online public inspection file

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,

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

In recent weeks, with so many government officials looking to get messages out about the coronavirus pandemic, we have received many questions about issues that arise when political candidates appear on public service-type announcements – either free PSAs provided by the station or paid spots purchased by some governmental entity.  While such announcements can be run by stations, if a legally qualified candidate personally appears in the spot (their recognizable voice in a radio ad or their voice or picture in a TV ad), stations need to note the advertising purchase in their FCC Online Public Inspection File, as these spots constitute a “use” by a candidate, and they can also give rise to equal opportunities by opposing candidates.

If the use is in a spot on which the candidate appears is a paid-for spot, then any equal time to which opposing candidates are entitled would be on a similar paid-for basis.  This is the same situation as if a commercial advertiser who voices or appears in their own ads decides to run for office (see our article here).  But if the spot is a free PSA, then the appearance of a legally qualified candidate, even if the PSA says nothing about their campaign, can trigger the requirement to give free equal time to any opposing candidates who make any equal opportunities request within seven days.
Continue Reading Reminder:  PSAs Featuring Candidates Can Give Rise to Equal Time and Public File Obligations

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

The FCC on  Friday released a Public Notice announcing that they are giving stations more time in which to upload their Quarterly Issues Programs lists to their online public file and to file their first Annual Children’s Television Report.  In our list of April regulatory dates for broadcasters last week, we had highlighted both of those filings.  Because of the disruption of the schedules of so many people, and the lack of access to many broadcast stations, the FCC appears to have decided that broadcasters should get more time to meet these regulatory obligations.

Quarterly Issues Programs lists are required to be uploaded to the online public inspection file of all full-power stations every quarter – and would normally be required to be in the public file by April 10.  While urging stations to upload those lists as soon as possible, the Commission has given stations until July 10 (when the next quarter’s lists will be due) to upload this quarter’s report.  So the two reports could be uploaded at the same time.
Continue Reading FCC Announces Extensions of Deadlines to Upload Quarterly Issues Programs List and to File Annual Children’s Television Report

At its open meeting this week, the FCC adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to change the requirement for local public notice of certain broadcast applications.  Such notices are required currently for applications, including license renewals and station sales.  The current rules contain different requirements for different types of applications that

On Friday, the FCC’s Audio Division released its first decision in the current renewal cycle addressing the issue of incomplete public inspection files and missing Quarterly Issues Programs List, proposing to fine an AM station in Virginia $15,000 for apparently not having any Issues Programs Lists in its online public inspection file for the entire renewal term.  The decision, found here, should serve as a warning to broadcasters to make sure that their online files are complete and up to date.

The facts of this case, summarized below, seem particularly egregious as the station had the same issue of missing issues programs lists when its last renewal was filed 8 years ago.  Nevertheless, we can expect that this won’t be the last fine we will see for stations that have incomplete public files.  The FCC has been sending out warnings about incomplete online files for the last year, and we’ve been warning (see, for instance, here and here) that, with all public inspection files now being available online, the FCC will likely be issuing fines during this renewal cycle if documents are missing from the file.  The Quarterly Issues Programs lists are seen by the FCC as being particularly important as they are the only official documents demonstrating the public interest programming that was actually broadcast by a station (see our article here). 
Continue Reading $15,000 Fine and Short-Term License Renewal Proposed for Radio Station Missing Issues Programs Lists in Its Online Public Inspection File

Looking for a brief explanation of the online public inspection file and Quarterly Issues Programs List, and how they will be viewed in connection with the upcoming license renewal cycle – including the potential fines for violations of the rules? The Indiana Broadcasters has just released this video of me discussing those issues available