While last Tuesday’s elections may well affect broadcast regulation in the future, there were several regulatory developments in the last week of immediate significance to broadcasters. Here is a summary of some of those developments, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.
In an FCC decision fining a TV station $10,000 for failing to include 15 Quarterly Issues Programs lists in its public inspection file, the FCC refused to reduce the proposed liability based on an intervening “long-form” transfer of control followed by a short-form assignment of license of the station. Thus, even though the station was no longer controlled by the same individuals who controlled the station at the time of the violation, and even though the licensee company was different, the fine still applied.
The Media Bureau decision looked at precedent that has held that a transfer of control of a station, even a “long-form” application on FCC Form 315 that is subject to public notice and a 30 day waiting period during which the public can comment on the change in control of the licensee, does not excuse the licensee for violations of the FCC’s rules that occurred prior to the transfer. We wrote about a similar holding in another case last year. The FCC’s view is that, when you are buying the stock of a company, you acquire not only the assets of the company but also its obligations, including any potential FCC violations. This is different from an assignment of license filed on a Form 314 (also a “long-form” application subject to a 30-day public comment period) – where a buyer just buys the assets through a new company and does not assume the liabilities – a difference that the FCC has recognized in these cases. In the decision reached today, the licensee attempted to exploit that different treatment – but the FCC rejected the distinction.…
Continue Reading Fine for Missing Quarterly Issues Programs List Not Excused by Intervening Transfer of Control of TV Station – Buy Assets Not Stock to Avoid Assuming Prior Owner’s FCC Liabilities
In a recent decision, the FCC made clear that when there is a transfer of control of a station through the sale of the stock of the licensee company, the new owners are not absolved of any FCC violations that may have taken place when the old owners controlled the company. In this case, the old owners had various main studio, public file and issues programs lists issues, along with some compliance problems with late-filed Children’s Television Reports. While the FCC cancelled a fine on the licensee for reasons unrelated to the transfer of the stock (issuing an admonition instead), it went out of its way to emphasize that a new owner of the stock of a licensee company remains liable for the conduct of a predecessor controlling owner. The sale of stock, and the FCC’s approval of that sale, does not remove the threat of fines for violations that occurred when the old owner still controlled the company.
We wrote here about a similar warning in connection with a case decided several years ago. Assignments of license, where the FCC approves the sale of a station to a new licensee, seemingly do provide the new owner with some degree of protection against problems with FCC compliance that occurred during the watch of the old owner – but that is because the licensee has changed. (Note however, as we wrote here, if a compliance issue was discovered by the FCC before the sale, it is possible that the FCC could go after the old licensee for a fine, even after a sale has been completed). But, where the licensee remains the same, the FCC looks to the licensee company for compliance, regardless of who owns that company.…
Continue Reading Buyers of Broadcast Stations Through Stock Transfer Beware – Liability for Fines of Prior Owner Can Still be Imposed After the Transfer
The full text of the FCC’s revisions to its ownership report filing process was released last week. The new rules will require that all commercial stations (including LPTV stations) file an updated Form 323 on November 1 every other year – starting in 2009. The Order does not add much to the summary that we provided when the decision was first announced, though it does make clear that the electronic form will be revised to no longer allow for PDF attachments, instead requiring that all information be provided on the electronic form itself, so that it can be more easily searched. With complex ownership structures, which are sometimes not easily explained in the confines of an FCC form, this may create some difficulties. The Order did not seem to freeze the obligations for the filing of Form 323 Ownership Reports on the old version of the form on the current schedule while the new form is being created and approved by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act, so stations in states with June 1 deadlines for their biennial reports should continue their preparation (see our Advisory on the the reports that are due on June 1 for radio stations in Arizona, District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, and television stations in Michigan and Ohio).
The Order also asked for further comment on the Ownership Report requirements for noncommercial licensees, including LPFM stations. The Commission asks not only for comments on whether noncommercial operators should be required to file their reports on the same two year cycle as commercial broadcasters, but also for comments on what information should be required from these operators. As noted by the FCC, the question of who controls a noncommercial station is often not an easy one – as there are varying degrees of control and oversight of station operations at many of the institutions that hold noncommercial licenses. As noted by the FCC, there has been a Notice of Inquiry into noncommercial broadcast station ownership pending since 1989, trying to set out when there is a transfer of control of such entities that needs prior FCC approval. Noncommercial stations have been operating under the interim policy set forth in that Notice for almost 20 years. While the Commission does not seemingly ask for any change in the interim policy at this point, by gathering information about what ownership information should be reported on the new ownership report for a noncommercial entity, a resolution of that long-pending proceeding could potentially be in the works.
The FCC this week issued fines to two broadcasters for issues in connection with the ownership of their stations – in one case the fine was issued simply because the broadcaster did timely not file three consecutive FCC Form 323 Biennial Ownership Reports . In the second case, the fine was for not requesting FCC approval for a transfer of control of the licensee of the broadcast station. These cases serve as a reminder that broadcast ownership is closely regulated by the FCC, that broadcasters need to report that ownership once every two years as required by the rules, and to seek approval before any change in control of any company that holds an FCC license.
The station that failed to file the three ownership reports was fined $6000. As disclosed on the licensee’s license renewal application, the licensee had not filed 2001 and 2003 ownership reports at all, and filed the 2005 report late and did not put it in the station’s public inspection file. Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 must be filed by the licensees of AM, FM and TV station licensees once every two years, on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications by all licensees except where the licensee is an individual or a general partnership of natural persons (as opposed to a partnership that contains corporations or other business entities as partners). We regularly send reminders to our clients about the filing of ownership reports. For more details on the requirements for the biennial filing, see our advisory for reports that were due on August 1 here, and see our schedule of broadcast filing dates for the remainder of 2008 to see if your station has a biennial filing deadline this year).