remote control of broadcast station

With more and more states, municipalities, and other authorities issuing shelter-in-place warnings or other restrictions on travel, and with more station facilities likely to be closed temporarily because of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, broadcasters need to be planning on how to continue to operate their facilities in the new world we are all facing.  I participated in an online conference last week with over 100 college broadcasters who are perhaps on the front lines of this problem, as so many operate from campus buildings that were closed early after (and in some cases before) the declaration of the pandemic.  We’ve had calls from many other broadcasters about the issues that they are facing in their operations, as communities take actions to enforce the personal distancing urged by medical organizations.  Many commercial broadcasters may be seeing in the upcoming days greater restrictions on unnecessary travel, perhaps impacting access to their facilities and studios.  Planning and coordination among broadcasters – and with broadcasters and local officials – is already underway in many cities and with many state broadcast associations.  But it also needs to be considered by individual broadcasters everywhere.

One of the most basic questions is one of access.  Questions are arising every day as to whether local officials can block access to broadcast stations or to the coverage of news events during the emergency.  Will broadcasters be shut down like so many other businesses?  There has been much written in the trade press and elsewhere about broadcasters being “essential services” that should be allowed access to their facilities and to news events during any crisis.  There is in fact statutory language in the US code to that effect (see, for instance, this section that tells federal officials not to limit access or facilities to radio and TV broadcasters in an emergency).  But that statute restricts the actions of federal officials to block broadcaster access and is silent as to actions by state and local officials.  Even if state laws have similar provisions, those provisions are only helpful if someone in a position of authority has the time and inclination to look at the legal niceties that apply to a given situation.  Coordination with state and local officials is paramount in a situation like the current one that affects everyone, everywhere.  Stations should already be in touch with state and local authorities to see how they can help in the current crisis.  At the same time, they should also be discussing and planning with these officials to ensure access to studios and transmitter sites, and exemptions from travel restrictions for news coverage, so that they can continue to provide their important services to the public.
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The FCC this week published a Small Business Compliance Guide for companies looking to take advantage of the FCC’s elimination of the main studio rules and the studio staffing requirements associated with those rules (see our articles here and here summarizing the rule changes). The Compliance Guide points out that stations looking to eliminate their main studios still must maintain a local toll-free telephone number where residents of the community served by the station can call to ask questions or provide information to the licensee. The Guide also references the requirement that access to the public file must be maintained. While, by March 1, all broadcast stations (unless they have obtained a waiver) will have their public files online (see our article here), it is possible that some stations may have a remnant of their file still in paper even after the conversion date. “Old political documents” (documents dealing with advertising sales to candidates, other candidate “uses,” and issue advertising) that were created before the date that a station activates its online file for public viewing need not be uploaded but can be kept in a paper file for the relevant holding period (generally two years). If the station decides not to upload those old political documents, or closes its main studio before they have gone live with their online public file, they will need to maintain a paper file in their community of license. The Guide also mentions how Class A TV stations, which are required to show that they originate programming from their local service area, will be treated since they will no longer have a legally mandated main studio. But are there questions that the Guide does not address?

We think that there are, and that broadcasters who are considering doing away with their main studio need to consider numerous other matters. First, and most importantly, the obligation for a station to serve its local community with public interest programming remains on the books. So stations need to be sure that they are staying in touch with the local issues facing their communities, and they need to address those issues in their local programming. Addressing these issues needs to be documented in Quarterly Issues Programs lists which are the only legally-mandated documents that demonstrate how a station has served its community. There are other issues to consider as well.
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