the Commission’s political rules, including equal opportunities, lowest unit rates and, for candidates for federal office, reasonable access to buy advertising time on commercial broadcast stations.  Looking at the online activities of an alleged candidate has already been part of the evaluation of whether write-in candidates have made a substantial showing of a “bona fide candidacy” – one demonstrating that the write-in candidate was conducting a serious campaign for office entitling them to the protections of the political rules.  Just saying that you are a write-in candidate is not enough to qualify for protections under the FCC rules – a write-in candidate must also show that he or she is really conducting a serious campaign for office (see our article here).  The facts set forth in that showing determine how serious the campaign is.  Since the FCC’s list of activities in its rules is illustrative and not exhaustive, and since online activities are indicative of how serious a candidate is, stations were already reviewing online activities when assessing substantial showings.  The FCC’s proposal would just make sure that what is already being done is spelled out in the rules.
Continue Reading FCC To Clarify Political Advertising Rules – No Significant Changes Proposed

According to press reports (see this story in Verge and this one in the Washington Post), Facebook will end its policy of not subjecting posts by elected officials to the same level of scrutiny by its Oversight Board that it applies to other users of its platform.  Facebook’s announced policy has been that the newsworthiness of posts by politicians and elected officials was such that it outweighed Facebook’s uniform application of its Community Standards – though it did make exceptions for calls to violence and questions of election integrity, and where posts linked to other offending content.  Just a year ago, there were calls for Facebook to take more aggressive steps to police misinformation on its platforms. These calls grew out of the debate over the need to revise Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which insulates online platforms from liability for posts by unrelated parties on those platforms (see our article here on Section 230). Last year, we compared Facebook’s policy with the laws that apply to other communications platforms, including broadcasters and cable companies.  In light of the potential change in Facebook’s policy, we thought it would be worth revisiting that analysis now.  Here is what we wrote last year:

[In January 2020], the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of fact.  We have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.
Continue Reading Reports that Facebook Will End Policy of Not Censoring Politician’s Posts – How Other Communications Platforms are Regulated on Political Speech

As we highlighted yesterday in our weekly summary of regulatory issues for broadcasters, last week saw a letter from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to the FCC asking for the FCC to review the enforcement of the rules established by the CALM Act, which prohibits loud commercials on TV stations.  The letter cites news reports of thousands of complaints annually to the FCC since the rule’s adoption in 2012 without there ever having been an enforcement action against a station for any violation.  When the CALM Act was passed by Congress, there were many industry questions about how that law could be enforced, as there are many subjective judgments in assessing whether a commercial is louder than the program into which it is inserted (see our article here).  But, ultimately, the FCC adopted rules that were based on industry standards and most parties seemed to believe that they were workable (see our article here about the adoption of those rules).  Like many FCC rules, the CALM Act rules are complaint-driven, and even the article cited by Congresswoman Eshoo recognized the difficulty in assessing the merits of any complaint.

Nevertheless, with this letter and the publicity that it has received in the broadcast trade press, TV stations should carefully review their compliance with the CALM Act rules, as this publicity could signal that the FCC will turn its attention to this issue in the coming months.  In fact, with a Commission that is currently evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans until the vacant seat on the Commission is filled, enforcement of existing FCC rules may well be one place where the current Commission will turn its attention while more controversial (and potentially partisan) rule changes await FCC action.
Continue Reading Congressional Letter to FCC on CALM Act Violations Puts Focus on FCC Enforcement Issues

Here are some of the regulatory developments of significance to broadcasters from the last week, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • According to press reports, broadcasters should pencil in August 11, 2021 on their calendars for the next national test of

Back in January, we reminded broadcasters that state and local elections, even those held in “off-years” like 2021, still fall within the FCC’s political broadcasting rules.  Virtually all FCC rules, with the exception of reasonable access, apply to candidates for the local school board or town council just as they do for candidates for President – i.e., once you decide to accept an ad for a local candidate, then equal opportunities, lowest unit rates and online public file obligations all apply (see our article here for more information).  But in that article, we did not focus on political issue ads, which also raise their own FCC obligations, particularly with respect to the public file and sponsorship identification.

Unlike candidate ads, or ads dealing with federal issues, ads from non-candidate groups dealing with state and local elections and issues generally do not require price and schedule information to be uploaded to the online political file (unless those ads also mention a federal issue).  However, those ads do require that the public file contain an identification of the sponsor of the ad (address, phone number and contact person should be provided), plus a list of the ad sponsor’s executive officers or the members of its Board of Directors or similar governing board.  Under the FCC’s guidance from 2019 (see our article here), the FCC thinks that most of these organizations will have more than one governing board member, so if you are provided with the name of only one officer or board member, you are required to reach out to the sponsor or their representative and ask if there are others who should be listed.
Continue Reading Reminder: Issue Ads Require Public File Disclosures Even Outside Political Windows

After this year’s contentious elections, it is with reluctance that we even broach the subject – but broadcasters and cable companies need to be aware that in many jurisdictions there are elections this November. While most broadcast stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules in odd numbered years, they should – particularly in connection with state and local political offices.  There are elections for governor in November in Virginia and New Jersey, and all sorts of state and local elections in different parts of the country.  These include some mayoral races in major US cities.  Some of these local elections don’t even occur in November – and there are even a few that are taking place as early as next month. As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races so broadcasters need to be paying attention.

Whether the race is for governor or much more locally focused, like elections for state legislatures, school boards or town councils, stations need to be prepared. Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that Federal candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply.
Continue Reading Reminder – 2021 Will Include Some Off-Year Elections for State and Local Office – and FCC Political Broadcasting Rules Do Apply

Here are some of the regulatory developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC set the comment dates for its proposal for changing the cost to file various broadcast applications. The new

As the campaign enters its final weeks, the FCC has begun to send out the next round of proposed consent decrees to radio broadcasters unable to certify in their license renewal applications, because of perceived deficiencies in their political file, that that every document was placed into their FCC-hosted online public inspection file on a timely basis (see, for instance, this decree released yesterday).  The certification of public file compliance is required of every applicant for license renewal.  As with any other certification, a licensee must review its records and truthfully answer the application’s question, either certifying that it has complied with all of the public file obligations or disclosing any deficiencies.  As we wrote last year, in cases of substantial noncompliance, the FCC has fined stations that essentially ignored the public file rules.  But, until recently, in cases where a station had made a good faith effort to comply but had some minor deficiencies in the public file (as is natural over an eight-year renewal period), the FCC has generally been granting renewals, acknowledging that minor violations do not signal that a broadcaster is not operating in the public interest.  However, in August, the Commission initiated a new policy for stations that reported deficiencies in the political portion of the public inspection file, sending draft consent decrees to virtually all stations unable to certify full public file compliance because of any political file issue.

These consent decrees were modeled on the ones that were sent in July to six large radio broadcast groups as a result of an earlier FCC review of their political files (see our article here on those consent decrees, which also provides a review of a broadcaster’s political file obligations).  The difference is, of course, that the July decrees went to large radio groups for what the FCC described as hundreds of violations at many radio stations.  The new renewal-driven consent decrees were sent to all stations that did not certify political file compliance, even to stations that had only a handful of political advertising sales if those stations determined that they could not certify that all required documents went into the file in a timely fashion.  While the decrees carry no monetary fine, they do require that the signing station enter into a compliance program – appointing a compliance officer, having a written compliance plan, reporting any violations to the FCC as they occur, and providing a report to the FCC at the end of each calendar year for two years cataloging all political sales and when the required documents went into the political file.
Continue Reading More FCC Consent Decrees for Political File Violations – Issues to Watch in the Last Weeks of the Election

Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions and developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC released its Report and Order on annual regulatory fees for fiscal year 2020 and,