Public Interest Obligations/Localism

Another month is upon us, along with all of the FCC regulatory obligations that accompany it. August brings a host of license renewal obligations, along with EEO public file obligations in a number of states, as well as noncommercial Biennial Ownership Report filings in several states. We also expect that the FCC will notify stations of the date for the payment of their regulatory fees (which will either be due late this month or early next). As we reported yesterday, the filing of long-form translator applications for over 1000 applicants from the 2003 FM translator window also comes at the end of the month. There are comments due in a number of FCC proceedings. We’ll talk about some of those issues below. For TV broadcasters, we also suggest that you review our article that recently ran in TV NewsCheck, updating TV broadcasters on issues of relevance to them not only this month, but providing a description of the full gamut of issues facing TV broadcasters. We prepare this update for TV NewsCheck quarterly.

Today brings the deadline for the filing of license renewal applications for radio stations in California and for TV stations in Illinois and WisconsinStations in these states, and in North and South Carolina also have EEO public inspection file reports that should be placed in their public inspection files no later than today. Noncommercial TV stations in Illinois and Wisconsin also need to file Biennial Ownership Reports today, and noncommercial radio stations in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina should also file their Biennial Ownership Reports by today.


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July has many FCC obligations for broadcasters, both regularly scheduled and unique to 2013. There are the normal obligations, like the Quarterly Issues Programs lists, that need to be in the public file of all broadcast stations, radio and TV, commercial and noncommercial, by July 10. Quarterly Children’s television reports are also due to

It has been almost a year since the FCC adopted rules for an online public inspection file for television stations. This week, the Commission released a Public Notice requesting comments on how the rules are performing – specifically focusing on the online political file. While the Commission’s rules currently require only that the affiliates of the top four networks, in the Top 50 markets, maintain their political files online, the Commission plans to expand that requirement to all television stations in July 2014. But first, it is asking for comments as to how the rules are working so far, whether changes are needed, and perhaps even whether additional information should be required for inclusion in the online political files of TV stations. Comments are also sought on a Petition for Reconsideration filed by various television broadcasters suggesting a different way of complying with the online political file requirements. 

Specific questions on which comments are requested include the following:

  • Have stations encountered particular obstacles in connection with posting documents to the political file?
  • Has online posting become easier over time as station personnel have become more familiar with the process?
  • Are there other steps the FCC could take to make the database more user-friendly?
  • Are smaller stations prepared to use the online file for their political files starting next year? If not, what needs to be done to help them prepare?

The FCC also asks the public, including political candidates and their representatives, to comment on whether they found it easy to access information in the file, whether improvements could be made, and whether the ability to view the file online has been beneficial.  What have interested groups said about the online political file since it was adopted? 


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Two weeks ago, comments were filed in the Commission’s proceeding examining whether to adopt a more relaxed view of the foreign ownership provisions of the Communications Act (see our article about that proceeding here). While the Communications Act limits foreign ownership in communications licensees to 20% (or 25% of a licensee holding company), the Act also allows the Commission to allow greater foreign ownership if it would not adversely affect the public interest. In areas other than broadcasting, the Commission has routinely allowed ownership of more than 25% of a communications licensee, but the limit has been strictly enforced in the broadcasting world. Many of the comments filed in response to the Commission’s request made exactly that point – that in a multimedia world, why should a wireless company or a cable programmer be allowed to be foreign owned, while a competing broadcaster can’t have foreign investors holding more than 25% of its equity?  In what is perhaps a telling indication of where the FCC is going, the statements of three FCC Commissioners, in connection with a recent FCC decision to further streamline the approval process for alien ownership in excess of the 25% limitations in FCC-regulated areas other than broadcasting, suggested that the relaxation of the limits should also be extended to broadcasting.

Two weeks ago, in relaxing rules on the investment of non-US companies and individuals in common carrier licensees and those in certain other non-broadcast services, the Commission vastly simplified the reporting and approval process for alien ownership in excess of the statutory limits. The Commission already had in place a policy of reviewing potential foreign ownership in non-broadcast companies where, through a petition for declaratory ruling, a company could seek FCC approval for ownership, and even control, of these entities by non-US citizens or companies. In the recent proceeding, the FCC made such investment even easier, in very general terms easing certain reporting requirements for alien ownership where the interest of a specific alien investor was less than 5% (10 % in some instances), and also allowing an alien individual or group, once approved, to increase ownership without further approval (if the interest is a minority ownership interest, to 49%, and if it was controlling, to 100%), as long as the interest in possibly doing so is revealed in the original request for approval. Allowing investments by affiliates of the foreign owner, and allowing the company that is approved to seek additional licenses, all without additional approvals, was also allowed in many instances. All these changes were allowed subject to the FCC’s right to reexamine any holdings if specific issues were raised.  But what was most interesting to those in the broadcasting industry were the statements of three of the Commissioners praising these relaxations, and the hopes that the examination of applying these reforms in the broadcast world would move forward quickly.


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In a decision granting the license renewal of a noncommercial radio station, the FCC’s Media Bureau addressed a number of interesting issues – including the requirements for noncommercial underwriting announcements, whether PSAs meet a station’s public service obligations, and the ability of stations to run cigarette ads in historical radio programs from early radio days. These issues all came up in a decision to renew the station’s license despite a petition from a former manager alleging that the station had violated a number of Commission rules or policies – a petition raising all of these issues.

The $3000 fine that the FCC proposes to levy on the station was for what the FCC found to be improper underwriting announcements. Two different issues were found to violate FCC standards – one fairly straightforward, one less so. The relatively easy issue was whether the underwriting announcement by a musical group stating that it was voted “Canada’s #1 bluegrass band” made a qualitative claim. The station argued that the #1 claim was simply a statement of fact based on the vote in Canada. The FCC, not surprisingly,  found that the “#1” label, no matter how it was derived, was a qualitative claim and thus prohibited as part of an underwriting acknowledgment on a noncommercial station.   Such announcements cannot be commercial in nature – meaning that they cannot contain a call to action, price information or qualitative claims about the products or services offered by the sponsor.  See articles that we have previously written on underwriting issues: here and here and here, as well as a presentation on that issue that is discussed here.


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April is one of those months in which many FCC obligations are triggered for broadcasters. There are the normal obligations, like the Quarterly Issues Programs lists, that need to be in the public file of all broadcast stations, radio and TV, commercial and noncommercial, by April 10. Quarterly Children’s television reports are due to be submitted by TV stations. And there are renewal obligations for stations in many states, as well as EEO Public File Reports that are due to be placed in station’s public files and on their websites. The end of March also brings the obligation for television broadcasters to start captioning live and near-live programming that is captioned on air, and then rebroadcast on the Internet. Finally, there are comment deadlines on the FCC’s proposal to relax the foreign ownership limits, and an FM auction and continuing FM translator filing requirements.

Radio stations in Texas and television stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana have renewal applications due on April 1. The license renewal pre-filing broadcast announcements for radio stations in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and for TV stations in Michigan and Ohio, must begin on April 1. All of these stations will be filing their renewals by June 1. EEO Annual Public file reports for all stations (radio and TV) with five or more full-time employees, which are located in Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Delaware, Pennsylvania or Indiana, must be placed in their public files (which are now online for TV broadcasters) by April 1.   Noncommercial radio stations in Texas, and noncommercial TV stations in Tennessee, Indiana Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky must also file their Biennial Ownership Reports by April 1


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The limits on the ownership of broadcast stations by those who are not US citizens is being re-examined by the FCC according to a recent Public Notice. Under Section 310(b)(4) of the Communications Act, foreign ownership of a broadcast licensee is limited to 20% of the company’s stock, or no more than 25% of a parent company of the licensee. Over the years, there has been a significant body of precedent developed about applying these caps to other business organizations, including LLCs and Limited Partnerships.  But the caps remain in place, limiting foreign ownership.  While the statute gives the FCC discretion to allow greater amounts of "alien ownership", the FCC has not exercised that discretion for broadcast companies (though, for non-broadcast licenses, the FCC has many times found greater percentages of foreign ownership to be permissible). A coalition of broadcast groups last year filed a request asking that the FCC exercise the discretion provided under the Act, and consider on a case-by-case basis whether alien ownership combinations in excess of 25% should be permitted. The Commission has now asked for public comment on that proposal. Comments are due on April 15, with replies due on April 30.

Why is this important? Many broadcasters have pushed for revisions in the alien ownership limits for decades – seeing foreign investors as a potential source of capital to allow new companies to buy stations or existing companies to expand their holdings. Many minority advocacy groups, too, have thought that relaxation of the alien ownership rules would provide more sources of capital for minority owners to get into the broadcast game. Spanish language broadcasters, in particular, see broadcasters and other investors from other Spanish-speaking countries as being likely sources of new investors in broadcast companies or new buyers for US broadcast stations. 


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Earlier today, we wrote about the FCC’s reminder that TV broadcasters must, by February 4, complete the upload to their FCC-mandated online public inspection file all materials from the current renewal term that were created prior to the August 2 effective date of the online public inspection file requirement.  We noted that the FCC had not addressed the question of stations that had outstanding renewals from the last renewal term – which could potentially mandate that some stations upload as much as 16 years worth of material to their online files.  Well, today, the FCC issued another decision waiving its rules so that stations only need to post Quarterly Issues Programs lists from the current license term on their online public files – subject to some caveats.

There are certain limits on this waiver.  If the limits are not met, then all Quarterly Issues Programs lists, back to the last granted renewal, have to be posted to the online public file.  The limits include the following:

  1. The last renewal cannot have been opposed by a member of the public.
  2. The delay in the renewal cannot have been caused by issues relating to the public interest service of the station to its local service area
  3. The station must continue to keep the Quarterly Issues Programs lists from the last renewal cycle at the station in a paper public file.

This decision does not relieve stations from all obligations to post materials from prior renewal terms, as described below.


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The six months that the FCC gave to television stations to upload the contents of their paper public files to their new online public file seemed like a long time back in August, when the deadline was announced and the online public file rule became effective. But that deadline is upon us, and the FCC yesterday issued a reminder that television broadcasters (full power and Class A stations) need to have all of their required documents uploaded to their online public file by Monday, February 4.  The 6 month deadline actually falls on the weekend, so the FCC has given stations to the end of the day on Monday to come into compliance. The Commission has even offered to have people at the FCC over the coming weekend to answer questions about the uploading process for all those waiting until the last-minute to comply. 

As made clear in the public notice, no broadcasters need to upload contents of their political files that existed prior to the August 2 effective date of the rules. TV Broadcasters who are affiliates of the Big 4 networks in the Top 50 markets should already be uploading new political file material onto their online files, while other TV broadcasters have until July 1, 2014 before they are subject to the requirement that they upload their new political materials to the online file. In neither case do stations have to upload political file materials that precede the date that the obligation applies to their station. 


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February is almost upon us, and it brings a host of regulatory obligations for broadcasters – as well as the filing deadline for those interested in pursuing new FM channels in an upcoming auction, and a number of opportunities to comment on important FCC proceedings. The week before last, TV NewsCheck published our latest quarterly update on the regulatory issues facing television broadcasters – and these include several with February dates. Most importantly (at least in the short term), there is the obligation for television broadcasters to upload to their Online Public Inspection file all documents created before the August 2 effective date of the rules (but for documents relating to political broadcasting).   So documents that had been kept in paper – like Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports and Quarterly Issues Programs Lists – need to be in the Online Public File by the beginning of the month. 

In the longer term, while not due in February, comments to be filed this Friday (January 25) on the television incentive auction process, will need to be analyzed in preparation for the Reply comments due on March 12 in this most important proceeding which may well define the composition of over-the-air television in the coming years. Comments on the FCC proceeding on expanding the information gathered in the Form 323 Biennial Ownership Reports are also due in February – just in time for Valentine’s Day on the 14th

 


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