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

In these challenging economic times, it seems like almost every day we see a notice that a broadcast station has gone silent while the owner evaluates what to do with the facility.  This seems particularly common among AM stations – many of which have significant operating costs and, in recent times, often minimal revenues.  The DTV transition deadline (whenever that may be) may also result in a number of TV stations that don’t finish their DTV buildout in time being forced to go dark.  While these times may call for these economic measures to cut costs to preserve the operations of other stations that are bringing in revenue, broadcasters must remember that there are specific steps that must be taken at the FCC to avoid fines or other problems down the road.

One of the first issues to be addressed is the requirement that the FCC be informed of the fact that a station has gone silent.  Once a station has ceased operations for 10 days, a notice must be filed with the the FCC providing notification that the station is not operational.  If the station remains silent for 30 days, specific permission, in the form of a request for Special Temporary Authority to remain silent, must be sought from the FCC.  The rules refer to reasons beyond the control of the licensee as providing justification for the station being off the air.   Traditionally, the FCC has wanted a licensee to demonstrate that there has been a technical issue that has kept the station off the air.  The Commission was reluctant to accept financial concerns as providing justification for the station being silent – especially if there was no clear plan to sell the station or to promptly return it to the air.  Perhaps the current economic climate may cause the FCC to be more understanding – at least for some period of time.

Continue Reading Steps to Take When A Broadcast Station Goes Silent