The FCC has released a public notice asking for comment on the procedures that it plans to use for a new FM auction now scheduled to be held in September.  The channels to be included in that auction, and the proposed minimum bids for those channels, can be found on a list released by the Commission, here.  Parties who are interested in bidding for any of these channels will be able to submit short form applications indicating the channels in which they are interested at some point to be determined in the future – probably late Spring or early Summer, so that the FCC can process those applications and receive the necessary upfront payments from parties interested in the auction in time for the auction itself to begin in September.  Thus, parties who are interested in any of these channels should start their due diligence process now, and determine which channels may be of interest, and which channels can actually be built in such a way as to cover areas that an applicant may want to serve, so that they can be ready to file their applications, probably in May or June.

Applications, when filed, will not need to specify a specific transmitter site but, once the auction is over, winning bidders will need to quickly identify and file complete applications containing specific transmitter sites for which they have reasonable assurance.  Thus, they should begin preparations for the auction now.  Applicants who have identified a site can specify that site in their applications to protect it from subsequent applications.  Thus, FM broadcasters should also anticipate a freeze on the filing of any FM technical applications at some point in late Spring in anticipation of the auction, in order to give applicants a stable technical situation so that they can identify usable transmitter sites. 


Continue Reading FCC to Hold Auction for New FM Stations in September

The FCC late Friday released an Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing a number of issues which arose as a result of the Congressional delay in the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12.  In many cases, the actions taken in the Order are ministerial – e.g. changing the expiration dates on digital construction permits from February to June.  But there were also a number of substantive issues addressed by the order – including the public education requirements for the remainder of the transition and the potential for delaying any further terminations of analog service until at least April, and subjecting any planned termination of analog service before June 12 to additional scrutiny to determine if that termination would serve the public interest.   This is despite what many have termed a relatively uneventful termination of analog service on February 17 by over 400 stations nationwide.  Comments on this change in the transition procedures are to be filed on an expedited basis – within 5 days of the publication of this order in the Federal Register.

The delay of the early termination of service is likely to cause the most controversy, as Senate Republicans backed the transition delay only after specifically including in the legislation language that seemingly permitted such transitions under the rules that were in place at the time that the legislation was adopted (see our post here).  This would seemingly have permitted stations to terminate analog service within 90 days of the June 12 deadline, provided they had given their listeners at least 30 days notice of their plans.  A number of stations have started to provide that notice, planning a termination in March. But the Commission has tentatively concluded that it can amend the process for termination, and has set the date of March 17 for a notice to be filed at the FCC by all stations that want to terminate analog service before June 12.  As the Commission plans to continue to require 30 days public notice of the termination, and as they won’t allow any termination decision to become official until the March 17 filing, the earliest a station can terminate analog service under this proposal (absent a technical issue or other extreme circumstance) would be April 16. 


Continue Reading FCC Releases More Details of Delayed DTV Transition – No More DTV Conversions Until April?

The FCC has an open proceeding pending to allow AM stations to use FM translators.  As we have written, while this proceeding continues, the Commission is allowing AM stations to rebroadcast their signals on FM translators on under Special Temporary Authority.  In a case decided today, the FCC made clear that this is only

With February 17 only two days away – when all television stations had planned to be terminating their analog service until Congress passed the extension of the conversion deadline until June 12 – many stations are still planning to convert to fully digital operations on that date.  In the last few days, we have seen a flurry of FCC orders about the conversion – including one issued late Friday night modifying requirements that had previously been announced, including the requirement that stations providing analog nightlight service provide emergency information in Spanish.  As stations complained that they did not have the ability to translate their emergency information into Spanish, the FCC dropped the requirement (though still requiring information about the DTV transition to be broadcast in English and Spanish, probably assuming that Spanish-language PSAs providing the necessary information can be obtained from the NAB or other broadcast groups).  That order also officially extended all digital construction permits that would have otherwise expired on February 17, and extended the conditions that are on many of the permits prohibiting digital operations on their final digital channels until the new transition deadline – unless these stations get explicit permission from the FCC to transition early by showing that they will not cause any interference to other stations when they operate on their new digital channels.

The Commission also has been publishing lists of the stations that had intended to go all-digital by February 17 despite the extension.   First, the Commission released a Public Notice of all stations that had initially indicated that they would go silent, with a market-by-market analysis of which stations would go all-digital on February 17 (marked in red) and which would continue in analog.  After analyzing that list, the Commission issued another Public Notice, with a list of stations that could not go all-digital without submitting certifications that they would meet certain consumer education requirements after the transition – including having at least one commercial station in a market continuing to broadcast a nightlight service that not only included information about the digital transition, but also news and emergency information, for at least 60 days.  the certifications also required having a local call center for those who have questions about the transition, having a walk-in center where people can come for assistance with their digital converters, and otherwise taking steps to publicize the transition.  Stations either needed to make these certifications, provide another public interest reason why they had to terminate analog operations on February 17, or agree to continue their analog operations.


Continue Reading Countdown to February 17 – Some TV Stations Still Going All-Digital Despite the Extension of the Conversion Deadline

Last week, we wrote about how the Fairness Doctrine was applied before it was declared unconstitutional by the FCC in the late 1980s. When we wrote that entry, it seemed as if the whole battle over whether or not it would be reinstated was a tempest in a teapot. Conservative commentators were fretting over the re-imposition, while liberals were complaining that the conservatives were making up issues. But what a difference a week makes.

Perhaps it is the verbal jousting that is going on between the political parties over the influence of Rush Limbaugh that has reignited the talk of the return of the Doctrine, but this week it has surprisingly been back on the front burner  – in force. Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan said on a radio show that the positions taken by talk radio were unfair and unbalanced and that “fairness” shouldn’t be too much to ask (listen to her on-air remarks) . When prompted by the host as to whether there would be Congressional hearings or legislation, the Senator said that it would certainly be something that Congress would consider.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine (Part 2) – Will It Return? And What’s Wrong With Fairness?

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

As we wrote on Friday, the Senate has passed the Bill that would extend from February 17 to June 12 the deadline for full-power television stations to transition to digital operations.  This leaves the House of Representatives to once again consider the matter – supposedly in committee on Tuesday and perhaps by vote of the full House as early as Wednesday.  In preparation for that consideration, there have been conflicting letters released by Congressmen supporting the bill and those who are oppose.  The opponents claim that the ability of TV stations to transition before the end date, an option that was important to Senate Republicans who unanamously supported the extension of the transition date, may not in reality exist.  The supporters of the bill point to the over 1.85 million people who are on the waiting list for the $40 coupons to be applied against the cost of DTV converters to allow analog televisions to receive digital signals after the transition.  What do these letters add to the debate?

The Republican Congressmen leading the charge against the delay of the transition suggest in their letter that the ability of TV stations to transition before an extended June 12 DTV deadline is largely illusory, as they imply that most stations cannot transition until the last day because of interference concerns.  They have asked the FCC to immediately provide information about how many stations would be precluded from a transition until June 12 if the date is extended.  From our experience, while there are some stations that need to delay their DTV transition until some other station has changed channels, we would be surprised if most stations are precluded from doing so.  Many stations are simply going to continue on the channels on which they are currently operating their DTV transitional facilities.  Thus, if they are already operating their DTV stations on their post-transition channel, by definition they are not suffering from any preclusive interference issues.  And the vast majority of the remaining stations are planning to operate after the transition on their current analog channel which itself, in most cases, is free from interference as the analog operation would have in most cases precluded other stations on interfering channels from operating in too close a proximity to the area served by the station.   We are aware of many stations ready to transition early even if the deadline is extended until June 12, and we would think that these stations had reviewed their situations before deciding to do so, and would have been aware of interference concerns in preparation for their February 17 changeover.  In some cases they may have coordinated an early change with any station that would have presented an interference issue.  Thus, we would be surprised if the FCC report prepared for these Congressmen finds a great number of stations that will be forced to wait until June 12 to do their digital conversion even if they are inclined to make the change early.


Continue Reading Will the House Pass the DTV Extension? – Dueling Congressional Letters Take Opposing Positions

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

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

This week, an agreement by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee, to an extension of the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12, was announced.  The delay has been requested so that issues about the distribution of the $40 government coupons to consumers to ease their purchase of converters to allow analog TVs to pick up digital signals so that they will continue to work after the transition date can be resolved; and so that there can be more targeted information about the transition delivered to groups that many feel may not have received the message about the transition. But Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked attempts by the Obama administration to delay the transition, so this agreement by Senator Hutchinson is viewed as a sign that the extension may very well be approved in the near term.  As the transition deadline is only weeks away, if Congress is going to act, it needs to do so immediately, or the effect of any delay will be negligible as the transition will have, for all practical purposes, already occurred.

Most broadcast stations have made plans for the transition – ordering the equipment, scheduling tower crews, coordinating the changes in frequencies with other stations in the same region that may be necessary to accommodate the digital operations.  In some cases, stations have already ceasing their analog broadcasting so that the new equipment necessary to accomplish the transition can be installed, or because these stations will be operating digitally on their analog frequency and have had to allow a tower crew or other engineering support to conduct the work necessary to allow the digital operations on the final channel to occur before the February deadline dates.  Given the limited number of such crews, not all of these final changes could happen on a single date, so stations have been changing to all digital operations now as the final date approaches.  Without Congressional action very soon, the transition will have, for the most part, already occurred.


Continue Reading Senator Hutchison Announces Compromise on DTV Transition Delay Until June 12 – Why Congress Needs to Act Soon