On Monday, the President signed into law a bill adjusting the reimbursement dates of the Low Power Television grant program by which LPTV and TV translator stations can seek a $1,000 grant in order to ensure that they are able to continue to receive and rebroadcast the signals of primary full-power television stations once the full-power stations complete the transition to digital television.   In late 2007, the government announced the start of the LPTV Digital-to-Analog grant program designed to help translators and low power television stations continue their analog broadcasts after the February 17, 2009 conversion of full-power television stations to DTV.  Specifically, the LPTV Digital-to-Analog Conversion grant program will provide funds to eligible translators and LPTV stations that need to purchase a digital-to-analog converter box in order to convert the incoming signal of a full-power DTV station to analog format for retransmission on the analog LPTV station.  The program has been funded with a total of $8 million, which is available in $1,000 grants to eligible LPTV stations.  As a result of the recent change, funds granted through the LPTV Digital-to-Analog grant program will available beginning in fiscal year 2009 (Oct. 1, 2008 – Sept. 30, 2009), rather than in fiscal year 2011.  In addition, the recent bill also extends the availability of funding through fiscal year 2012.

Any low-power television broadcast station, Class A television station, television translator station, or television booster station that meets the following three criteria may apply for the grant to defray the cost of the digital-to-analog converter box:

  1. It is itself broadcasting exclusively in analog format;
  2. It has not purchased a digital-to-analog conversion device prior to February 8, 2006; and
  3. It is (or will be) re-transmitting the off-air digital signal of a full-power DTV station.

Applications for this grant program are being accepted until February 17, 2009.  Priority compensation will be given to eligible LPTV stations licensed to 501(c) non-profit entities or LPTV stations serving a rural area of fewer than 10,000 viewers.  Thus, priority is given to stations owned by translator associations and others that might not otherwise be able to afford the costs of converting the signals that they receive from analog to digital, and which might, without the grants, go off the air.  More information on how to apply for such grants is available on the NTIA’s website here.   


Continue Reading Dates for Reimbursement Under the LPTV Digital-to-Analog Grant Program Revised

The FCC today provided two more examples of its policy that virtually any sort of interview program is going to be deemed a "bona fide news interview program" exempt from any claim of equal opportunities (or "equal time" as it is commonly referred to) if the program features an appearance by a political candidate. In the decisions released today, the FCC declared that the 700 Club produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network (decision here) and TMZ produced by Telepictures Productions (decision here), both syndicated across the country, were analogous to programs like Entertainment Tonight, which the FCC had previously found to be an exempt program.  While these programs may focus on some unique aspect of the news or current affairs, the fact that they cover the candidates with their own particular slant (entertainment news, music news or whatever) does not prevent them from being considered bona fide news interview programs.  Where the coverage of the candidate is done based on good faith determinations of what is newsworthy rather than to politically favor the candidate, and where the programming remains under the control of the program producers and not the candidate, the programming is considered exempt from equal opportunities.  This is fully consistent with past Commission policy which we have written about many times before (see, for instance, our post on the evolution of this exemption in the context of political debates, here, and our posts on the candidacies of Fred Thompson and Stephen Colbert).  Thus, while these decisions are not controversial, they do raise some questions that broadcasters and candidates should ponder.

The first interesting question is raised by a paragraph included in both of the decisions released today.  The paragraph warns licensees that, if they are carrying syndicated programming that contains an appearance by a political candidate, and that program is relying on  the news interview exception, the licensee must itself make a determination that the program is newsworthy.  I think that this ties in with another line in the decisions stating that there is no evidence that the decisions by the program producers that the appearances by the candidates are newsworthy were not bona fide journalistic decisions.  In other words, if the program producer was to include candidate appearances in a blatantly political way (e.g. by totally excluding the candidates of one party and promoting the candidates of the other), then the Commission could conclude that the decisions were not "bona fide,"  and that equal opportunities did apply.


Continue Reading FCC Declares 700 Club and TMZ are Exempt From Equal Time – With Some Issues Left Unaddressed

The FCC Form 355 requiring "enhanced disclosure" by television stations was a frequent topic of discussion at this week’s NAB Convention in Las Vegas.  That form will require that television broadcasters report significant, detailed information about their programming, providing very detailed reports of the percentage of programming that they devote to news, public affairs, election programming, local programming, PSAs, independently produced programs and various other program categories, as well as specifics of each program that fits into these categories (see our detailed description of the requirements here).  Obviously, all broadcasters were concerned about how they would deal with the expense and time necessary to complete the forms, and the potential for complaints about the programming that such reports will generate.  At legal sessions by the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law and the Federal Communications Bar Association, held in connection with the NAB Convention, it became very clear to me that the obligations imposed by these new rules are obligations adopted for absolutely no reason, as the Commission has not adopted any rules mandating specific amounts of the types of programming reported on the form.  In fact, one of the Commissioner’s legal assistants confirmed that, unless and until the FCC adopts such specific programming requirements, the Commission’s staff will not need to spend any time processing these forms.  Thus, if the form goes into effect, broadcasters will be forced to keep these records, and expend significant amounts of staff time and station resources necessary to complete the forms, for essentially no purpose.

Of course, public interest advocates will argue that the forms will allow the Commission to assess the station’s operation in the public interest, and will allow the public to complain about failures of stations to serve local needs.  But, as in a recent license renewal case we wrote about here, the Commission rejected a Petition to Deny against a station based on its alleged failure to do much local public affairs programming as, without specific quantitative program requirements, the Commission cannot punish a station for not doing specific amounts of particular programming. If the Commission adheres to this precedent, it will not be able to fine stations for the information that they put on the Form 355, but only for not filing it or not completing it accurately.  Thus, unless the Commission adopts specific programming requirements, the form will be nothing more than a paperwork trap for the unwary or overburdened broadcaster.  And, as is usually the case with such obligations, the burden will fall hardest on the small broadcaster who does not the staff and resources to devote to otherwise unnecessary paperwork.


Continue Reading FCC Form 355 – A Form Without a Reason?

We recently wrote about the Federal Communications Commission’s actions in their Diversity docket, designed to promote new entrants into the ranks of broadcast station owners. In addition to the rules adopted in the proceeding, the FCC is seeking comment on a number of other ideas – some to restrict the definition of the Designated Entities that are eligible to take advantage of these rules, others to expand the universe of media outlets available to potential broadcast owners – including proposals to expand the FM band onto TV channels 5 and 6, and proposals to allow certain AM stations, which were to be returned to the FCC after their owners received construction permits for expanded band stations, to retain those stations or transfer them to Designated Entities. The proposals, on which public comment is being sought, are summarized below.

Definition of Designated Entity. The first issue raised by the Commission deals with whether the class of applicants entitled to Designated Entity status and entitled to take advantage of the Commission’s diversity initiatives should be restricted. One proposal is to restrict the Designated Entity status to companies controlled by racial minorities. The Commission expressed skepticism about that proposal, noting that the courts had throw out several versions of the FCC’s EEO rules, finding that there was insufficient justification offered by the FCC to constitutionally justify raced-based preferences. The Commission asked that proponents of such preferences provide a “compelling” showing of needed, as necessary for a constitutional justification for governmental race-based discrimination.


Continue Reading FCC’s Acts to Increase Diversity in Media Ownership – Part 2, The Proposals for Future Actions – Channel 6 for FM, AM Expanded Band, Definition of Designated Entity, Must Carry for Class A TV and Others

The FCC has now joined the Nevada Courts (see our post here) in denying Dennis Kucinich entry into the Presidential debates.  In a decision released this week, the FCC found that they could not force CNN to include Kucinich in its Democratic Presidential Debate, as such an action would violate the First Amendment.  The FCC only has the jurisdiction to determine if Kucinich was entitled to equal opportunities for not being included, and the Commission rejected that claim as well, finding that the carriage of the debate was on-the-spot coverage of a news event, exempt from equal opportunities. 

This decision is what we predicted in our post when the court’s denied Kucinich access to the Nevada Presidential debate.  As we set out in that post, to encourage political debates, the FCC has determined that debates are on-the-spot coverage of news events as long as more than one candidate is included, and the decision as to which candidates to invite is made based on some rational criteria that is not exercised in some discriminatory, partisan fashion.  In this case, the Commission found that CNN’s criteria – that a candidate had to have finished in the top 4 in a previous primary and be polling over 5% in an established national Presidential preference poll were not standards that were being applied arbitrarily for partisan reasons. The Commission concluded that the mere fact that Kucinich was receiving Federal funds and had unique positions on the issues was not enough to conclude that CNN was required to either include him in the debate or provide him equal time.


Continue Reading FCC Rules Against Kucinich Request for Inclusion in CNN Presidential Debate

In a wild series of legal decisions preceding the Democratic Presidential debate in Nevada, a Nevada judge ruled that MSNBC had to include Congressman Dennis Kucinich in its debate, only to be overruled by a decision of the Nevada Supreme Court released less than a hour before the debate was to begin.  Notably, the initial decision was not based on FCC rules, but instead on a breach of contract theory, as FCC precedent seems relatively clear that a Presidential debate sponsor need not include all candidates in a debate for the coverage of that debate by a broadcaster or cable operator to be exempt from the equal opportunities rules enforced by the FCC. 

 The FCC has long recognized that, to promote the coverage of debates on broadcast media, the sponsors need to be able to limit participation in those debates for them to have any meaning.  In some races where there are minimal requirements for being placed on a ballot, there can be dozens of candidates for a particular office.  If all needed to be included in a broadcast debate, the debate would never be broadcast, and the public would not receive the benefit that on-air coverage would provide.  The issue first arose when the equal opportunities rule was adopted, as broadcasters feared that, unless every candidate for a particular office was included in the debate, any broadcaster or cable company carrying the debate would have to give free "equal time" to any candidate that did not participate in the debate. 


Continue Reading Nevada Court Denies Kucinich Right to Participate in Broadcast Debate – Recognizing FCC’s Exclusive Role to Regulate Equal Opportunities in Political Debates

The FCC today adopted a Report on its Localism proceeding, accessing the evidence that it gathered in its three year long investigation of whether broadcasters were adequately serving the interests of their local communities.  We wrote long ago about some of the specific issues that the FCC was reviewing in this proceeding – everything from the public interest programming of broadcasters to their music selection process to their response to local emergencies.  Among the report’s conclusions were findings that not all broadcasters were adequately assessing the needs of their communities or serving the public interest through coverage of local news and other local events.  Because of these perceived weaknesses in broadcaster performance, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, much as we expected in our post here, tentatively concluding that re-regulation of the broadcast industry was necessary, bringing back some form of ascertainment and some specific quantifiable requirements for public interest programming

As in the case of the Multiple Ownership order adopted today (summarized here), the full text of the FCC Report and the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking has not been released.  Instead, only a short Public Notice, and the statements of the Commissioners at the meeting, are available to determine what was done.  From these notices, it appears that three tentative conclusions were reached.  They are, as follows:

  • More Low Power TV stations should be able to get Class A status, meaning that they are no longer a secondary service that can be "bumped" by a new full power television station or by changes to the facilities of a full-power station
  • Each licensee should be required to establish a community advisory board made up of specific groups of community leaders, with whom the station would meet on a regular basis to assess the needs of the community
  • The FCC’s license renewal standards should contain specific quantitative requirements for public service programming

While these may sound like noble decisions, there are many details and much history that the Commission needs to address before these proposals become final FCC rules.


Continue Reading FCC Adopts Localism Report and Starts Rulemaking to Consider Adopting New Public Interest Obligations for Broadcasters

As we wrote earlier this week, the FCC is to consider at its meeting next Tuesday a Report on the results of its "Localism" proceeding, and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the findings contained in the Report.  From rumors going around Washington today, that Notice may ask for comments on tentative findings that would roll back of much of the broadcast deregulation of the last 25 years.   Rumors are that the Commission will be issuing "tentative conclusions" determining that the FCC should re-impose specific ascertainment requirements of some sort (requiring that broadcasters regularly meet with specific types of community leaders to get their input on station programming).  Also, the Commission will tentatively conclude that there should be quantitative programming requirements – that each station do a specific amount of local programming and perhaps specific amounts of news, public affairs other types of programs each week. If a licensee does not meet the requirements, the station’s license renewal application would not be granted routinely by the FCC’s staff, but instead would be subject to an additional level of scrutiny by the full Commission. The Commission is also apparently proposing that it return to the old rules that all stations have a manned main studio during all hours of operation. There is reportedly also a proposal that stations report to the FCC about how they decide what music they play.

Staring in the early 1980s, the FCC did away with many of the specific, detailed programming requirements that had previously bound broadcasters.  These requirements were quite burdensome, especially for small stations and stations in small markets with limited staffs.  Rather than spending their time on broadcast operations, station staff had to make sure that their operations met programming standards imposed from Washington, dictating the government’s ideas of what was good for the station’s audience, even if the station might feel, because of its format or the demographics of its audience that a particular type of programming did not serve the needs of its community.  In the mid-1980s, the FCC concluded that these rules were no longer necessary, as it was concluded that there was enough media diversity that the marketplace would dictate that broadcasters serve their audiences with appropriate content that met the needs of that audience as, if they did not, some other broadcaster would.  The economic incentive of the fear of the loss of audience to a competitor who better served the public was deemed enough to insure that the broadcaster acted responsibly.
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Continue Reading Moving Forward Back to 1980 – The FCC Set to Conclude that Specific Public Interest Obigations are Required for Broadcasters

The FCC today adopted new requirements for television broadcasters to quarterly file a report with the FCC quantifying their service to the public.  The order also requires that stations keep their public file on their website, if they have a website.  Broadcasters will also be required to broadcast twice each day a notice as to how listeners can find their public file.  This order resolves some of the issues raised in a rulemaking proceeding (about which we wrote here) begun over 7 years ago as part of the rules to govern TV’s digital transition.  Yet these new rules apply to analog as well as digital television operations.  In fact, the public file rule goes into effect 60 days after the publication of the FCC’s order in the Federal Register.  

The new FCC form will replace the Quarterly Issues Programs lists prepared by licensees since the mid-1980s.  The Quarterly Issues lists were originally adopted to replace more detailed reporting requirements which forced broadcasters to collect and file the same types of information that the FCC is now requesting.  While the new forms are not yet released, from the discussion at the FCC meeting, it appears that they will require the following information:

  • Details about civic and election coverage provided by the station
  • Information about programming from independent producers that is aired by the station
  • Information about the number of Public Service announcements (PSAs) aired by the station
  • A description of efforts that the station has undertaken to serve its community
  • Specifics about emergency information provided by the station
  • Information about how emergency and other information is provided to viewers with disabilities
  • There was also some discussion that indicated that the reports would require information about how stations ascertain the needs of their community that are addressed in their programs.


Continue Reading FCC Adopts Rules Requiring TV Stations to Keep Public File on Website – and Adopts New Requirements for Quantifying Public Interest Obligations

Late Tuesday night, in a meeting originally scheduled to start at 9:30 in the morning, the FCC adopted an order establishing the rules governing the carriage of broadcast signals by cable operators after the February 17, 2009 transition to digital television.  While the full text of the Commission’s action has not yet been released (and may not be released for quite some time), based on the FCC’s formal news release and the statements made by the commissioners at the meeting and in their accompanying press releases, we can provide the following summary of these important FCC actions.

First, for a period of at least three years after the February 17, 2009 transition from analog to digital broadcasting, cable operators will be required to make the signals of local broadcast stations available to all of their subscribers by either:  (1) carrying the television station’s digital signal in an analog format, or (2) carrying the signal only in digital format, provided that all subscribers have the necessary equipment to view the broadcast content.  This rule reflects a compromise position offered by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and is regarded as less burdensome on cable systems then the FCC’s original proposal of an indefinite analog carriage obligation. 

Second, the FCC reaffirmed its existing requirement that cable systems must carry High Definition (HD) broadcast signals in HD format, and further that it must carry signals with “no material degradation”, i.e., with picture quality as good as any other programming carried by the operator.  In affirming its "no material degradation" standard, the FCC rejected a proposal by the broadcast industry that would have required operators to pass-through all of the bits in digital television broadcast signal.


Continue Reading FCC Adopts Post-Digital Transition “Must-Carry” Rules, Extends Ban on Exclusive Programming Contracts, and Opens Inquiry Into “Tying” Agreements