In a wild series of legal decisions preceding the Democratic Presidential debate in Nevada, a Nevada judge ruled that MSNBC had to include Congressman Dennis Kucinich in its debate, only to be overruled by a decision of the Nevada Supreme Court released less than a hour before the debate was to begin.  Notably, the initial decision was not based on FCC rules, but instead on a breach of contract theory, as FCC precedent seems relatively clear that a Presidential debate sponsor need not include all candidates in a debate for the coverage of that debate by a broadcaster or cable operator to be exempt from the equal opportunities rules enforced by the FCC. 

 The FCC has long recognized that, to promote the coverage of debates on broadcast media, the sponsors need to be able to limit participation in those debates for them to have any meaning.  In some races where there are minimal requirements for being placed on a ballot, there can be dozens of candidates for a particular office.  If all needed to be included in a broadcast debate, the debate would never be broadcast, and the public would not receive the benefit that on-air coverage would provide.  The issue first arose when the equal opportunities rule was adopted, as broadcasters feared that, unless every candidate for a particular office was included in the debate, any broadcaster or cable company carrying the debate would have to give free "equal time" to any candidate that did not participate in the debate. 


Continue Reading Nevada Court Denies Kucinich Right to Participate in Broadcast Debate – Recognizing FCC’s Exclusive Role to Regulate Equal Opportunities in Political Debates

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

The FCC has taken the unusual step of issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability, i.e. an announcement that it has fined a broadcaster, against two TV station owners for failing to provide a sponsorship identification for political material sponsored by another Federal agency–the Department of Education ("DOE").  The proposed fines for these two broadcasters totaled over $70,000.  In connection with the same broadcasts, the Commission also issued a citation against the producer of the programs for failing to include a disclosure of the sponsor of the programs, warning that company that it would be fined if it were to engage in such activity in the future, even though the entity was not an FCC licensee.  These actions demonstrate the concern of the Commission over programs that attempt to influence the public, particularly those dealing with controversial issues of public importance, where those who have paid to do the convincing are not evident to the public.

These cases all stem from programs associated with conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid by DOE to promote the controversial No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLBA") supported by the current administration.  He did so on two television programs:  his own show, titled "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" and on "America’s Black Forum," where he appeared as a guest.  These shows were aired by various television stations without any sponsorship identification to indicate that Williams was paid by DOE to promote NCLBA on the air.

In one case, the television broadcaster received $100 per broadcast for airing Right Side, but failed to reveal that it had received any consideration.  The broadcaster claimed that the consideration received was "nominal," which is generally an exception to the sponsorship ID requirement.  However, the FCC noted that the exception for "nominal" consideration applies only to "service or property" and not to "money," holding that receipt of any money, even if only a small sum, triggers the requirement for sponsorship identification.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Fines for Political Sponsorship ID Violations