The nuts and bolts of legal issues for broadcasters were highlighted in two sessions in which I participated at last week’s joint convention of the Oregon and Washington State Broadcasters Associations, held in Stephenson, Washington, on the Columbia River that divides the two states. Initially, I conducted a seminar for broadcasters providing a refresher on their
An interview with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has just been released by Broadcasting and Cable magazine. In that interview, the Chairman confirms press reports (which we cited here) that there is a planned FCC Notice of Inquiry to look into the news media in the digital world – the first public confirmation of this…
For the first time since the term of FCC Commissioner Tate expired and Chairman Martin resigned, the FCC will be back to full strength with the Senate’s approval of new FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell Baker. What issues of importance to broadcasters will the Commission, now headed by Chairman Julius Genachowski, take up in coming months? The new Chairman, who gave a number of interviews last week with the trade and popular press, emphasized the importance of the broadband rollout. Beyond that, his priorities for the broadcast media were not detailed. He did, however, emphasize, that any broadcast regulation (specifically referencing the mandatory review of the broadcast ownership rules that must begin next year), would have to take into account the realities of the marketplace – including the current economic conditions.
Beyond that, there were few clues as to the new FCC’s priorities in the broadcast world. But, even though there are no indications of the FCC’s priorities, there are many open broadcast issues that the Commission will, sooner or later, need to resolve. Some involve fundamental questions of priorities – trying to decide which user of the spectrum should be preferred over others. Other issues deal with questions of what kind of public service obligations broadcasters will face. And yet another set of issues deal with just the nitty gritty technical issues with which the FCC is often faced. Let’s look at some of these open issues that may affect the broadcast industry.
The Advertising industry recently published self-regulation guidelines for "behavioral advertising," i.e. advertising that is targeted to the user based upon data regarding that user’s activities across various Web sites. The Federal Trade Commission has been urging the industry to develop such standards for some time. These practices have also attracted considerable attention on Capitol Hill. To…
This past week, I attended the BIAfn Winning Media Strategies Conference in Washington, DC. During the course of the conference, there was much talk about how broadcasters and publishers need to provide unique service to their communities in order to survive in the competitive media marketplace. The point was made over and over again that, in each market there are unique attributes and personalities that a station should be covering in its programming, and should be exploiting even more broadly through their digital assets, to tie it to its community. Only by doing so will the station be able to survive in the new media environment – and by doing so, the station may be able to thrive. In fact, I was stuck by a statement by USC’s Adam Clayton Powell III that domination of the local online and digital media marketplace was "the broadcasters to lose." In other words, the broadcaster has such unque promotional abilities with its current audience that it can establish its brand in the online and in the mobile world far easier than other media players. But there were also the repeated warning that there is more and more competition for this local digital market from new entrants and other media entities and that, if the broadcasters did not take advantage of their current advantage, the local service would come from someone else. What most stuck me was that there was no question that the superservice to local needs would be coming from someone – broadcaster or not – as a result of marketplace developments, not because of any government mandate. The broadcaster has to adapt to and compete in this new media marketplace or become culturally and economically irrelevant. The broadcaster needs to serve the local market to meet these challenges, not because some Washington agency has ordered him to do so. And the broadcaster needs to serve his community in a way that the public will find compelling, not in a way that the government thinks is best.
At BIAfn, the presentation that made the greatest impact was probably that of Greenspun Media from Las Vegas, which has reinvented a secondary newspaper and a Low Power TV station as an on-line powerhouse, uncovering the aspects of the community that would draw the largest audience and covering that information in great detail. The Las Vegas Sun site not only covers hard news, but also the gaming industry, University of Las Vegas sports and even state government issues in a way that its audience seems to find interesting. Even a history of Las Vegas, in great detail, is included. And video plays a big part of the site, with the company in development of a hip news and events program, 702.tv, that will soon be a daily program on the television station and online (featuring local "celebrities" doing the weather, including strippers and Neil Diamond sound-alikes). While some attendees at the conference thought that Las Vegas presented unique opportunities that might not be available in all communities, many were immediately speculating on the opportunities in their own communities to find unique personalities and events that could be developed on-air and on-line in ways to maximize their connection with their audience.
In light of the recent decision upholding the FCC’s right to sanction licensees for violations of the FCC’s Indecency rules for "fleeting expletives" in the Golden Globes and Billboard music awards, i.e. isolated profanity on the airwaves, the Supreme Court also remanded the Janet Jackson case to the Court of Appeals. The one sentence remand (see page 2 of the list of orders) was so that the Court of Appeals could consider the impact of the fleeting expletives case on the Court of Appeals decision throwing out the FCC’s fine on CBS for the fleeting glimpse of Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl half-time program. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals that heard the Janet Jackson case had reached a decision very similar to the Second Circuit’s decision in the Golden Globes case – finding that the FCC had not justified its departure from a policy of not fining stations for fleeting instances of prohibited speech or pictures, where the words or pictures were isolated and their broadcast was not planned by the station. Given that the Supreme Court has remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, the lower court will now need to consider the same constitutional issue that the Second Circuit will consider in the Golden Globes case – while the FCC may not have violated administrative procedures in justifying its actions, are the FCC’s indecency rules so vague and enforced in such a haphazard manner that they chill free speech or are otherwise unconstitutional? Based on an analysis of the various concurring and dissenting opinions in the Golden Globes case, the Supreme Court might well decide the constitutionality issue against the FCC. Could the final ruling in these cases have an impact far beyond the indecency question?
Two of the Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys involved in some of the indecency cases have written this memo, summarizing the Supreme Court decision in the Golden Globes case – pointing out how Justice Thomas seemed to imply that the constitutional basis of the FCC decision was suspect – even though he sided with the majority in finding that the FCC was justified in its administrative decision to find violations. Justice Thomas seems ready to come down against the FCC on the constitutional issue were it to be squarely presented, questioning whether the Red Lion decision, justifying lesser First Amendment protections for broadcasters than other media outlets based on frequency scarcity, has continuing vitality. Were this precept underlying the regulation of broadcast content to be undermined, the justification for much FCC content regulation could be in doubt.
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? .
On Thursday, the Obama administration appointed FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to be the Acting FCC Chairman until the administration selects its permanent Chairman, and that person is confirmed by the Senate. As we’ve written, the rumors are that the permanent Chair will be Julius Genachowski, a former classmate of the President. But, as far as we know (and according to the White House website’s list of appointments made so far), that appointment has not yet been formally made and sent to the Senate Commerce Committee for the initiation of hearings on the qualifications of the nominee. Commissioner Copps is the most senior of the remaining three Commissioners (Democrat Jonathan Adelstein and Republican Robert McDowell being the other two remaining Commissioners), and has been an outspoken advocate of more stringent regulation of the public interest performance of broadcasters (see, for instance, our posts here and here). What will his appointment as interim FCC chairman mean for broadcasters?
Initially, it would seem reasonable to assume that the Acting Chair will be principally occupied with the DTV transition, as least for the next few weeks, and perhaps longer if the pending legislation to delay the transition deadline until June 12 is adopted. It would also seem reasonable to assume that the Commission, at least for the short term, will not be tackling major regulatory initiatives (like the localism proceeding), until the permanent FCC Chair has taken office. One of the initial Executive Orders that was issued by the Obama administration was to freeze the actions of administrative executive agencies until the political appointments made by the administration have been confirmed and taken their places, so that the new administration is not saddled by regulations that don’t fit with its overall political agenda. While many in DC believe that this order does not apply to an "independent agency" like the FCC (which technically does not report to the administration, but instead to Congress), it would be reasonable to assume that the spirit of the order would be followed by the FCC.
Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored.
With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.
With Barack Obama’s historic victory just sinking in, all over Washington (and no doubt elsewhere in the country), the speculation begins as to what the new administration will mean to various sectors of the economy (though, in truth, that speculation has been going on for months). What will his administration mean for broadcasters? Will the Obama administration mean more regulation? Will the fairness doctrine make a return? What other issues will highlight his agenda? Or will the administration be a transformational one – looking at issues far beyond traditional regulatory matters to a broader communications policy that will look to make the communications sector one that will help to drive the economy? Some guesses, and some hopes, follow.
First, it should be emphasized that, in most administrations, the President has very little to do with the shaping of FCC policy beyond his appointment of the Commissioners who run the agency. As we have seen with the current FCC, the appointment of the FCC Chairman can be the defining moment in establishing a President’s communications policy. The appointment of Kevin Martin has certainly shaped FCC policy toward broadcasters in a way that would never have been expected in a Republican administration, with regulatory requirements and proposals that one could not have imagined 4 years ago from the Bush White House. To see issues like localism, program content requirements and LPFM become such a large part of the FCC agenda can be directly attributed to the personality and agenda of the Chairman, rather than to the President. But, perhaps, an Obama administration will be different.