The start of the FCC’s license renewal cycle for radio stations is close at hand, and we have issued an advisory to help radio stations prepare for the process. A copy of the advisory is available here, and contains information about the pre- and post-filing announcements that stations are required to air, as well
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…
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? .
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!
In a decision released this week, the FCC granted the application of an FM station for license renewal, denying petitions filed by two former employees who contended that the station had violated a number of FCC rules. After the FCC inspected the station and found only a few minor issues with the station’s public file…
In the FCC’s recent Report and Order on Diversity, released earlier this year, the Commission announced new requirements for all broadcast station’s advertising sales contracts. The new FCC rule requires that all advertising contracts contain clauses ensuring that there is no discrimination based on race or gender in the sale of advertising time. This new requirement, which took effect in July, not only requires broadcasters to have these non-discrimination clauses in their advertising sales contracts, but will also require that broadcasters certify as to the existence of such clauses in their next license renewal application. Thus, to be sure that you can make such certifications, you must revise your advertising contracts to include a nondiscrimination provision, such as the one set out below, if you have not done so already.
These new measures are intended to increase participation in the broadcast industry by businesses owned by women and minorities. The Commission was concerned that some advertising contracts include either explicit or implicit “no urban/no Spanish” dictates. Such contractual limitations, the Commission explained, may violate U.S. anti-discrimination laws by either presuming that certain minority groups cannot be persuaded to buy the advertiser’s product or service, or worse, intentionally minimizing the number African Americans or Hispanics patronizing advertisers’ businesses.
The FCC Form 355 requiring "enhanced disclosure" by television stations was a frequent topic of discussion at this week’s NAB Convention in Las Vegas. That form will require that television broadcasters report significant, detailed information about their programming, providing very detailed reports of the percentage of programming that they devote to news, public affairs, election programming, local programming, PSAs, independently produced programs and various other program categories, as well as specifics of each program that fits into these categories (see our detailed description of the requirements here). Obviously, all broadcasters were concerned about how they would deal with the expense and time necessary to complete the forms, and the potential for complaints about the programming that such reports will generate. At legal sessions by the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law and the Federal Communications Bar Association, held in connection with the NAB Convention, it became very clear to me that the obligations imposed by these new rules are obligations adopted for absolutely no reason, as the Commission has not adopted any rules mandating specific amounts of the types of programming reported on the form. In fact, one of the Commissioner’s legal assistants confirmed that, unless and until the FCC adopts such specific programming requirements, the Commission’s staff will not need to spend any time processing these forms. Thus, if the form goes into effect, broadcasters will be forced to keep these records, and expend significant amounts of staff time and station resources necessary to complete the forms, for essentially no purpose.
Of course, public interest advocates will argue that the forms will allow the Commission to assess the station’s operation in the public interest, and will allow the public to complain about failures of stations to serve local needs. But, as in a recent license renewal case we wrote about here, the Commission rejected a Petition to Deny against a station based on its alleged failure to do much local public affairs programming as, without specific quantitative program requirements, the Commission cannot punish a station for not doing specific amounts of particular programming. If the Commission adheres to this precedent, it will not be able to fine stations for the information that they put on the Form 355, but only for not filing it or not completing it accurately. Thus, unless the Commission adopts specific programming requirements, the form will be nothing more than a paperwork trap for the unwary or overburdened broadcaster. And, as is usually the case with such obligations, the burden will fall hardest on the small broadcaster who does not the staff and resources to devote to otherwise unnecessary paperwork.
In two decisions released this week by the FCC, here and here, two large broadcast group owners were admonished for failures to comply with the FCC’s EEO rules. In both cases, failures to widely disseminate information about job openings in one market were discovered by the FCC in the course of random EEO audits that selected these stations for review. In both cases, the Commission determined that the violations were serious, and imposed reporting conditions (essentially subjecting the stations to an FCC audit of their EEO annual public file reports every year for the next 3 years). And in each case, the FCC would have fined the stations for their violations, but the Commission moved too slow, as in both cases, license renewals were granted between the time of the violations and the EEO audit. Under provisions of the Communications Act, the Commission cannot fine a station for action that occurred during a prior renewal term – so the grant of the renewals cut off the possibility of a fine in these cases.
These actions highlight the importance of complying with the Commission’s EEO rules, which we have summarized in our EEO Guide, here. In particular, in both cases, the station groups had not widely disseminated information about job openings, as required by the rules. Wide dissemination requires the use of recruitment sources designed to reach all groups within a community to allow their members to learn about the job openings at the station. The Commission’s aim is to bring into the broadcast workforce employees representing diverse groups within a community rather than hiring all their employees from traditional broadcast sources. In these cases, the stations had used only corporate websites, on-air announcements, and word of mouth recruiting. No outside sources, or sources reasonably likely to reach the entire community, were used by the broadcasters, hence the admonition and the reporting conditions.
As we wrote earlier this week, the FCC is to consider at its meeting next Tuesday a Report on the results of its "Localism" proceeding, and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the findings contained in the Report. From rumors going around Washington today, that Notice may ask for comments on tentative findings that would roll back of much of the broadcast deregulation of the last 25 years. Rumors are that the Commission will be issuing "tentative conclusions" determining that the FCC should re-impose specific ascertainment requirements of some sort (requiring that broadcasters regularly meet with specific types of community leaders to get their input on station programming). Also, the Commission will tentatively conclude that there should be quantitative programming requirements – that each station do a specific amount of local programming and perhaps specific amounts of news, public affairs other types of programs each week. If a licensee does not meet the requirements, the station’s license renewal application would not be granted routinely by the FCC’s staff, but instead would be subject to an additional level of scrutiny by the full Commission. The Commission is also apparently proposing that it return to the old rules that all stations have a manned main studio during all hours of operation. There is reportedly also a proposal that stations report to the FCC about how they decide what music they play.
Staring in the early 1980s, the FCC did away with many of the specific, detailed programming requirements that had previously bound broadcasters. These requirements were quite burdensome, especially for small stations and stations in small markets with limited staffs. Rather than spending their time on broadcast operations, station staff had to make sure that their operations met programming standards imposed from Washington, dictating the government’s ideas of what was good for the station’s audience, even if the station might feel, because of its format or the demographics of its audience that a particular type of programming did not serve the needs of its community. In the mid-1980s, the FCC concluded that these rules were no longer necessary, as it was concluded that there was enough media diversity that the marketplace would dictate that broadcasters serve their audiences with appropriate content that met the needs of that audience as, if they did not, some other broadcaster would. The economic incentive of the fear of the loss of audience to a competitor who better served the public was deemed enough to insure that the broadcaster acted responsibly.
In a very unusual, if not unprecedented case, the FCC announced a Public Forum on the license renewal application of WWOR-TV to assess the service provided by that station to the citizens of New Jersey. While the FCC has in the past held evidentiary hearings on license renewal applications, those hearings were trial-type, adversarial proceedings held on specific issues before administrative law judges – not amorphous public proceedings on general questions about the service provided by the station. This proceeding seems much more akin to the "localism" hearings that the FCC has been holding around the country (including the most recent held in Washington on Halloween), only in this case it is not conducted to come up with some general policy guidelines, but instead it is to assess whether a broadcast license worth hundreds of millions of dollars should be renewed. While the revocation of a license for failure to serve the public interest under the license renewal standards that have been in effect for the last 11 years is unprecedented, this process may be one that other stations could face were proposals of certain Congressional and FCC proponents of license renewal reform to get their way.
As we wrote here and here, some have suggested that the FCC’s license renewal process should be fundamentally reformed. There have been suggestions that license renewal, which once occurred every three years for broadcast stations but now comes up but once every eight years, should return to that shorter cycle. And some have suggested that the license renewal process should have more "teeth" to assess a broadcaster’s performance (see, for instance, the statement of Commissioner Copps at the FCC Localism hearing in Portland, Maine in June). These teeth have been suggested to include everything from specific quantitative showings of public interest programming by the broadcaster, to local public hearings to assess the level of that service for some or all broadcast stations. How the FCC would have the resources to conduct hearings for any meaningful number of broadcast stations is unclear – but the suggestion has been made by various proponents of license renewal reform.