Here are some of the FCC regulatory and legal actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC released the agenda for its June 9 Open Meeting announcing that it will consider an

Taking a station off the air is often the last resort of a broadcast company in desperate financial times.  While Payroll Protection Act loans have helped many small broadcasters avoid that action even in light of the dramatic decrease in broadcast advertising revenue in the last two months, and some relief may come in areas of the country looking at some reopening of business in the coming weeks, we have still heard of some stations that just can’t manage continued operations in this period of turmoil – either for financial or operational reasons caused by the current health crisis.  If this action is in the cards for your station because of the pandemic or for any other reason including technical failures, do not forget about the FCC requirements for taking a station silent.

When a broadcast station goes silent, it must notify the FCC of that status within 10 days of going off the air.  If the situation will continue for a longer period, a request for Special Temporary Authority providing the reasons for going off the air must be filed within 30 days of going silent.  These STAs are granted for no more than 6 months at a time, so that date should be noted for the filing of any extension that may be needed.  But be careful, as if a station is silent for a full year, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act provides that the license will be cancelled unless the FCC makes an affirmative finding that there are special public interest reasons for not taking that action (a finding made in very rare cases).  When stations resume operations, they must notify the FCC that they are back on the air.  But to be considered back on the air, there must be programming – running a test pattern is insufficient (see the case we wrote about here).  Even with authority to remain silent, there are risks.
Continue Reading Broadcast Stations Going Silent – What You Need to Do

The FCC yesterday took what some may suggest is an unprecedented action to potentially deny the license renewal of an FM broadcast station that was silent for all but one day each year during its license renewal term. According to the Hearing Designation Order, the station operated one day each year to avoid forfeiting its license pursuant to Section 312(g) of the Communications Act (a provision we have written about here and here, which provides for the automatic cancellation of the license of a broadcast station that has been silent for more than one year). The order released yesterday points to a 20 year-old case as warning broadcasters that, if they do not operate for substantial portions of a license renewal term, they are in danger of losing their license. As the FCC points out, if the station is not operating, it cannot fulfill the obligation of a licensee to serve the public interest.

The hearing scheduled by the FCC will be a “hearing” in name only. As there are unlikely to be disputed facts, the FCC has adopted a simplified process of a paper hearing. The licensee of the station will need to submit all the records of station operations during the last renewal term, if such records exist (e.g. station logs, issues-programs lists, and EAS test reports), and a written statement of no more than 25 pages setting out why the license should be renewed. That evidence, along with any comments filed by any party that wants to intervene in the case, will be reviewed by the Commissioners themselves. No oral presentation will be made, and no administrative law judge will be involved in the review of the record compiled by this station. Hearings where the FCC proposed to revoke the license of a station have in the last four decades been held before an administrative law judge, usually with live witnesses. In commenting on this new procedure, Commissioner O’Rielly notes that cases before an administrative law judge can take years to resolve, and often end up being reviewed by the Commissioners themselves anyway, so this paper hearing before the Commission will be much more efficient.
Continue Reading FCC To Hold Hearing to Determine Whether to Deny License Renewal of Radio Station that was Silent for Most of its License Term

Last week, the FCC issued a consent decree entered into with a broadcaster who is the licensee of multiple radio stations, many of which were silent for long periods during the last license renewal cycle. As part of the deal, in order to get renewals for 12 stations granted, the licensee agreed to either

In a decision released yesterday, the FCC proposed to fine a station and gave it a short-term license renewal as the station could not demonstrate that it had served the needs and interests of its community.  Why?  Because the station had been silent for much of the renewal term – only turning on for a short time every now and then – enough to avoid having its license cancelled for being silent for more than a year.  Several years ago, Congress amended the Communications Act to add Section 312(g) requiring that the FCC cancel a station’s license if it has been silent for more than a year, unless the station can demonstrate some overriding public interest reason for leniency (a showing that, as we wrote here, is difficult to make). 

To avoid the ultimate sanction of having a license cancelled, many stations facing economic issues or other long-term problems with transmitter sites or other matters, will find a way to turn their stations back on the air for a day or two to avoid being off the air for more than a year.  As long as programming is run on the station during that on-air period, the FCC has thus far allowed the stations to continue in this mode.  But, in this license renewal cycle, broadcasters were for the first time required to specify if their stations had been of the air for more than 30 days at any point in the license term.  In yesterday’s decision, the FCC makes clear that a station that spent a significant amount of time off the air may face a sanction – here, the grant of the license renewal for only 2 years rather than the normal 8 year period.  If a station is off the air for more than half the renewal term, it looks like an even more serious sanction may be in the works.
Continue Reading Radio Station Being Silent Too Long Brings FCC Sanction – How Long Can a Broadcast Station Be off the Air Before It Causes Trouble at License Renewal Time?

Sometimes, even though you have FCC authority for your operations, you can still run into issues that can cause you to have that authority pulled out from under your operations. In three cases decided this week, the FCC’s Audio Division interpreted a number of its procedural rules – in two cases leading to the cancellation of FM translator licenses and the silencing of operating translator stations. In one case, the FCC decided that a licensed and operating FM translator had been licensed in error, as it actually created interference to an existing full-power FM station in a populated area, even though the translator application had initially claimed that it would not. In the second case, a translator was forced to cease operations because of interference from a new full-power station. When it did not resume operations within a one-year period, the FCC found that its license was automatically forfeited because of the year’s silence – even though the station had resumed operations in the construction period specified in a construction permit authorizing the translator to operate on a new frequency. These cases make clear how important the FCC’s procedural rules can be – actually leading to what are effectively life or death decisions for the license of a broadcast station.

In the first case, a translator licensee had a construction permit application granted to move to a new transmitter site. After the permit was granted, the licensee of a full-power station filed a Petition for Reconsideration of the grant, arguing that the translator would in fact create interference in populated areas served by its station. Despite the protest, the permittee constructed the translator at the new site, started operations and filed a license to cover the new construction – which was granted by the FCC. In reviewing the evidence filed by the petitioner, the FCC determined that there would in fact be interference caused to the full-power station in inhabited areas, contrary to what had been claimed in the translator’s CP application.  Based on that finding, the FCC revoked the license and underlying CP for the translator. The FCC made clear that a permittee who constructs a station when there is an objection to the underlying CP does so at its own risk. Where, as here, the underlying objection is found to have merit, the mere fact that the permittee had the right to build the station does not give him any grounds to argue that the station should be permitted to continue to operate – rejecting claims by the translator operator that, as there were no complaints of real interference caused by its operation, it should be permitted to continue to operate. Where the translator had prohibited contour overlap with the protected full-power station, and where it was shown that the area in which that overlap occurred was populated (shown by a USGS Topographic map that showed structures in the area), the operation was not permitted to continue.


Continue Reading FCC Decisions Lead to Cancellation of Two FM Translator Licenses and Silencing of Operating Stations – Interference Issues and Time Limits on Being Off Air to Blame

The FCC today upheld the cancellation of a television station’s license for being off the air for over one year.  Section 312(g) of the Communications Act instructs the Commission to cancel a license of any broadcast station that has not transmitted "broadcast signals" for over one year, unless there is a public interest reason for allowing

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court’s decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party’s campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television – applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate’s campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate’s ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate’s ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee’s ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" – not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term – if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.


Continue Reading The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Section 312(g) of the Communications Act authorizes the FCC to cancel the license of any broadcast station that has not operated for a full year.   In a recent case, the Commission clarified when it would choose to use that authority to cancel the license of a station that had not been on the air with authorized facilities within that one year period.  In this case, the FCC decided not to cancel the license of a station whose tower was destroyed, where the station came back on the air from the old site but with reduced facilities before the end of the one year period, even though the resumption of operations was initially conducted without FCC authority for the low power operation. The station did, however, ask for Special Temporary Authority to operate with these facilities, authority which was not granted until several weeks after the station had resumed operation.  As the station had requested the authority to resume operations, and had been candid with the FCC about its operations and intentions, the Commission did not cancel the license, but it did fine the station $7000 for operating with unauthorized facilities during the period before the STA was granted.

The decision distinguished the actions of the licensee here with that of the licensee in another case, about which we wrote here, where the FCC canceled the license of a station that was forced off the air at its licensed site, and came back on the air just before the end of the one year period from a totally new site where it had no FCC authority, and where it could not get FAA approval for operations.  The Commission stated that the element of deception in the earlier case, with the station coming on the air at a site where it could not get FCC approval as the FAA had refused its operations from the site, was the distinguishing factor which caused that station license to be canceled. 


Continue Reading STA Request Saves Broadcast Station License From Cancellation For Being Off the Air for A Full Year

Each day, there seems to be a report about broadcast stations going off the air because of the current economic downturn – some permanently (witness several Montana full-power television stations formerly owned by Equity Broadcasting whose licenses were surrendered two weeks ago), some temporary, and some being given away to charity (like Clear Channel’s announcement of its donation of 4 AM stations to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council).  Several months ago, we wrote here about the steps a broadcaster should take when taking a station off the air – notification to the FCC within 10 days of the station going silent, seeking permission to remain silent after 30 days, and making sure that tower lights are maintained even if the station is off the air.  But, as this situation becomes more common, there are a couple of other issues that have recently come up that are worth mentioning – one having to do with the one year period that a station can stay off the air without forfeiting its license, and the other dealing with music royalties. 

First, in the last few months, there have been cases which have clarified, at least to a degree, the law that states that a license will be forfeit if a station is off the air for more than a year.  In one decision, the Commission’s Video Division of its Media Bureau canceled the license of a television station that had come back on the air shortly before the year of silence was to end, but only broadcast a test pattern.  Finding that the station had not broadcast any programming, and that transmission of a test pattern did not constitute "broadcasting", the Division determined that the obligation to return to the air had not been met, and canceled the license.  The licensee is appealing this decision, arguing that the law (Section 312g of the Communications Act) does not require that a station broadcast programming, just that it "transmit broadcast signals" within a year of the time that it went off the air.  But, for now, licensees who take their stations silent should plan for returning to the air with some programming within a year, or risk the cancellation of the station license.


Continue Reading Broadcast Stations Going Dark – Issues to Think About