Last week, the FCC fined yet another broadcaster for violations of its contest rules, issuing a fine of $4,000 to a station that had not disclosed to its listeners all of the material terms of a contest that it conducted on the air. In this case, the station promised a give-away of three cars, but
The dates and minimum bids are set – and the next auction for new FM stations is a go for September 1, 2009. Applications to participate in the auction are due during the period June 16 to June 25, and must be filed electronically at the FCC, specifying on which of the 122 available channels an applicant is interested in bidding. Full, detailed auction instructions can be found in the FCC’s Public Notice, and the list of available channels and the minimum bids for each is available here. To give time for applicants to prepare their applications, the Commission has also initiated a variety of freezes on the filing of certain FM applications.
A freeze on any application or Petition for Rulemaking seeking a change in the channel of any channel proposed for use in this auction has been imposed effective immediately. Applications that shortspace any of the reference points for any of these stations are also barred. A subsequent freeze on the filing of any minor change application by an FM licensee will also be imposed during the June window. These freezes are to give applicants for channels the opportunity to evaluate which channels are worth bidding for, and to specify specific transmitter sites for certain channels (different than the reference coordinates) which will be protected during the auction process. Thus, applicants who see the potential for an increase in value of one of these channels that may come through the location of the station at a particular transmitter site can specify that site, protecting it and the value that they see.
Failing to meet the obligations set out under the law for required sponsorship identification on Federal political ads could, theoretically, cost candidates significant amounts of money – if stations decide to hold the candidates to the letter of the law. Under the terms of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Federal candidates airing television commercials that refer to a competing candidate must specifically state, in the candidate’s own voice, that he or she has approved the ad, while a full-screen image of the candidate appears on the screen. In addition, the name of the sponsoring candidate’s campaign committee must appear in text on the screen for at least 4 seconds at 4 percent of screen height, with sufficient color contrast to make the text readable. If the proper identification is not contained in an ad, the candidates forfeit their right to lowest unit rates for the entire pre-election period (45 days before a primary or 60 days before an election), even with respect to future ads that comply with the rules. In recent days, representatives of Democratic Congressional candidates have reportedly filed complaints that argue that Republican competitors have not complied with the rules in several cases, as their written disclosures did not air for the full four seconds. The challengers argue that television stations must take away LUR for these candidates. While the statute say that the candidates forfeit their rights to such rates, the law is unclear as to whether stations are obligated to deny that rate to candidates after the right has been forfeited – and these cases could resolve this issue.
Television stations undeniably have the power to charge full rates to candidates whose ads have not complied with the requirements of the campaign statute. However, many stations have been reluctant to do so for minor infractions such as the ones identified in this complaint. Why wouldn’t television stations want to charge more money? For several reasons. First, denying one candidate lowest unit rates will no doubt trigger a fly-specking of every commercial by the competitor who filed the complaint against the first candidate, to try to trigger a forfeiture of the second candidate’s right to Lowest Unit Rates, and adjudicating such complaints will no doubt make the station’s political sales process much more difficult and costly to administer. In addition, there is the question of whether, for a minor violation, a station really wants to give the other candidate a political advantage – especially if the candidate who gets charged more more wins the election and gets to vote on laws that may effect business in the future. But can stations legally continue to charge the lowest unit rate even when a candidate has not complied with the legal requirements for sponsorship identification?
In two recent FCC decisions, one dealing with a commercial operator and that other with a noncommercial licensee, the Commission’s staff addressed the issue of how large an FCC fine could be imposed on a broadcaster without that fine being subject to reduction because of the licensee’s inability to pay. In the first case, a…
In a case just released by the FCC, a broadcaster was fined for enforcing a non-compete agreement that was entered into when a broadcaster sold one of its stations in a market in and agreed that it would not compete in the same format if it ever acquired another station in the same market. The agreement had prohibited the Seller from competing with the Buyer in a news-talk format. After the closing of the sale of the station, the Seller acquired another station in the market and adopted a format that a local court found was covered by the non-compete clause in the contract. The local court issued an injunction against the continuation of the news-talk format. At that point, the Seller filed a complaint with the FCC, arguing that, by obtaining the injunction, the Buyer had engaged in an unauthorized assumption of control of the station covered by the injunction, without FCC approval. The FCC agreed with the Seller, and fined the Buyer $8000 for exercising control over the station that Seller had bought.
The FCC’s reasoning in this case, citing a similar letter decision from 2006, is that the restriction on format impedes a licensee’s control over its own programming, and restricts its ability to adjust its operations to account for changing market conditions. The Commission concluded that, barring the licensee from utilizing a particular format, even for the limited period of the non-compete agreement, was contrary to the public interest. By obtaining the injunction to prevent the Seller from using the news-talk format, the Buyer had impermissibly exercised control over the station that it had already sold. In fact, the Commission went further, and found that the exercise of control over the programming, personnel or finances of the station would be a violation of the rules.
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.
The FCC has released its agenda for its December 18 meeting – and it promises to be one of the most important,and potentially most contentious, in recent memory. On the agenda is the Commission’s long awaited decision on the Chairman’s broadcast multiple ownership plan relaxing broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rules (see our summary here). Also, the FCC will consider a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Localism issues (pending issues summarized here) following the conclusion of its nationwide hearings on the topic, as well as an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on initiatives to encourage broadcast ownership by minorities and other new entrants (summary here). For cable companies, the Commission has scheduled a proposed order on national ownership limits. And, in addition to all these issues on ownership matters, the FCC will also consider revising its sponsorship identification rules to determine if new rules need to be adopted to cover "embedded advertising", i.e. product placement in broadcast programs. All told, these rules could result in fundamental changes in the media landscape.
The broadcast ownership items, dealing with broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership, localism and diversity initiatives, all grow out of the Commission’s attempts to change the broadcast ownership rules in 2003. That attempt was largely rejected by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded most of the rules back to the FCC for further consideration, including considerations about their impact on minority ownership. The localism proceeding was also an outgrowth of that proceeding, started as an attempt by the Commission to deal with consolidation critics who felt that the public had been shut out of the process of determining the rules in 2003, and claiming that big media was neglecting the needs and interests of local audiences.
Continue Reading FCC Meeting Agenda for December 18 – Potentially One of the Most Important in Recent Memory – Multiple Ownership, Localism, Minority Ownership, Product Placement and Cable TV National Ownership Caps