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

At the end of last year, we wrote about the decision of the Detroit newspapers to go to a 3 day a week publication schedule, and asked the question that we had heard posed by a writer for one of the communications trade publications – "will the FCC rules limiting the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers outlive the newspaper itself."  In the last few weeks, that question has become even more relevant.  The FCC’s decision to relax the cross-ownership restrictions in December 2007 drew widespread condemnation from many big-media opponents, and even attempts to overturn the decision, even though its direct effect was limited to the nation’s largest markets.  One now wonders whether, with the current economic condition of newspapers and broadcast stations, the rules should not be revisited, for purposes of further relaxing those rules, not tightening them.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a major newspaper in Denver stop its presses for the last time, and companies owning papers in many major markets, including Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New Haven, all declare bankruptcy.  At the same time, papers in San Francisco and Seattle have warned that they may also shut down if there are not significant savings found or new buyers.  Even venerable papers like the New York Times have been the subject of shut-down rumors, and the Wall Street Journal and other papers in the Rupert Murdoch empire have been said to be dragging down the profits of the News Corporation. 


Continue Reading Will the Newspaper-Broadcast Cross Ownership Rules Outlive the Newspaper?

The FCC today issued two fines to stations who violated the FCC’s rule against airing phone calls for which permission had not been received before the call was either taped for broadcast or aired live.  We’ve written about other fines for the violation of this rule, Section 73.1206, many times (see here, here, and here).  What was interesting about the new cases is that they made clear that a station needs to get permission to record or broadcast the phone call even before the person at the other end of the line says "hello."  

In one case, the station was broadcasting using a tape delay.  The station placed a call to a local restaurant and, when the person at the other end of the line said hello, the station DJ informed the restaurant employee that he was being broadcast and asked if that was OK.  The person responded "yep."  But he changed his mind later in the call.  The station claimed that, had the person not given permission, the tape delay would have allowed the call to be dumped but, as permission was given, the station continued to run with the conversation on the air. The FCC found that insufficient, as permission had not been received prior to the person saying hello.  The second case was much more straightforward – a wake up call by the station to a randomly selected phone number.  While the station immediately informed the person who answered the phone that the call was on the air – that did not happen until the recipient of the call had already said hello.  In the first case, the fine was $6000 – in the second, $3200.


Continue Reading More Fines for Stations That Broadcast Telephone Conversations Without Prior Permission – Permission After “Hello” Is Too Late

In three recent cases, the FCC revisited the issue of broadcast contest rules – fining stations for not following the rules that they set out for on-air contests, and reiterating that the full rules of any contest need to be aired on the station (see our previous post on this issue here).  The most recent case also made clear that a broadcast station’s contests that may be primarily conducted on its web site are still subject to the FCC’s rules if any mention of the contest is made on the broadcast station.  Thus, even though the contest itself may be conducted on the website, with entries being made there and prizes being first announced on the site, if the station uses its broadcast signal to direct people to the site to participate in the contest or otherwise promote it, the broadcaster must announce all of the rules on the air.

In one case, a listener called a station with what she believed to be the correct answer to a question that needed to be answered to win a prize.  The listener gave the answer, only to be asked a second unexpected question that she did not answer correctly.  The next day, she heard another listener call in, answer the original question in the same way that she did – and win the prize without ever even being asked the second question.  When the first listener complained, station employees agreed that the second question was not part of the rules, but did nothing to correct their mistake until after the listener filed her complaint with the FCC.  The Commission fined the station $4000 for failing to follow the contest rules and for failing to fully publicize all of the material terms of the contest on the air. 


Continue Reading Broadcast Station Contests – Announce the Full Contest Rules and Follow Them

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

The House of Representatives, after a fairly contentious debate, today passed the Bill extending the termination date for analog service by full-power TV stations, extending the Digital Television deadline until June 12.  By that date, all full-power stations will need to complete the transition to digital so that, on June 13, there will be no

While it seems like we just finished the election season, it seems like there is always an election somewhere.  We are still getting calls about municipal and other state and local elections that are underway.  And broadcasters need to remember that these elections, like the Federal elections that we’ve just been through, are subject to the FCC’s equal time (or "equal opportunities") rule.  The requirement that lowest unit rates be applied in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election also apply to these elections.  "Reasonable access," however, does not apply to state and local candidates – meaning that stations can refuse to take advertising for state and local elections (unlike for Federal elections where candidates must be given the right to buy spots in all classes and dayparts on a station), as long as all candidates for the same office are treated in the same way. So stations can take ads for State Senate candidates, and refuse to take ads for city council, or restrict those ads to overnight hours, as long as all candidates who are running against each other are treated in the same way.

One issue that arises surprisingly often is the issue of the station employee who runs for local office.  An employee who appears on the air, and who decides to become a candidate for public office, will give rise to a station obligation to give equal opportunities to other candidates for that same office – free time equal to the amount of time that the employee’s recognizable voice or likeness appeared on the air.  While a station can take the employee off the air to avoid obligations for equal opportunities, there are other options for a station.  See our post here on some of those options.


Continue Reading Reminder: Equal Time and Lowest Unit Rate Rules Apply to State and Municipal Elections

Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry.  Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion).  Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.  What’s all the fuss about anyway?

To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not.  We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issuesEssentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance.  The Fairness Doctrine never required "equal time" in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute for minute basis.  In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them.  How that was done was in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine Back in the News (Part 1) – What’s It all About?

Just after Christmas, the FCC gave a number of broadcasters the equivalent of coal in their stocking – fining six different licensees for violations of the FCC’s EEO rules.  The fines issued that day ranged between $7,000 and $20,000, and included penalties issued to major broadcasting companies including Fox and Cumulus.  Also included were fines against Urban Radio in New York City and Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting – demonstrating that the FCC’s EEO rules, adopted in late 2002 after previous rules were declared unconstitutional essentially on "reverse discrimination" grounds (as they encouraged broadcasters to make hiring decisions not based on qualifications but instead based on race or gender), are truly race and gender blind.  It would be logical to assume that Urban Radio and Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting both had significant numbers of minority-group members on their staffs but, as they could not demonstrate that they had complied with the new rules requirements to reach out to all groups in their communities (as opposed to just racial or gender focused groups), they were assessed fines.  Reporting conditions, requiring that the broadcasters regularly file reports with the FCC so that their EEO efforts can be monitored, were also imposed.  All of the decisions can be found on the FCC’s Daily Digest for that day, here.

The basis of all of these fines was the failure of the licensees to be able to demonstrate that they had "widely disseminated" information about all of their job openings.  The core of the 2002 EEO regulations was the requirement that licensees broadly disseminate notice about their job openings in such a way so as reach all of the significant groups within the community that the station serves.  The Commission was not looking to specifically force minority hiring, but instead to push for hiring from diverse sources.  The Commission wanted to push broadcasters to use recruitment sources beyond the existing broadcast community – so that hiring was not simply done by word of mouth or from within other professional broadcast circles.   Thus, the rules require that broadcasters use recruitment sources that reach out to various groups within their community and document those efforts. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines Multiple Broadcast Stations for EEO Violations – Fines Up to $20,000 Imposed