In a case just released by the FCC, a broadcaster was fined for enforcing a non-compete agreement that was entered into when a broadcaster sold one of its stations in a market in and agreed that it would not compete in the same format if it ever acquired another station in the same market.  The agreement had prohibited the Seller from competing with the Buyer in a news-talk format.  After the closing of the sale of the station, the Seller acquired another station in the market and adopted a format that a local court found was covered by the non-compete clause in the contract.  The local court issued an injunction against the continuation of the news-talk format.  At that point, the Seller filed a complaint with the FCC, arguing that, by obtaining the injunction, the Buyer had engaged in an unauthorized assumption of control of the station covered by the injunction, without FCC approval.  The FCC agreed with the Seller, and fined the Buyer $8000 for exercising control over the station that Seller had bought.

The FCC’s reasoning in this case, citing a similar letter decision from 2006, is that the restriction on format impedes a licensee’s control over its own programming, and restricts its ability to adjust its operations to account for changing market conditions.  The Commission concluded that, barring the licensee from utilizing a particular format, even for the limited period of the non-compete agreement, was contrary to the public interest.  By obtaining the injunction to prevent the Seller from using the news-talk format, the Buyer had impermissibly exercised control over the station that it had already sold.  In fact, the Commission went further, and found that the exercise of control over the programming, personnel or finances of the station would be a violation of the rules. 


Continue Reading Format Noncompete Agreements Can Lead to FCC Fine

The deadline for submitting comments in the Commission’s Localism rule making proceeding is fast approaching.  Comments are due by April 28th, and can be filed electronically through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System.  This proceeding contains a number of significant proposals and could possibly re-institute regulations that were lifted from the broadcast industry decades ago.  Formal ascertainment through community advisory boards and possibly other means, requirements for manning main studios during all hours of operation of broadcast stations, imposing quantitative programming requirements, and requiring that main studios be maintained within a station’s community of license are just a few of the many proposals the FCC is considering.  See our more detailed summary here.  This proceeding seeks input on these and other potentially burdensome requirements, many of which were eliminated by the Commission long ago, and some of which go beyond what the FCC has ever required before.   Given the potential impact this proceeding could have on broadcast stations, broadcasters are encouraged to file comments in this important rule making proceeding.   When submitting comments, commenters should be sure to reference the docket number for this rule making, MB Docket No. 04-233.

Some members of Congress have already chimed in in this proceeding and submitted comments opposing the Commission’s localism proposals.  Over 120 members of Congress signed on to a letter addressed to Chairman Martin urging the Commission to avoid imposing additional regulations on broadcasters and to carefully consider the cost and effect that such regulation would have on the industry.  A copy of the letter is available here.  A summary of the letter posted on Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s web site characterizes the localism proceeding as an attempt to "restore a 1970s era regulatory regime for local broadcasters." 


Continue Reading Comments on Localism Proceeding Due April 28; Congress Chimes In

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?

In the early 1980s, the FCC deregulated many of the very detailed programing rules that governed broadcasters,  based on the theory that the marketplace would assure that broadcasters provided programming of interest to their local community.  The FCC looked at the marketplace, and decided that broadcasters either had to program to the needs of their community, or risk the loss of their audience to competitors.  Now, the FCC is proposing to bring back many of these rules with a vengeance (see our post on the FCC’s current efforts) – imposing rules even more detailed than those that were abolished over a quarter century ago.  A look at this week’s news raises the question of why now – when there are more media choices than ever (and when, particularly in the radio industry, revenues with which to meet such requirements are shrinking) – the FCC cannot rely on the marketplace to assure service to the public.  When marketplace forces require that broadcasters use their most important asset – their localism – to compete against all the new competition, the FCC is now looking to require that broadcasters meet their public interest obligations in a very specific, cookie cutter, government-mandated fashion.  Some of the announcements made this week highlight the extent of the competition that broadcasters now face.

On the most basic level, there are simply far more stations than there ever were.  According to an FCC Report published in 1980, there were 4559 commercial AM stations, 3155 commercial FM stations, and 1038 noncommercial FM stations.  While the number of AM stations had not increased substantially by the end of 2007 (4776), the number of commercial FM stations has doubled to 6309, and the number of noncommercial FMs has increased even more substantially, to 2892.  TV shows a similar increase in service – from 746 commercial and 267 noncommercial stations in 1980 to 1379 commercial stations and 380 noncommercial stations.  In addition, thousand of LPTV stations have been created, and over 800 LPFM stations – services that didn’t even exist in 1980.  Clearly, the over-the-air competition is far greater than when the FCC initiated its deregulation efforts.


Continue Reading I-Pod Radio, Internet in Cars and More Broadcast Stations Than Ever – Why Can’t the Marketplace Decide?

In a decision last week, the FCC fined a radio station $4000 for broadcasting the message from someone’s telephone answering machine without permission.  The FCC’s rules forbid the broadcast of a telephone call without permission (and the recording of a phone call for broadcast without permission).  So, a station violates the rule when a caller says

The FCC has released the full text of its Order adopting enhanced disclosure requirements for broadcast television stations – requiring that they post their public files on their websites and that they quarterly file a new form, FCC Form 355, detailing their programming in minute detail, breaking it down by specific program categories, and certifying that the station has complied with a number of FCC programming rules.  The Commission also released the new form itself and, as detailed below, the form will require a significant effort for broadcasters to document their programming efforts – probably requiring dedicated employees just to gather the necessary information.  The degree of detail required is more substantial than that ever required of broadcasters – far more detailed than the information broadcasters were required to gather prior to the deregulation of the 1980s – though, for the time being, much (though not all) of the information is not tied to any specific programming obligations set by the FCC.

 Before getting to the specifics of the new requirements, the thoughts of the Commission in adopting this order should be considered.  The Commission’s decision focuses on its desire to increase the amount of citizen participation in the operation of television stations and the decisions that they make on programming matters.  While many broadcasters protested that the public rarely cared about the details of their operations, as evidenced by the fact that their public files were rarely if ever inspected, the Commission suggested that this was perhaps due to the difficulty the public had in seeing those files (the public actually had to go to the station to look at the file) and the lack of knowledge of the existence of the files (though broadcasters routinely broadcast notice of the public file’s existence during the processing of their license renewal applications, rarely producing any viewers visiting the station to view the file).  With respect to the new Form 355 detailing the station’s programming, the Commission rejected arguments that reporting of specific types of programming in excruciating detail imposes any First Amendment burden on stations, as the Commission claims that it has imposed no new substantive requirements.  Yet the Commission cites its desires that the public become more involved in the scrutinizing of the programming of television stations, which it states will be aided by the new form, and also emphasizes the importance that the Commission places on local service (an item detailed in Form 355).  At the same time, in its proposals detailed in its Localism proceeding (summarized here), the Commission is proposing rules requiring specific amounts of the very programming that is reported on Form 355, the very numbers that, in this proceeding, it claims have no significance.  Moreover, citizens will be encouraged by the Commission’s actions to scrutinize the new reports, and file complaints based on the perceived shortcomings of the broadcaster’s programming.  Broadcasters in turn will feel pressured to air programming that will head off these complaints.  So, implicitly, the Commission has created the First Amendment chilling effect that it claims to have avoided.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Rules for Enhanced TV Disclosure Requirements

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

A reminder to all radio and television broadcast stations, both commercial and noncommercial, that Quarterly Issues Programs Lists reporting on the important issues facing the stations’ communities, and the programs aired in the months of July, August, and September dealing with those issues must be prepared and placed in the stations’ public inspection file