The earthquake in Haiti has caused many to look for ways to help – including broadcasters.  While many broadcasters are already pitching in to do their part to aide relief effortsnoncommercial broadcasters are, in some cases, limited in what they can do.  Noncommercial stations cannot raise funds, even for other noncommercial groups, if that fundraising "substantially alters or suspends regular programming" of the station.  Under these rules, NCE ("Noncommercial educational) stations are thus forbidden to hold a telethon or other pledge drive that suspends normal programming where the proceeds would go to a third party – even a nonprofit third party group.  Thus, recognizing the magnitude of the tragedy in Haiti, the FCC has agreed to grant liberal waivers of these policies, issuing a public notice announcing that NCE stations wishing to conduct such efforts can simply file an electronic request, by email, with certain supervisors in the Media Bureau’s Audio and Video divisions, setting out the nature of the programming, its length, and the beneficiary.

We obviously applaud the FCC’s rapid response on this issue.  But we note that it is interesting that the Public Notice states that applicants for one of these waivers also must state whether the special fund-raising effort is part of the station’s normal fundraising, or if it is a separate program. The public notice does not mention that noncommercial stations can make fundraising appeals for third parties under the current FCC policies, as long as those appeals do not suspend or interfere with normal station programming.  It would seem to me that such appeals would permit a DJ on an NCE station, in a normal programming break, to urge listeners to contribute to the Red Cross or some other charity, or for a regularly scheduled talk show on a station to feature a discussion of the situation in Haiti and of how people can assist with disaster relief, without needing any specific approval of the FCC.  The key to whether a waiver of the FCC policies is necessary is whether there is a substantial alteration or suspension of the normal programming of the station.


Continue Reading FCC Permits Noncommercial Stations to Raise Funds For Haitian Relief – The Limits of Third Party Fundraising By NCE Stations

I just finished speaking on a panel at the Radio Ink Convergence ’09 conference in San Jose.  My panel was called "The Distribution Dilemma: Opportunities, Partnership and Landmines."  As the legal representative, my role was, of course, to talk about the landmines.  And one occurred to me in the middle of the panel when a representative of Ibiquity, the HD Radio people, about one of the opportunities available for the multicast channels available in that system, where an FM radio operator can, on one FM station, send out two or three different digital signals.  The particular opportunity that was discussed was the ability to bring in outside programmers to program the digital channels, specifically talking about a recent deal where a broadcaster had entered into a deal with a company that would be brokering a digital channel in major markets, and programming that station with a format directed to the Asian communities.  Broadcasters are generally familiar with the fact that, when they broker their traditional analog broadcast station to a third party, the licensee remains responsible for the content that is delivered in that brokered programming – e.g. making sure that there are no payola, indecency, lottery or other legal issues that pop up in that brokered programming.  Broadcasters need to remember that that same responsibility applies to multicast streams, whether they are on HD radio or on a multicast stream broadcast by a digital television station.  These stream are over-the-air broadcast channels subject to all FCC programming rules.

Foreign language programming has traditionally presented programming issues for broadcasters.  In the 1970s and 1980s, there were multiple cases where broadcasters actually lost licenses because there was illegal activity taking place in brokered programming.  In these cases, the programming contained illegal content and the licensee had no way to monitor the content of the programs as the licensee had no one on staff who spoke the language in which the programming was produced.  The FCC basically said that the licensee had the responsibility to be able to monitor all programming broadcast on its station – so they had abdicated their responsibility to keep the station in compliance with FCC rules by not knowing what was being said in the brokered programming.


Continue Reading Caution on Multicast Streams – Remember It’s Still Over-the-Air Broadcasting

The FCC Equal Time rule (or more properly the "equal opportunities" doctrine) requires that, when a broadcast stations gives one candidate airtime outside of an "exempt program" (essentially news or news interview programs, see our explanation here), it must give the opposing candidate equal time if that opposing candidate requests the time within 7 days of the first candidate’s use.  Cable systems are also subject the requirement for local origination programming, and many have surmised that, faced with the proper case, the FCC would determine that cable networks are also likely to be covered by the doctrine.  While the FCC has extended the concept of an exempt program to cover all sorts of interview format programs, allowing Oprah, The View, Leno and Letterman and the Daily Show to have candidates on the air without the fear of equal time obligations, the rule still theoretically applies to scripted programming.  Yet in this election, we have seen candidates appear on scripted programs repeatedly, seemingly without fear of the equal time obligations.  Early in the election season, cable networks ran Law and Order with Fred Thompson without any equal time claims being made.  All through the election, candidates seem to have made themselves at home on Saturday Night Live, culminating with Senator McCain’s appearances on the SNL programs on Saturday Night and the SNL special run on election eve.  Yet through it all, stations have not seemed reluctant to run these programs, and candidates have not seemed to show any interest in requesting any equal time that may be due to them.  This seems to raise the question as to whether there remains any vitality to the equal opportunities doctrine.

This is not just a case of candidates deciding not to appear on a program that they don’t like because they don’t want to appear in a program with that particular format, as the equal time rules free the candidates from format restrictions.  Thus, had Senator Obama sought equal time for McCain’s appearances on SNL, he would have been entitled to an amount of time equal to the amount of time that McCain appeared on camera, and Obama could have used that time for any purpose that he wanted, including a straight campaign pitch.  He would not have had to appear in an SNL skit just to get that time.


Continue Reading Does McCain on Saturday Night Live Signal the End of Equal Time?

On the last day of 2007, the FCC released its Third Periodic Review of the Digital Television rules and policies, providing the rules and procedures that TV stations must follow in their final transition from analog to digital operations.  This transition leads up to the February 17 deadline when all television stations must cease analog broadcasting and operate full-time in

As the dates for the first Presidential primaries draw near, more and more stories appear in the press about attack ads growing in importance.  These ads are coming both from the candidates themselves trying to draw distinctions with their opponents, and from third party, supposedly independent, groups either attacking or supporting one of the candidates.  See, for instance, the recent story in the Washington Post on the increase in third party ads.  These ads have raised political issues on the campaign trail as to whether negative campaigns work, and as to how independent of the candidates the third party expenditures really are.  They also raise legal issues for broadcasters.  Whenever there are attack ads that are run on a broadcast station, there are complaints from the candidate being attacked about how unfair the criticism is.  Broadcasters have to deal with these complaints, and the sponsor of the ads makes a huge difference in the broadcaster’s responsibilities to check the truth of the statements made.    As we explain in our Political Broadcasting Guide, broadcasters may not censor the content of a candidate ad, and thus are exempt from any liability for the content of that ad.  But attacks contained in third party ads may require the broadcaster to do some investigation into the claims being made to make sure that they avoid legal liabilities.

For ads run by a candidate or his or her authorized committee, the Communications Act forbids a broadcaster (or cable company that chooses to sell time to political candidates) from censoring the candidate’s message.    Because of the no censorship rule, the Courts have ruled that broadcasters are immune from any sort of liability for defamation that may arise from the content of the ad.  Thus, broadcasters cannot reject a candidate’s message based on its content (with the possible exception of cases where that content would violate a criminal law, as opposed to just creating some civil liability), and need not take any action in response to a complaint by an opposing candidate that the ad contains incorrect or distorted information.


Continue Reading As Presidential Races Heat Up, So Do the Attack Ads – Legal Issues For Broadcasters Dealing With Third Party Political Ads

Website operators planning to allow visitors to post their own "user generated content" can, for the most part, take solace that they will not be held liable for third-party posts if they meet certain criteria.  The Communications Decency Act provides protection against liability for torts (including libel, slander and other forms of defamation) for website operators for third-party content posted on their site.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides protection against copyright infringement claims for the user-generated content, if the site owner observes certain "safe harbor" provisions set out by the law.  The requirements for protection under these statutes, and other cautions for website operators, are set out in detail in our firm’s First Amendment Law Letter, which can be found here.

 As detailed in the Law Letter, the Communications Decency Act has been very broadly applied to protect the operator of a website from liability for the content of the postings of third parties.  Only recently have courts begun to chip away at those protections, finding liability in cases where it appeared that the website operator in effect asked for the offending content – as in a case where the owner of a roommate-finder site gave users a questionnaire that specifically prompted them to indicate a racial preference for a roommate – something which offends the Fair Housing Act.  However, as set forth in the Law Letter, absent such a specific prompt for offending information, the protections afforded by this statute still appear quite broad.


Continue Reading Avoiding Liability for Websites that Post User Generated Content

At today’s Future of Music Policy Summit in Washington, DC, there has been much talk about issues of interest to broadcasters, including the performance right in sound recordings for terrestrial radio, multiple ownership, and many other issues. The Future of Music Coalition, whose website is here, is dedicated to bringing the voice of musicians and the public to Congress and other decision-makers in Washington. Thus, the Coalition is involved in music issues before Congress and the Copyright Office, as well as before the FCC and other agencies on issues including multiple ownership, net neutrality, and similar matters. Members of the Coalition have been involved in the Low Power FM debate. At the panel session titled "The Hill Was Alive with the Sound of Music," dealing with legislative matters affecting music that are pending or which may arise before Congress, only one issue was perceived as being likely to be considered and potentially resolved by this Congress, before the Presidential election.  That was the issue of LPFM, where bills have been introduced in Congress to eliminate the restrictions that prohibited LPFM stations from causing third-adjacent channel interference to other stations.

The panel included staffers from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, who both indicated that, while there were many other issues of importance to those in the music industry that might be considered this year, LPFM was the one issue that had a chance of actually being adopted this year, given bipartisan support for pending bills.   The pending legislation, The Local Community Radio Act of 2007, has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.  This legislation would lift restrictions on interference to third adjacent channel stations – restrictions which were adopted by Congress about 7 years ago.  We wrote about this legislation, here.


Continue Reading LPFM Set to Move?

In the last week, several new LPFM issues have arisen – one a Congressional push to authorize more of these stations by ignoring third adjacent channel interference to full power stations, and another involving complaints to the FCC about LPFM stations being forced to change channels or cease operation because of interference from changes made by full power stations. The latter issue has apparently arisen in the context of stations taking advantage of the FCC’s rules which made it easier to effectuate changes in the cities of license of FM stations (see our summary of the rule changes here), causing more movement of such stations. Both of these issues could present issues for FM broadcasters. 

The Congressional action was initiated by the introduction of legislation in both the House and the Senate that would eliminate third adjacent channel protections that full power stations have from LPFMs. Those protections have been the subject of controversy since the FCC authorized the LPFM service.  LPFM advocates have contended that the interference protections are unnecessary, as most FM receivers should be able to distinguish between stations on third adjacent channels. The NAB contends that the protections are needed as there are still many radios that would be affected by that interference. Full power stations, except for those authorized at short-spacings prior to 1964, are protected from third adjacent channel interference from each other. Competing engineering studies have been done, the FCC has not acted on this question (and in fact Congress had prohibited such action years ago).  But now, some feel that the time for some liberalization of the rules is in order.


Continue Reading LPFM v. FM – More Stations Coming?