The FCC has announced that the obligation for television broadcast stations to post their public inspection files online will become effective August 2, 2012, absent a stay requested by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which has appealed the rule to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Absent a stay, the rule requires full power and Class A television stations to post any NEW public file documents online at an FCC-hosted website as of August 2nd.  Those broadcasters will have six months or until February 2, 2013 to post PRE-EXISTING public file documents online. 

The political public file, which is the subject of the NAB appeal, will be treated a bit differently.  NEW political public file documents must be posted effective August 2 by only the top four network affiliated stations (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) in the top 50 markets. There is no requirement to post pre-existing political file documents online.

All other TV stations (i.e. non-network affiliated stations in the top 50 markets and ALL TV stations outside of the top 50 markets), do not have to post political public file documents online until July 1, 2014.


Continue Reading Online Public File Requirement for TV Broadcasters Effective August 2, 2012

In recent days we have seen political action committees (PACs) claiming they are "prohibited" from running political ads in primary states due to "new rules" regarding "electioneering communications."  As explained below, these claims are incorrect.  What they are really doing is trying to avoid the need to reveal the identity of their contributors, following a US District Court decision in March.

Under Federal Election law, an "electioneering communication" is a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, targeted to 50,000 or more people in the state or district the candidate seeks to represent. For President and Vice Presidential candidates, an "electioneering communication" is one that can be received by 50,000 or more people within 30 days of a state primary or the nominating convention.

By federal statute, sponsors of "electioneering communications" must disclose the names and addresses of each donor who contributed $1000 or more to the sponsoring organization. This is is the provision that led to the US District Court decision at issue.


Continue Reading Some PACs Stop Running “Electioneering Communication” Ads to Avoid Reporting Requirements

While rumors are flying that the FCC is rushing to adopt its proposals to require that TV stations put their public inspection files online (see our summary of the proposals here), both the FCC and public interest groups are targeting the public files of television stations – looking to copy some or all of those files.  Rumors are that the FCC inspected the public files of all television stations in at least one city – and asked for copies of the complete files to be produced at the FCC within a day or two, in some cases requiring the copying of several file cabinets worth of material very quickly.  Whether this inspection is a one-shot deal or the start of a program to audit the files of TV stations across the country is unclear.  At the same time, public interest groups have been urging their members to inspect TV station public files across the nation, to copy parts of those files, and to post the information that they collect online.  TV stations across the country need to be prepared for these inspections.

Why these actions now?  Some may think that the FCC is just conducting a random audit, while others may suggest that the demand for complete public files is just a fact-finding mission as part of its rulemaking process.  The more suspicious of broadcasters may think that this represents the FCC sending a message that the online public file is coming, and stations may find it easier to accept the online file rather than facing these demands for the instant reproduction of their entire files to be inspected at leisure in Washington. 


Continue Reading FCC and Public Interest Groups Demand Copies of TV Stations’ Public Inspection Files, As FCC Nears Decision About Requiring That The Complete File Be Posted Online

Political speech has been called the "life-breath of democracy" by the US Supreme Court and receives very strong First Amendment protection.  For that reason, the FCC has said that it will "not attempt to judge the truth or falsity of material broadcast regarding candidates or ballot issues."  That principle is sure to be tested in the wave of negative campaign ads we are likely to see between now and November, many of which will generate "cease and desist" letters from the subjects of those negative ads. Of course, broadcasters and cable operators alike are immune from liability for anything said in the context of a candidate "use" featuring a sponsoring candidate’s recognizable voice or image…the so-called "no censorship" rule.

There is, however, one type of political ad that could create potential liability for the media if allowed to run unchecked:  A third party or PAC attack ad that is defamatory. A defamatory ad is one that exposes the candidate to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule.  Generally, these are ads that allege crime, fraud, dishonest or immoral conduct on the part of the candidate.  Truth is the only absolute defense to a defamatory claim.  Therefore, when defamation is alleged, substantiation should be requested.  Read on for details of a recent case study….


Continue Reading Political Ad Content—When Do You Need to Worry?

Every year, about this time, I dust off the crystal ball to offer a look at the year ahead to see what Washington has in store for broadcasters.  This year, like many in the recent past, Washington will consider issues that could fundamentally affect the broadcast industry – for both radio and TV, and affecting the growing on-line presence of broadcasters.  The FCC, Congress, and other government agencies are never afraid to provide their views on what the industry should be doing but, unlike other members of the audience, they can force broadcasters to pay attention to their views by way of new laws and regulations. And there is never a shortage of ideas from Washington as to how broadcasters should act.  Some of the issues discussed below are perennials, coming back over and over again on my yearly list (often without resolution), while others are unique to this coming year.  Issues unique to radio and TV, and those that could affect the broadcast industry generally, are addressed below.

Television Issues

Spectrum issues have been the dominant TV concerns in past years, first with the digital transition, and more recently with the "white spaces" rulemaking and the proposals advanced as part of the FCC’s Broadband Plan to reclaim part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband uses.  These issues remain on the FCC’s agenda, as do new issues dealing with the carriage of television stations by cable and satellite television providers.  Specific issues for TV include:

Spectrum reclamation:  The initial proposals for the reclamation of part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband were laid by the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in November, looking at how the TV spectrum could be used more efficiently, and how incentive auctions encouraging some TV stations to vacate their channels could be conducted.  Congress still has to pass legislation to allow such auctions, and it will probably also mandate a spectrum inventory to determine if the reclamation of the TV spectrum is really necessary to provide for wireless broadband needs.  At the same time, some TV operators have begun to talk about television stations themselves providing broadband service with their excess spectrum.  While Congress will probably act on the auction bills this year, and there will be much debate about the details of the reallocation issue, so don’t expect final resolution of this matter in 2011.

White Spaces:  The FCC has authorized the operation of wireless devices in the television spectrum, resolving many of the concerns about interference to television operators by requiring all wireless users to protect operating TV channels in specific areas based on databases of existing users, not on spectrum sensing techniques.  But implementation issues still need to be worked out – including finding parties to compile and administer the databases to make sure that all existing spectrum users who are to be protected are registered.  Expect action on these matters this year, but no actual white spaces use until after these implementation efforts are completed.

LPTV Digital Transition:  While many members of the general public may consider the digital television transition to be complete, many Low Power TV stations and TV translators are still operating in analog.  The FCC has commenced a proceeding to require the transition of these stations to digital, suggesting that the transition be complete as early as the end of 2012.  Expect controversy on this issue.  Many LPTV stations feel that being forced incur the costs to covert to digital is premature and could imperil broadcast service, especially to rural areas and minority populations who rely on translators and LPTV stations, if spectrum repacking caused by any future repurposing of TV spectrum for broadband forces further technical changes.  These issues will be considered by the Commission this year.

Retransmission Consent Reform:  At the end of 2010, there was much controversy over retransmission consent issues, as there were instances where broadcasters and cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors had difficult negotiations over the carriage fees to be paid to the TV stations.  FCC sources stated at the end of the year that a proceeding will be initiated to determine if the rules governing the negotiation process should be changed.  The multichannel video programming distributors and some public interest groups argue that the FCC should protect viewers who may have their TV service disappear if a TV station does not reach a deal with a MVPD, while the broadcasters argue that the ability to remove the station is the heart of the negotiation, and removing the risk of the MVPD losing the right to carry the station would negate the negotiation.  Look for this proceeding to commence early in the year but, as it will no doubt be very controversial, it may take some time to resolve.

DMA Boundary Issues:  The FCC has also begun a proceeding to look at DMA boundaries that cross state lines to see if every television viewer should be guaranteed to receive service from cable or satellite providers of a station in his or her state.  Television stations fear that this guarantee could upset traditional television markets, and could have an impact on retransmission consent negotiations in border counties.  Comments in this proceeding are due on January 24th, 2011.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – What Washington Has In Store For Broadcasters in 2011

Citizens United has led to many third party political ads, which in turn has led to many cease and desist letters to broadcasters and cable operators that they pull those ads. Most concern “false and misleading” statements, which should not be a concern in the political realm. A few concern potential defamation, which may be of concern. Getting substantiation is wise, but in most cases, there is no need to pull the ads in question.
Continue Reading What to Do With Cease and Desist Letters About Political Ads

David Oxenford today conducted a webinar for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters on the rules for political advertising.  In addition to the elections for the US House of Representatives, Kansas has a race to fill a vacant US Senate seat, as well as elections for Governor and a whole host of state and local offices.

On November 10, Davis Wright Tremaine’s David Oxenford and Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, conducted a webinar on the FCC’s political broadcasting rules and policies.  The webinar originated from Lansing, Michigan, before an audience of Michigan Broadcasters, and was webcast to broadcasters in 13 other states.  Topics discussed included reasonable

Failing to meet the obligations set out under the law for required sponsorship identification on Federal political ads could, theoretically, cost candidates significant amounts of money – if stations decide to hold the candidates to the letter of the law. Under the terms of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Federal candidates airing television commercials that refer to a competing candidate must specifically state, in the candidate’s own voice, that he or she has approved the ad, while a full-screen image of the candidate appears on the screen. In addition, the name of the sponsoring candidate’s campaign committee must appear in text on the screen for at least 4 seconds at 4 percent of screen height, with sufficient color contrast to make the text readable. If the proper identification is not contained in an ad, the candidates forfeit their right to lowest unit rates for the entire pre-election period (45 days before a primary or 60 days before an election), even with respect to future ads that comply with the rules. In recent days, representatives of Democratic Congressional candidates have reportedly filed complaints that argue that Republican competitors have not complied with the rules in several cases, as their written disclosures did not air for the full four seconds. The challengers argue that television stations must take away LUR for these candidates. While the statute say that the candidates forfeit their rights to such rates, the law is unclear as to whether stations are obligated to deny that rate to candidates after the right has been forfeited – and these cases could resolve this issue.

Television stations undeniably have the power to charge full rates to candidates whose ads have not complied with the requirements of the campaign statute. However, many stations have been reluctant to do so for minor infractions such as the ones identified in this complaint. Why wouldn’t television stations want to charge more money? For several reasons. First, denying one candidate lowest unit rates will no doubt trigger a fly-specking of every commercial by the competitor who filed the complaint against the first candidate, to try to trigger a forfeiture of the second candidate’s right to Lowest Unit Rates, and adjudicating such complaints will no doubt make the station’s political sales process much more difficult and costly to administer. In addition, there is the question of whether, for a minor violation, a station really wants to give the other candidate a political advantage – especially if the candidate who gets charged more more wins the election and gets to vote on laws that may effect business in the future. But can stations legally continue to charge the lowest unit rate even when a candidate has not complied with the legal requirements for sponsorship identification?


Continue Reading What Happens if a Federal Candidate’s Commercial Does Not Have Proper Sponsorship Disclosure?

Political Broadcasting season is now in full swing, with the Democrats just ending their convention, and the Republicans beginning theirs next week.  Already, we’ve seen disputes about third party attack ads (see our post here), and there are bound to be many more issues about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules that arise during what looks to be a very contentious political season.  For guidance on many political broadcasting issues, you can check out our Political Broadcasting Guide, with discussions of many common political broadcasting issues (including reasonable access, equal opportunities, lowest unit rates, public file issues, and political disclosure statements) in what we hope is an easy to follow question and answer format.   Broadcasters should also remember that the Lowest Unit Rate "political window" opens on September 5, meaning that stations cannot charge political candidates any more than the lowest rate that is charged a commercial advertiser for the same class of time run at the same time as the candidate’s spot. 

We have reminded broadcasters that the Lowest Unit Rate (or "Lowest Unit Charge,"  often abbreviated as" LUC" or "LUR")must be available to all candidates for public office – including state and local candidates.  While state and local candidates have no right of reasonable access (meaning that a station can decide not to sell time to those candidates, or to restrict their purchase of time to particular limited dayparts), if the station sells state and local candidates time, it must be at Lowest Unit Rates during the political window. 


Continue Reading Lowest Unit Rates for Political Candidates Begin on September 5; Get Answers to Political Broadcasting Questions from Our Political Broadcasting Guide