Here are some of the regulatory and legal developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters – and a look ahead to the FCC’s consideration of two media modernization items in the coming week.  Links are also provided for you to find more information on how these actions may affect your operations.

  • This week,

Here are some of the FCC regulatory, legal, and congressional actions of the last week—and music licensing action in the coming 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 Media Bureau settled investigations into six major radio groups

The FCC this week announced consent decrees with six large radio groups over problems with the political files maintained by these groups.  The consent decrees included very specific compliance plans for each company to ensure that it met all FCC political file obligations in the future.  And it suggested that the penalties were mitigated by the current economic conditions caused by the pandemic – but emphasized the importance to the FCC of the political file obligations and suggested that industry associations take steps to educate all broadcasters about their public file obligations when they run political advertising.  Based on these decisions, we thought that we would republish an updated version of an article that we ran two years ago about those political file obligations so that broadcasters can review their own files to ensure that they have in their files the documents that the FCC wants to see.

Our article from two years ago looked at the political file obligations not too long after the FCC required that all of these documents be made available online, as part of the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the globe has made the required documents much more visible than when they could be reviewed only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. Not only can these documents be reviewed by the FCC in Washington, DC, but they can be reviewed by candidates, their agencies, and political ad buyers across the country.  In fact, we understand that some political ad buyers have online “bots” that scan these files routinely to keep track of political ad buying across the country.  Plus, with the license renewal cycle ongoing, the FCC reviews the political file as part of their review of a commercial station’s license renewal application (where licensees need to certify as to whether they have kept their public files complete in a timely fashion).
Continue Reading FCC Enters Consent Decrees with Six Big Radio Groups – Looking at What the FCC’s Political File Rules Require

Trying to stay on top of regulatory developments for broadcasters is difficult even in normal times.  There are always day-to-day obligations that distract from a focus on legal and regulatory questions – and there are so many developments almost every week that we can’t always write about everything that may have occurred.  So we thought that we would introduce a new feature – each weekend providing a list of some of the regulatory actions of importance to broadcasters that occurred in the prior week, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

In addition, to provide information on dealing with the FCC during the pandemic, and on the many actions that the FCC has taken during the last 6 weeks – both those dealing with the current crisis and decisions made in processing its normal workload relating to broadcasting – we conducted a webinar last Tuesday on these issues.  You check out that webinar presented to broadcasters across the country, available by clicking on this link.  And here are some of the regulatory actions announced last week of importance to broadcasters that have been announced since then :


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC: April 18, 2020 to April 24, 2020

The FCC issued public notices this week on the license renewal process for both radio and television operators.  The Public Notice on television renewals was perhaps more significant, as it addressed several issues and procedures for the television renewal process which begins with the filing of renewals for stations located in Maryland, DC, Virginia

The FCC this week issued an Order reconsidering some of the issues addressed in its October 2019 orders (which we summarized here) interpreting its political advertising rules.  Those October interpretations required that broadcasters who run ads addressing federal issues must include in the political file, maintained as part of their online public file, information about all of the candidates and issues discussed in such ads, not just the most prominent issue or candidate it discusses.  The October ruling also required that stations inquire of issue advertisers (or their agencies) about the names of the chief executive officers or members of their boards of directors if the station is provided with only one name, as the rules require the disclosure of all of the officers or directors of such organizations and the FCC assumes that most of these groups have more than one officer or director.  The October rulings also warned stations against the use of acronyms in their public file where such abbreviations could be misleading to the general public when they view the political file.

The reconsideration addressed two aspects of the October ruling.  First, it made clear that the ruling applied only to federal issue ads, not to ads bought by candidates or their authorized campaign committees.  That seemed to be clear from other statements made by the FCC and its staff (see our article here) but the reconsideration makes it explicit.
Continue Reading FCC Clarifies Its Ruling on Political File Obligations for Federal Issue Ads

This weekend, the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of factWe 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.

As stated above, broadcast stations and local cable systems cannot censor candidate ads – meaning that they cannot reject these ads based on their content.  Commercial broadcast stations cannot even adopt a policy that says that they will not accept ads from federal candidates, as there is a right of “reasonable access” (see our article here, and as applied here to fringe candidates) that compels broadcast stations to sell reasonable amounts of time to federal candidates who request it.  Contrast this to, for instance, Twitter, which decided to ban all candidate advertising on its platform (see our article here).  There is no right of reasonable access to broadcast stations for state and local candidates, though once a station decides to sell advertising time in a particular race, all other rules, including the “no censorship” rule, apply to these ads (see our article here).  Local cable systems are not required to sell ads to any political candidates but, like broadcasters with respect to state and local candidates, once a local cable system sells advertising time to candidates in a particular race, all other FCC political rules apply.  National cable networks (in contrast to the local systems themselves) have never been brought under the FCC’s political advertising rules for access, censorship or any other requirements – although from time to time there have been questions as to whether those rules should apply.  So cable networks, at the present time, are more like online advertising, where the FCC rules do not apply.
Continue Reading Facebook Not Fact-Checking Candidate Ads – Looking at the Contrast Between Online Political Ads and Those Running on Broadcast and Cable

Late last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision in a case called Washington Post v. David J. McManus, upholding the ruling of the US District Court finding that the State of Maryland’s attempts to impose political advertising reporting obligations on online platforms to be an unconstitutional abridgment of these companies’ First Amendment rights.  The suit was brought by the Washington Post and several other companies owning newspapers with an online presence in the State.  Their arguments were supported by numerous other media organizations, including the NAB and NCTA.  The Maryland rules required that online advertising platforms post on their websites information about political ads within 48 hours of the purchase of those ads.  That information had to be maintained on the website for a year and kept for inspection by the Maryland Board of Elections for a year after the election was over.  The appeals court concluded that the obligation to reveal this information was forcing these platforms to speak, which the court found to be just as much against the First Amendment as telling them to not speak (e.g., preventing them from publishing).  As the court could find no compelling state interest in this obligation that could not be better met by less restrictive means, the law was declared unconstitutional.

The Maryland law required the following disclosures on the website of a platform that accepted political advertising:

  • the ad purchaser’s name and contact information;
  • the identity of the treasurer of the political committee or the individuals exercising control over the ad purchaser; and
  • the total amount paid for the ad.

In addition, the platform had to maintain the following information for a year after the election and make it available to the State authorities upon request:

  • the candidate or ballot issue to which the qualifying paid digital communication relates and whether the qualifying paid digital communication supports or opposes that candidate or ballot issue;
  • the dates and times that the qualifying paid digital communication was first disseminated and last disseminated;
  • a digital copy of the content of the qualifying paid digital communication;
  • an approximate description of the geographic locations where the qualifying paid digital communication was disseminated;
  • an approximate description of the audience that received or was targeted to receive the qualifying paid digital communication; and
  • the total number of impressions generated by the qualifying paid digital communication

The appeals court found that this “compelled speech” forced these platforms to “speak” when they otherwise might not want to – the “speaking” being the mandatory publication of information on their website.  The court also pointed to the potential of these rules to chill political speech, by compelling companies to reveal information about those who might otherwise not want to disclose that they are taking a position on a controversial issue or election.  The court found that anonymity in political speech was part of a long tradition in the US, and it could subject those buying the political ads to harassment.  Also, the added burden of collecting this information could cause platforms to reject political ads in favor of advertising where no such burden was imposed. 
Continue Reading Court of Appeals Finds Maryland Law Imposing Political Disclosure Obligations on Online Platforms to be Unconstitutional – Finding Different Treatment of Broadcasters is Justified

The FCC last week released two decisions (here and here) addressing complaints from public interest groups against several TV stations alleging that the stations had not sufficiently disclosed in their online public files sufficient information about political issue advertising.  These decisions, as detailed below, will end up making life significantly more difficult for broadcasters running ads from non-candidate groups, as they will need to review each issue ad to come up with a list all of the issues of public importance discussed in the ad.  A perhaps unintended result may also be that there will be more disclosure in the public file of the cost of non-candidate political ads supporting or attacking state and local candidates when those ads mention Federal issues – as more and more ads dealing with state elections now do.  Watch as the ramifications of these decisions become clear in the coming months.

Background:  These decisions should not strike regular readers of this blog as particularly new, as these complaints were considered by the FCC’s Media Bureau in early 2017, under the former leadership of the FCC (see our article here).  When the new Republican-controlled Commission took over, the Media Bureau decisions were rescinded, as the new Commission felt that these issues should be considered by the Commissioners rather than at the Bureau level.  The decisions that resulted from this additional review come to much the same result as had the Media Bureau decision, though some of the explanations are more detailed.  In making the decision more detailed, the Commission may have made the acceptance of political ads from non-candidate groups even more troublesome for broadcasters than these ads have been in the past.  What do these rulings provide?
Continue Reading FCC Issues “Clarifications” of Political Broadcasting Public File Disclosure Requirements – Significantly More Disclosures to Be Required on Issue Ads

In this “political” year with Congressional mid-term elections in November, including many hotly contested races for seats in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as many state and local elections, I receive many questions from broadcasters across the country. Perhaps the area in which most questions are received deals with the “political file,” particularly because these files are now available online. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the country has raised many questions that were perhaps less top of mind when the file was available only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. So, with the election just over a month away, meaning that the busiest advertising period will be coming up between now and the election, I thought that it would be worth taking a look at some of the online public file issues.

As an initial matter, it is worth mentioning that the political file has two main purposes. First, it is designed to provide information to the public about who is trying to convince them to vote in a certain way or to take action on other political issues that may be facing their country or community. Second, the file is to inform one candidate of what uses of broadcast stations his or her opponents are making. Thus, the documents placed in the file must be kept in the file for only two years from the date that they were created – perhaps on the assumption that at that point, we will be on to the next election cycle and old documents really won’t matter to the public or to competing candidates in the last election. But what needs to go into the file?
Continue Reading Beware of the Political File Obligations in this Hot Political Advertising Year