In a speech to the Free Press Summit, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps suggested that broadcast license renewals should no longer be a "postcard", but instead should be a real test of the broadcaster’s service to the public interest – and should happen every three years, rather than on the eight year renewal cycle that is currently provided for by the law.  While the Chairman acknowledged that many suggest that the old media are in troubled times and may well be supplanted by new forms of communications, "If old media is going to be with us a while still…we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process."  In other words, while broadcasters may be dying, we should regulate them while we can.

First, it should be pointed out that the broadcast license renewal is no longer a postcard, and really hasn’t been for almost 20 years.  The current renewal forms require certifications on many matters demonstrating a broadcaster’s service to the public and its compliance with the rules, and additional documentation on EEO performance and other matters.  TV broadcasters also have substantial renewal submissions on their compliance with their obligations under the Children’s television rules.  Issues of noncompliance with the rules resulted in many fines in the last renewal cycle, demonstrating that this is not a process where the FCC is without teeth.  Yet most of these fines were for paperwork violations (e.g. not keeping detailed records of EEO outreach or quarterly issues programs lists demonstrating the public interest programming broadcast by a station), not for any substantive claims that station licensees were fundamentally unqualified and should forfeit their licenses.  In fact, the Acting Chairman’s speech recognizes that most broadcasters do a fine job serving their communities, yet he believes that more regulation is necessary to police those that don’t.  But is this the time to be imposing additional regulatory burdens on all of the industry, for the actions of a few.  Will the overall public interest be served by such actions?  .


Continue Reading Even Though Old Media May Be Dying – Let’s Regulate Them While We Can – Broadcast License Renewals Every Three Years?

The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee today approved a bill that would impose, for the first time, a royalty on radio broadcasters for the public performance of sound recordings in their over-the-air broadcasts.  if this bill were to be adopted by the full House of Representatives and the Senate, and signed by the President, broadcasters would have to pay for the use of sound recordings (the actual recording of a song by a particular musical artist) in addition to the royalties that they already pay to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for the public performance of the underlying musical composition.  While, from the discussion at the hearing today, the bill is much amended from the original bill (about which we wrote, here) to try to address some of the issue that have been raised by critics, the Committee made clear that there were still issues that needed to be addressed – preferably through negotiations between broadcasters and the recording industry – before the bill would move on to the full House for consideration.  It was, as Representative Shelia Jackson Lee of Texas stated, still a "work in progress."  In fact, the Committee asked that the General Accounting Office conduct an expedited study of the impact of this legislation on radio and on musicians – but it did not wait for that study before approving the bill – despite requests from some royalty opponents that it do so. 

While I have not yet seen a copy of the amended bill that Congressman John Conyers, the Chairman of the Committee, said had been completed only a few hours before the hearing, the statements made at the hearing set out some details of the changes made to the original version of the bill.  First, changes were made to reduce the impact on small broadcasters – reducing royalties to as little as $500 for stations that make less than $100,000 in yearly gross revenues.  Interestingly, Representative Zoe Lofgren pointed out that, in a bill that means to address the perceived inequality in royalties, a small webcaster with $100,000 in revenues would be paying $10,000 in royalties – 20 times what is proposed for the small broadcaster.  And the small broadcaster who would pay $5000 for revenues up to $1.25 million in revenue would be paying 1/30th of the amount paid by a small webcaster making that same amount of revenue.


Continue Reading Broadcast Performance Royalty Passes House Judiciary Committee – A Work In Progress

A recent stir was created when a Midwestern television company was reported to have signed a contract with a state government agency, promising to market the agency and its programs throughout the state.  This promotion was to include a segment in the company’s televised news promoting the effects of the work of the agency.  Questions were immediately raised about whether this was prohibited by FCC rules.  But, when the news pieces ran, the company was very careful to state after these segments that they were sponsored by the station and the state agency.  As the FCC has no rules about what can be included in the "news" (and probably could not consistent with the First Amendment), the only real issue was one of sponsorship identification.  As the licensee did here, if the sponsor of the story is identified, making clear to the public who was attempting to persuade them on the issue addressed, there should be no FCC issues.

This is different from the issues that have arisen previously at the FCC, where there have been fines levied against television stations and cable systems for airing programming that was sponsored, but for which no sponsorship identification was provided (see our posts here and here).  This includes the video news release or VNR issues, where the FCC has fined stations for using news actualities provided by groups with a financial interest in the issue that was being addressed, but without identifying the fact that the material was provided by the interested parties.  Where a program addresses a controversial issue of public importance, the disclosure rules are more strict, requiring that the station not only disclose that it received money to air a story – but to also disclose anything that it got from the interested party – including tapes or scripts.


Continue Reading Selling Stories In a Broadcast Station’s News Programs – Remember the Sponsorship Identification

We’re not even in what most would consider election season – except for the two states with off-year governor’s contests and those other states with various state and municipal elections. Yet political ads are running on broadcast stations across the country.  Republican groups have announced plans to run ads attacking certain Democratic Congressmen who are perceived as vulnerable, while certain Democratic interest groups have run ads about the positions of Republicans on the Obama stimulus package and the President’s proposed budget.   In addition to these ads targeting specific potential candidates, there are issue ads running across the country on various issues pending before Congress, or likely to be considered by Congress in the near term. These ads often have a tag line “write or call your Congressman and tell him to vote No” on whatever bill is being discussed. While these are not ads for political candidates that require lowest unit rates or specific equal opportunities, they do give rise to political file issues.  Stations need to remember to observe these requirements and put the required information into their public file to avoid FCC issues.

Under provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, when a station runs an ad addressing a “Federal issue”, the station must keep in its public file essentially all the same information about the ad that it would maintain for a candidate ad. The station must identify the spot and the schedule that its sponsor has purchased, the identify of the sponsor (name, address and list of principal executive officers or directors), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the ads.  Federal issues are ones that deal with a Federal election or with any issue to be considered by Congress or any Federal government agency.


Continue Reading Remember FCC Public File Obligations When Running Issue Advertising

The days when noncommercial broadcasters could count on being treated by the FCC with a lighter regulatory touch are over.
Continue Reading FCC Gives No Special Consideration to Noncommercial Broadcasters Who Violate the Rules – Colleges Pay Attention to Your Radio Station!

The FCC today released another Public Notice announcing the random audit of the EEO performance of a number of broadcast stations – listing both radio and television stations that have to respond, with stations spread throughout the country.  The FCC has promised to annually audit 5% of all broadcast licensees to assess their compliance with the FCC’s EEO rules.  These rules require the wide dissemination of information about job openings at their stations and "supplemental efforts" to educate their communities about employment opportunities at broadcast stations, even in the absence of employment openings.  The FCC’s audit letter requires the submission of two years worth of the Annual Public File reports that stations prepare each year on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications.  These reports are placed in the station’s public file and posted on their websites (if they have websites).  The FCC’s public notice about this audit emphasizes the requirement for posting the Annual Report on a station’s website, perhaps confirming rumors that we have heard about the FCC’s staffers browsing station websites to look for these reports.

Stations are given until May 4 to complete the audit responses and submit them to the Commission.  Note that information needs to be supplied not just for the station named on the list, but also for all other stations in the same "station employment unit," i.e. a group of stations under common control, that serve the same general geographic area, and which have at least one common employee.  As recent audits have led to significant FCC fines (see our story here about fines issues just before the holidays), broadcasters who are listed on this audit list should take care in preparing their responses.  The audit notice should also remind other licensees who are lucky enough to avoid having been selected for inclusion on this audit list to review their EEO programs for FCC compliance purposes, as they could very well find themselves not so fortunate when the next FCC audit is announced.


Continue Reading FCC Launches New Round of EEO Audits – Highlights the Requirment for Posting Annual Report on Station’s Website

Yesterday, we briefly wrote about the FCC’s release of a notice summarizing the process that television stations need to follow as they transition to digital under the newly extended DTV conversion date.  In yesterday’s post, we promised a more detailed memo summarizing the requirements that the FCC has set out.  That advisory is now available here

With the extension of the DTV transition deadline now passed by Congress, it’s the FCC’s turn to implement the extension and set the way in which television stations will deal with the new June 12 date for the termination of analog television.  To start to implement that extension, the FCC today issued a public notice setting out the procedures to be followed by stations in dealing with the new deadline.  The Public Notice allows stations that want to do so to go ahead and terminate their digital service on February 17 despite the extension, but they must file with the FCC a notice of that election by midnight on Monday, February 9.  The Notice also sets out the requirement for these stations to run a significant number of announcements between now and February 17, including an increasing number of crawls in the final week before the termination date, all to tell viewers that these stations really will be turning off their analog signals on February 17 as they have been saying that they will for the last few years.

If stations do not turn off their signals on February 17, they must keep operating in analog until at least March 14, and can only terminate after giving the FCC at least 30 days prior notice.  Education efforts about the new deadline date will also need to continue through the new deadline, and will need to be amended to reflect that deadline.  A Davis Wright Tremaine Advisory on these requirements will be published soon – but the Public Notice provides much of the necessary information that stations need to know right now.


Continue Reading FCC Issues Instructions for Stations to Deal With the Extension of the DTV Conversion Deadline

Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial.  In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor.  These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement.  The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.

The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses.   Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address).  But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business.  They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today").  They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ).  The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor.  In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in.  The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines for Noncommercial Stations Having Underwriting Announcements That Were Too Commercial – Even Where the Station Received No Money

This week, an agreement by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee, to an extension of the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12, was announced.  The delay has been requested so that issues about the distribution of the $40 government coupons to consumers to ease their purchase of converters to allow analog TVs to pick up digital signals so that they will continue to work after the transition date can be resolved; and so that there can be more targeted information about the transition delivered to groups that many feel may not have received the message about the transition. But Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked attempts by the Obama administration to delay the transition, so this agreement by Senator Hutchinson is viewed as a sign that the extension may very well be approved in the near term.  As the transition deadline is only weeks away, if Congress is going to act, it needs to do so immediately, or the effect of any delay will be negligible as the transition will have, for all practical purposes, already occurred.

Most broadcast stations have made plans for the transition – ordering the equipment, scheduling tower crews, coordinating the changes in frequencies with other stations in the same region that may be necessary to accommodate the digital operations.  In some cases, stations have already ceasing their analog broadcasting so that the new equipment necessary to accomplish the transition can be installed, or because these stations will be operating digitally on their analog frequency and have had to allow a tower crew or other engineering support to conduct the work necessary to allow the digital operations on the final channel to occur before the February deadline dates.  Given the limited number of such crews, not all of these final changes could happen on a single date, so stations have been changing to all digital operations now as the final date approaches.  Without Congressional action very soon, the transition will have, for the most part, already occurred.


Continue Reading Senator Hutchison Announces Compromise on DTV Transition Delay Until June 12 – Why Congress Needs to Act Soon