The full text of the FCC’s Order overturning its 2007 decision on online public inspection files for TV broadcasters and the adoption of the Form 355 "enhanced disclosure form" has now been released.  This order, adopted at the FCC’s open meeting this week (held on October 27, 2011, which we wrote about here), also contains a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking again suggesting an online public file, but this time it would be one hosted by the FCC.  In reading the full text, more details of the FCC’s proposal become clear.  As set forth below, the Order suggests everything from a future application of these rules to radio once the bugs have been worked out, to an examination of whether a station needs to save Facebook posts and other social media comments in the same way that it preserves letters from the public and emails about station operations, to a proposal for stations to document in their files information about all "pay for play" sponsorships.  Comments on these proposals, and the others summarized below, which include a request for detailed information about the costs of compliance with the proposals, are due 30 days from when the order is published in the Federal Register, with Reply Comments due only 15 days thereafter.  The FCC, after sitting on these obligations for almost 5 years, now seems to be ready to move quickly. 

In reaching it’s decision, the order first discusses some proposals that it was rejecting – some for the time being.  For radio broadcasters, the most important of the rejected thoughts was the extension of this rule to radio.  The Commission noted that there were proposals pending and ripe for action as part of the Localism proceeding (which we summarized here), to extend the online public file obligations to radio.  In this week’s order, the FCC decided that it was not yet ready to apply these rules to radio.  The Commission noted that there might need to be differences in the rules for radio (implying that, at least partially, there might be resource issues making it difficult for radio broadcasters to comply with these rules), and also finding that it would be better to see how an online file works for TV before extending the rule to radio.  But, from the statements made in the Order, there is no question but that, at some point in the future, some form of the obligations that are proposed for TV will also be proposed for radio broadcasters. 

Also, it is important to note that the FCC’s Localism proceeding is not dead yet.  While this week’s Order stems from the FCC’s Future of Media Report (renamed the Report on the Information Needs of Communities), and that report recommended that the Localism proceeding be terminated, this Order did not do that.  The Commission notes its plans to start a new proceeding designed to force broadcasters to complete a more comprehensive report on their public interest programming.  That proceeding may be where the looming Localism proposals are finally dealt with.  Statements at the meeting and passages in the Order make clear that the examination of the public interest obligations for broadcasters will begin with a Notice of Inquiry, which is a most preliminary stage of an FCC proceeding (which would be followed by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking after the inquiry comments are reviewed) and then an Order.  So final resolution of these issues seem to be far down the road.  If that is the case, will the Localism proposals stay on the table until the Order in this new proceeding is adopted?  It is certainly unclear from the Commission’s statements thus far.

Continue Reading Text of Online Public File Order Released – Details of What the FCC is Considering, and Suggestion that Radio May Be Next

At its meeting today, the FCC vacated its 2007 Order mandating an online public file and the filing of the Form 355 “Enhanced Disclosure” form that detailed the public interest service of television broadcasters. But these requirements are not gone, as the Commission has adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking to reinstate an obligation for an online public file, and a Notice of Inquiry is apparently circulating at the FCC that would propose a substitute for the Form 355. The proposal for the new online public file apparently also suggests including new information in the online file, including information about sponsorship identification and copies of shared service agreements. While the text of the FCC order is not yet out, from the information provided at the FCC meeting, the following matters appear to be on the table at the FCC:

  • The FCC proposes that TV broadcasters will need to have an online public file, submitted to and maintained on servers at the FCC rather than on each individual station’s website
    • Several Commissioners suggest that the Commission will develop a mechanism for accessible storage of online public files, which may be searchable by the public
    • The online public file form will automatically import other FCC filings that are required to be in the file
    • Until the FCC electronic database is perfected, the documents will be placed online in their current formats
  • Letters from the public concerning station operations are proposed to be excluded from the online file out of privacy concerns, though broadcasters will still need to keep those letters in a public file at the station.
  • The online public file is proposed to include the political file, which was exempt under the 2007 rule as it would be too burdensome to update that report rapidly during an election season
  • The online file is proposed to include additional material not now required to be in the public file, including:
    • Copies of shared services agreements
    • Sponsorship identification information that is now only broadcast on air in connection with the program in which sponsored material is included
  • The FCC is currently considering a Notice of Inquiry, a draft of which is apparently circulating among the Commissioners now, that proposes some form of enhanced disclosure form that will replace the Form 355 (and the current Quarterly Programs Issues list) to document the public service provided by TV broadcasters


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Revised Rules for Online Public File – Including Political File – and Discusses the Public Interest Obligations of TV Stations

Yesterday, the FCC released an Order that reversed a five-year-old decision by its Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (“CGB” or “Bureau”) that had granted certain video programmers “undue burden” exemptions from the FCC’s closed captioning rules. The reversed Bureau decision had changed the criteria for undue burden exemptions and permanently exempted two video programmers from compliance with the closed captioning rules on the basis of the new criteria. Finding that the Bureau’s new criteria deviated from both the statute and FCC precedent, the Commission overturned the decision, reversed 296 subsequent exemptions that had been granted by the Bureau in reliance thereon, and reinstated the original criteria for captioning exemptions. DWT has just released an advisory that provides more detail about the Commission’s decision, which can be found here. In addition, a copy of the Commission’s Order can be found here.

In overturning the undue burden exemptions CGB approved in 2006, the Commission found numerous faults with both the Bureau’s initial decision and its handling of hundreds of subsequent petitions seeking similar exemptions. Although undue burden exemptions were to be reviewed by the Commission on a case-by-case basis after opportunity for public comment and were to consider four factors: (1) the nature and cost of the closed captions for the programming; (2) the impact on the operation of the provider or program owner; (3) the financial resources of the provider or program owner; and (4) the type of operations of the provider or program owner, the Bureau deviated from previous Commission decisions by expanding the scope of the factors considered.  In particular, its decision relied primarily on the non-profit status of programming providers and that the programming was not produced for primarily commercial purposes.  Further, the Bureau found captioning programs would constitute a “significant hardship” and that there was a significant risk that mandating captioning would cause the video programming provider to cancel the programming.
 

Continue Reading FCC Overturns Hundreds of TV Closed Captioning Exemptions and Clarifies “Economically Burdensome” Standard in Connection with Captioning Rules

The battle over the reclamation of television spectrum for wireless broadband rages on, and some in the television industry fear that the future of over-the-air television may be sacrificed to Congressional attempts to reduce the Federal deficit. The current Congressional “Super Committee” that is attempting to find billions of dollars in spending reductions to lower the Federal deficit is reportedly considering “finding” potentially 20 billion dollars or more from the proceeds of an auction of spectrum reclaimed from television broadcasters. Various Congressional proposals have been submitted for the committee’s consideration, essentially to authorize the FCC to conduct “incentive auctions” to reclaim some TV spectrum. But, the National Association of Broadcasters and others have claimed that broadcast television service to a number of markets, particularly those in areas near the Canadian border and in urban, densely populated northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, will be particularly hard hit – imperiling the continued existence of free over-the-air service to some markets, including Detroit. In other markets, broadcasters fear there will be a lessening of the protections from interference that stations currently enjoy, or a repacking of the spectrum that will put stations on new and potentially inferior channels, without reimbursement of the costs of relocation.

The proposal for the reclamation of television spectrum was first advanced in the Commission’s Broadband Report, where the FCC committee that drafted the report suggested that as much as 120 MHz of television spectrum  be reclaimed for use for wireless broadband – 20 television channels from 32 to 51 on the TV dial.  With tablets and smartphone usage growing quickly, and the ever-increasing demands for wireless spectrum to deliver video, audio and other rich internet content, the Commission fears a spectrum shortage – especially in certain urban markets. As over-the-air viewing rates have been falling over the last two decades as more people sign up with multichannel carriers, the Report suggested that the TV band could be shrunk, with some of the spectrum being redistributed to wireless. TV stations could be incentivized to surrender their spectrum for wireless use or to share channels, an option that the proponents of reclamation claim is very feasible, as digital technologies now allow one television channel to rebroadcast multiple streams of programming.

Television broadcasters have fought back, claiming that, while the digital transition does allow for more channels in the same spectrum, they are just now rolling out new uses of that spectrum – including new programming streams and, soon, mobile video targeted to smartphones and other digital devices. An article in one newspaper  last week reviews some of the new ways for over-the-air TV viewers to get access to additional video programming to augment over-the-air programs, allowing some consumers to “cut the cord” – eliminating their multichannel video subscriptions. Some studies have suggested that such cord-cutting opportunities, combined with the recent economic turmoil, has actually increased the amount of over-the-air television viewing in the last few years, reversing or slowing the trend of decreasing broadcast TV viewership.

Continue Reading Reclaiming Over-the-Air TV Spectrum for Wireless Broadband Use – What Will the Budget Super Committee Decide?

The end of September marks the close of the Third Quarter of 2011, which brings two quarterly filing obligations for broadcast stations.  The first obligation is that by October 10 all radio and television stations, both commercial and noncommercial, must prepare and place in their public inspection file Quarterly Issues Programs Lists reporting on the important

The dates for comments on the FCC proposed rules for the captioning of Internet Video have been set.  Comments are due on October 18 with replies due on October 28.  An associated Federal Register publication also notes that comments can be filed with the Office of Management and Budget about the compliance of

Just a reminder that by October 1, Television stations must once again make their triennial carriage elections.  By that date, TV stations must notify the local cable systems and satellite carriers in their market in writing as to whether the station intends to be carried pursuant to must-carry or a retransmission consent agreement for the

The FCC today announced the public testing of a new TV White Spaces database system.  Starting on September 19, 2011, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology will open a 45-day window to allow the public to try out the TV Band Database developed by one of the potential TV White Spaces database managers.  If approved, the Database will be used by white space

The FCC just issued a Report to Congress concerning the access of television viewers to in-state television stations.  This report was requested by Congress as part of STELA (the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act), which extended the compulsory license for direct to home satellite television operators (DISH and DirecTV) – a license which gives them copyright clearances to retransmit all the programming transmitted by the broadcast television stations that they make available as part of their service packages.  Congress also requested a Report from the Copyright Office on the need for the compulsory license – a report also issued this week, which we will write about in another article.  The issue of access to in-state television stations has been a controversial issue, as several Congressmen have sought (and in a few cases actually received) legislative authority for cable providers to carry out-of-market television stations on cable systems serving areas in one state that are part of television markets where the television stations come from a different state.  The report refers to these areas as "orphan counties."  Once legislative authority was granted in one state, many other bills popped up in Congress trying for the same relief in their state – causing concern that the existing television markets (or Designated Market Areas or "DMAs", designated by the Nielsen Company) might be undermined.  To see what impact such changes would have, Congress requested this report from the FCC.

The report for the most part does not make recommendations, but instead simply provides information about the service provided to US television viewers, the potential options for bringing an in-state service to all viewers, and the issues that such proposals would raise. Perhaps the most interesting fact revealed by the report is that 99.98% of all US television households already have access to an in-state television station, either over-the-air or through a Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (e.g. cable or satellite TV system), so this is a very isolated issue.  However,when the FCC sought comments on the issues discussed in the report, a number of individuals in particular DMAs responded about situations where they could not get access to in-state television stations and asked that something be done.  The report assesses the implications of any action that could be taken.

Continue Reading FCC Issues Report to Congress on Access to In-State Television Programming

The debate over repurposing some of the television spectrum for wireless broadband have been raging over the normally quiet Washington summer, as issues as diverse as the budget negotiations, the tenth anniversary of 9-11 and international treaties all play their part in the discussions.  Whatever changes are made could have a profound impact on TV broadcasters nationwide, not just those in the congested metropolitan markets where everyone acknowledges that any spectrum crunch that may exist would be most acute.  This week, Congressman John Dingell, long one of the most influential Congressmen on telecommunications issues, complained that the FCC was deliberately withholding details of its plans for spectrum allocation – plans that the National Association of Broadcasters have challenged as unworkable as they would doom over-the-air television in many markets, especially those near the Canadian border.  With all the issues swirling around the spectrum reallocation debate, the realistic timing of any reallocation of the spectrum and the real impact on the free over-the-air television broadcast industry are becoming major issues being considered in Washington.

The FCC has been pursuing the idea of repurposing some of the television spectrum for wireless broadband use since well before the Broadband Report was issued last year.  As we summarized in our review of the Broadband Report, the FCC suggested that as much as 120 MHz of television spectrum could be reallocated from TV to wireless broadband uses.  The FCC and the consumer electronics and wireless industries have contended that there is a looming spectrum crunch, particularly in major markets, as smart phones, tablets and other connected devices become a bigger part of the lives of many consumers in serving not only their entertainment needs, but also providing information and business services.  The FCC’s Broadband Report thought that as much as 500 MHz of spectrum would eventually be needed, and that 120 MHz could come from the television spectrum, which proponents feel has been underutilized by broadcasters since the digital television transition in 2009.  Proponents of the reallocation contend most consumers get their TV service not over the air, but from cable or satellite providers, so the need for spectrum dedicated to broadcast television is far less than it was 70 years ago when the television service was first popularized.  Broadcasters, of course disagree with that assessment, contending that the digital transition is still very new, and that uses of the digital spectrum – including a mobile DTV service and multicast channels – are just developing.  Moreover, TV broadcasters have argued that their digital offerings, when combined with Internet service, are providing an option to many to "cut the cord" from pay TV options, leading to more over-the-air viewing.  In recent weeks, as detailed below, the National Association of Broadcasters has also been contending that the proposed reallocation would irreparably damage the over-the-air television industry, especially in markets in the Northeast and near the Canadian border where, in some markets, the reallocation would be impossible without ending most or all over-the-air television service.  The radically different pictures painted by the participants in this debate have led to some of the recent charges that the FCC is being less than forthcoming about the manner in which this transition would occur and the impact that it would have on broadcast TV. 

Continue Reading The Debate Continues Over Using TV Spectrum for Wireless Broadband – Incentive Auctions, International Considerations, Deficit Reduction, and Public Safety All Play a Role