Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial.  In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor.  These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement.  The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.

The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses.   Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address).  But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business.  They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today").  They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ).  The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor.  In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in.  The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines for Noncommercial Stations Having Underwriting Announcements That Were Too Commercial – Even Where the Station Received No Money

Today’s morning newscasts were filled with the stories of the passing of George Carlin – a comedian and satirist who effectively wrote the indecency regulations that most broadcasters abide by – without the FCC ever having had to adopt the regulations that he attributed to them.  In the broadcast world, Mr. Carlin was probably best known for his routine about the Seven Words that You Can Never Say on TV.  When that routine was aired by a New York radio station, and heard by a parent who claimed that he had a child in his car when the routine came over his radio in the middle of the day, the resulting FCC action against the station resulted in appeals that ended in the Supreme Court which, in its Pacifica case, upheld the right of the FCC to adopt indecency rules for the broadcast media to channel speech that is indecent, though not legally obscene, into hours when children are not likely to be listening.  But what this case and the FCC ruling did not hold are perhaps more misunderstood than what the case did hold.

First, the case was about "indecency" not "obscenity."  Many of this morning’s newscasts referred to the Pacifica decision as being an Obscenity decision.  Obscenity is speech that can be banned no matter what the time and place, as it is speech that is deemed to have no socially redeeming value.  Indecency, on the other hand, is a far more limited concept.  Indecent speech is speech that is constitutionally protected – it has some social significance such as the social commentary clearly conveyed by the Carlin routine.  It cannot be constitutionally banned.  But the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s decision in the Pacifica case that, because of the intrusive nature of the broadcast media, it can be limited to hours where children are not likely to be in the audience.  Hence, the FCC has a "safe harbor" that allows indecent programming between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, when "obscene" programming is never allowed on the air.


Continue Reading George Carlin – Writing the Indeceny Rules the FCC Never Did