public service obligations

Two recent decisions, the most high profile being the renewal of the Fox television stations in the New York City area, demonstrate the analysis that the FCC goes through in deciding if a station has operated in the public interest and if its license deserves to be renewed.  In the Fox case, the focus was on the public service record of the station, and in particular whether the station had adequately addressed the issues of importance to the residents of New Jersey, the state to which one of its TV stations is licensed.  In a second recent case, that of a California radio station, the issue was much more specific – whether the station had promoted illegal drug use, and whether one of the station’s on-air program hosts had been abusive to callers.  In both cases, recognizing the First Amendment concerns posed by second guessing a broadcaster’s programming decisions, the FCC granted the license renewals.

In the Fox case, the issues were broader in nature.  The Fox station WWOR was licensed to New Jersey – in fact receiving a special license renewal when its then-owner, RKO General, was fighting the loss of its other broadcast licenses for issues involving purported lack of candor with the FCC.  The WWOR renewal was granted when Congress passed very specific legislation agreeing to grant the license of any TV station that moved to a state with no VHF television service (which, at that time, was the superior transmission service for TV).  RKO agreed to move WOR from New York City to Secaucus, NJ and received a license renewal as NJ had no VHF stations at that time.  The renewal was granted with the expectation that, as a NJ station, its public interest programming would focus on NJ.  Whether the service provided by current licensee Fox to NJ was the issue that the FCC addressed in the license renewal challenge.
Continue Reading FCC Decisions, Including Fox TV Renewals, Focus on FCC Limits in Assessing Programming Claims in Reviewing License Renewals

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.


Continue Reading $3000 Fine Against Noncommercial Station for Underwriting Violations – With Discussion of PSAs as Public Interest Programming and Cigarette Ads in Classic Radio Program

Online public files, detailed reports about virtually every program aired on a television station as to its source and whether it addressed various types of perceived community interests, and other paperwork requirements that would have required most television stations to hire a new employee just to deal with the burden, were all part of mandatory television public interest reporting requirements adopted by the FCC back in 2007 (see our articles here and here on these reports on FCC Form 355).  Similar obligations were also proposed for radio but never adopted.  The TV "enhanced disclosure" rules have never been implemented, however, and were apparently never even submitted to the Office of Management and Budget  for approval of their compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act.  The numerous petitions for reconsideration filed against these rules are on the tentative agenda for the next FCC meeting, to be held on October 27.  Not only is the disposition of these petitions on the agenda, but a proposal for a further proceeding to look at new requirements for an online public file, to be hosted by the FCC, is to be considered at the same time.  What can broadcasters expect to happen?

In the Future of Media Report issued by the Commission earlier this year (actually renamed the Report on the Information Needs of Communities), the FCC study group recommended abolishing these 2007 rules, and terminating the proceeding looking at imposing them on radio (see our summary here).  The Report seemed to recognize that the reports were far too burdensome on licensees, and were not reasonably related to the current FCC rules on programming.  In essence, the reports required the collection of lots of information, without any regulatory purpose for the information collected.  In light of these findings, and the 4 year delay in implementing the rules already adopted, it seems safe to conclude that the 2007 rules are probably on their way out.  But the accompanying notice suggesting that the FCC will begin a new rulemaking to look at the online public inspection files, to be hosted by the FCC, raises questions about what will replace the 2007 rules.


Continue Reading TV Public Interest Obligations and Online Public Inspection File on Agenda for Next FCC Meeting

The FCC today heard from its Future of Media task force, when its head, Steven Waldman presented a summary of its contents at its monthly meeting.  At the same time, the task force issued its 475 page report – which spends most of its time talking about the history of media and the current media landscape, and only a handful of pages presenting specific recommendations for FCC action.  The task force initially had a very broad mandate, to examine the media and how it was serving local informational needs of citizens, and to recommend actions not only for the FCC, but also for other agencies who might have jurisdiction over various media entities that the FCC does not regulate.  Those suggestions, too, were few in the report as finally issued.  What were the big headlines for broadcasters?  The report suggests that the last remnants of the Fairness Doctrine be repealed, and that the FCC’s localism proceeding be terminated – though some form of enhanced disclosure form be adopted for broadcasters to report about their treatment of local issues of public importance, and that this information, and the rest of a broadcaster’s public file, be kept online so that it would be more easily accessible to the public and to researchers.  Online disclosures were also suggested for sponsorship information, particularly with respect to paid content included in news and informational programming.  And proposals for expansion of LPFMs and for allowing noncommercial stations to raise funds for other nonprofit entities were also included in the report. 

While we have not yet closely read the entire 475 page report, which was tiled The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age, we can provide some information about some of the FCC’s recommendations, and some observations about the recommendations, the process, and the reactions that it received.  One of the most important things to remember is that this was simply a study.   As Commissioner McDowell observed at the FCC meeting, it is not an FCC action, and it is not even a formal proposal for FCC action.  Instead, the report is simply a set of recommendations that this particular group of FCC employees and consultants came up with.  Before any real regulatory requirements can come out of this, in most cases, the FCC must first adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or a series of such notices, and ask for public comment on these proposals.  That may take some time, if there is action on these suggestions at all.   There are some proposals, however, such as the suggestion that certain LPFM rules be adopted in the FCC’s review of the Local Community Radio Act so as to find availability for LPFM stations in urban areas, that could be handled as part of some proceedings that are already underway.


Continue Reading Recommendations from the Future of Media Report: End Localism Proceeding, Require More Online Public File Disclosures of Programming Information, Abolish Fairness Doctrine

On February 8, 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  While the Act had significant impact throughout the communications industry, the impact on broadcasters was profound, and is still being debated.  The Act made changes for broadcasters in several major areas:

  • Lengthened license renewals to 8 years for both radio and TV, and eliminated the "comparative renewal"
  • For radio, eliminated all national caps on the number of radio stations in which one party could have an attributable interest and increased to 8 stations the number one party could own in the largest radio markets
  • For television, raised national ownership caps to having stations that reached no more than 35% of the national audience, with no limits on the number of stations that could be owned as long as their reach was under that cap.
  • Allocated spectrum that resulted in the DTV transition

Obviously, the DTV spectrum began the profound changes in the way television is broadcast, and led to the current debate as to whether over-the-air television should be further cut back in order to promote wireless broadband (see our recent post on the FCC’s current proceeding on this issue).  While the other changes have now been in effect for 15 years, the debate over these provisions continue.  Some argue that the renewal and ownership modifications have created too much consolidation in the broadcast media and lessened the broadcaster’s commitment to serving the public interest.  Others argue that, in the current media world, these changes don’t go far enough. Broadcasters are under attack from many directions, as new competitors fight for local audiences (often with minimally regulated multi-channel platforms, such as those delivered over the Internet) and others attack broadcasters principal financial support – their advertising revenue. Even local advertising dollars, traditionally fought over by broadcasters and newspapers (with some competition from billboards, direct mail and local cable), is now under assault from services such as Groupon and Living Social, and from other new media competitors of all sorts.  With the debated continuing on these issues in the current day, it might be worth a few looking back at the 1996 changes for broadcasters, and their impact on the current broadcast policy debate.


Continue Reading On the 15th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, The Effect on Broadcasters is Still Debated

In a decision just released, the FCC fined a noncommercial FM station $8000 for failing to make its public inspection file available when it was requested.  The FCC made clear that past cases where a noncommercial station was given only an admonition for similar violations were no longer good law, finding that the public file was an important part of the station’s obligations to the public and the failure to make it available was a serious violation.  This case should serve as a warning to all stations, commercial and noncommercial, that they need to have people at the station at all times who know where the public file is located, and that all visitors who request access to the file need to be given such access.

This case was perhaps a bit more egregious than most, as the visitor who requested access to the fine was known to the station, as the person was employed by a college that had tried unsuccessfully to buy the station.  After its request to purchase the station was turned down, the prospective buyer had allegedly filed a number of pleadings at the FCC trying to force the licensee to sell the station.  When the person appeared at the station to request access to the public file, the person was first told to return another day.  After protesting that was illegal, an official of the College which is the station licensee, arrived at the scene and told the visitor that he had to leave, and could only view the public file after having made a prior appointment with the college’s attorney.  When reached by phone, the attorney allegedly told the visitor to leave the premises or he would be arrested.  Only when he returned another day, after being initially turned down yet again, was the visitor eventually able to persuade the station employees that refusal to give him access to the file was illegal.  When he was finally able to gain access to the file, he stated that he found it to be incomplete.


Continue Reading $8000 FCC Fine for Noncommercial Station Not Making Public Inspection File Available Upon Request

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