underwriting announcement

Noncommercial broadcast stations are licensed to be just that – noncommercial. These stations can run “underwriting announcements” acknowledging commercial businesses that provide financial support to the stations, but such announcements must meet strict guidelines – including restrictions on “calls to action,” prohibitions on statements about prices or discounts, and requirements that no qualitative claim about the sponsor’s products or services can be made. From time to time, the FCC will fine or admonish noncommercial stations that run underwriting announcements that are too commercial. Yesterday, the FCC announced that its Enforcement Bureau had reached a Consent Decree (available here) with a noncommercial broadcaster who acknowledged having run underwriting announcements that had exceeded the bounds set by the rule. To settle the complaints about its announcements at stations in California and Arizona, the licensee agreed to pay the FCC a penalty of $115,000. According to the FCC Press Release on the matter, this was the highest penalty ever imposed on a noncommercial broadcaster for violations of the underwriting rules.

In addition to the fine, the licensee had to agree to a one-year moratorium on underwriting announcements from commercial entities. In addition, the licensee had to institute a compliance plan to educate its employees about the requirements of the FCC rules on underwriting, including a requirement that it create a training manual for use by its staff, and that it appoint a compliance officer to oversee compliance with the underwriting restrictions. For four years, the licensee needs to report to the FCC any instance where they violate the rules, and file a yearly report detailing their efforts to maintain compliance and certifying either that there have not been any violations of the rules or, if such a certification cannot be made, the details of any violations.
Continue Reading FCC Reaches Consent Decree with Noncommercial Broadcaster Imposing Largest Fine Ever Issued for Underwriting Violations – $115,000

The FCC yesterday issued an order declining to allow experimentation with the noncommercial underwriting rules that was requested by the licensee of noncommercial radio stations in the Phoenix area.  The licensee had asked the FCC for permission to conduct a three year experiment by relaxing the underwriting rules in certain ways to determine the effect such a relaxation would have on its ability to raise revenue, and the impact on the listening and support that the station currently enjoys.  In denying the station experimental authority to conduct the test, the FCC determined that it lacked the authority to authorize it, as the relaxation that the license was seeking would be prohibited not only by FCC rules, but also by statute, and the FCC cannot waive or grant an exception to a statutory provision (unless specifically permitted by the statute). 

The underwriting rules prohibit noncommercial stations from running advertising for commercial entities.  These rules have been relaxed somewhat over the last 30 years to allow for “enhanced underwriting” announcements, which allow noncommercial stations to identify their sponsors, and provide limited information about the products and services of those sponsors.  But the information cannot be promotional in nature.  Specifically, there are a number of limitations put on these announcements.  Some of these limitations include: (1) the announcements cannot contain “calls to action” – statements that suggest that listeners buy from the sponsor or patronize their place of business; (2) the announcements cannot have qualitative claims – so noncommercial stations cannot say that their sponsor was voted the “best car repair shop in the city by City Magazine,” even if that statement of fact is true; and (3) the announcement cannot provide price or other information relevant to a buying decision, e.g. where tickets are sold, interest rates, etc.  For more information about these rules, see some of our previous articles on this topic here, here, here and here, as well as a presentation on that issue that is discussed here.  What did this licensee seek to change in its experiment?
Continue Reading FCC Declines to Allow Experimentation with Noncommercial Underwriting Rules

Low Power FM potential applicants, start your engines. The FCC has announced the long-awaited window for the filing of applications for new LPFM stations. The window will last from October 15-October 29. During this period, nonprofit organizations and governmental organizations will have the opportunity to file for new stations on any FM channel anywhere in the country – as long as they don’t interfere with existing FM or FM translator stations (or channel 6 TV stations which operate on a channel adjacent to the FM band). The FCC has done a great job in processing the remainder of the applications from the 2003 FM translator window, announcing a settlement window for applicants in that proceeding that is open through July 22, to be followed by an auction. Substantially completing the processing of those translator applications has cleared the way for the upcoming LPFM window. 

Two FCC Commissioners issued statements hailing the upcoming window and the opportunities that it will present for encouraging more diversity in the media marketplace (see statements of Acting FCC Chair Clyburn and Commissioner Pai). A number of groups that have actively championed LPFM also applauded the opening of the window, some trumpeting plans for workshops across the country to help people prepare for the filing opportunities. We hope that expectations are not being unduly raised. Particularly in larger markets, as the FCC itself has recognized, there will be only very limited opportunities for LPFM applicants, as there is very limited spectrum in those markets not already occupied by FM stations or close enough to existing stations to create interference. As the LPFM rules require that new stations protect existing FM stations from interference on co-channels and first and second adjacent channels, in large markets, there will be little room for new LPFM stations.  Groups thinking about opportunities in those markets need to be prepared to face competition for the few channels that may be available and to be realistic – as there will be many places where no channels will be available to serve a particular part of a metropolitan area.


Continue Reading As FM Translator Settlement Window Continues, the FCC Announces LPFM Window in October – Factors for an LPFM Applicant to Consider

In a decision granting the license renewal of a noncommercial radio station, the FCC’s Media Bureau addressed a number of interesting issues – including the requirements for noncommercial underwriting announcements, whether PSAs meet a station’s public service obligations, and the ability of stations to run cigarette ads in historical radio programs from early radio days. These issues all came up in a decision to renew the station’s license despite a petition from a former manager alleging that the station had violated a number of Commission rules or policies – a petition raising all of these issues.

The $3000 fine that the FCC proposes to levy on the station was for what the FCC found to be improper underwriting announcements. Two different issues were found to violate FCC standards – one fairly straightforward, one less so. The relatively easy issue was whether the underwriting announcement by a musical group stating that it was voted “Canada’s #1 bluegrass band” made a qualitative claim. The station argued that the #1 claim was simply a statement of fact based on the vote in Canada. The FCC, not surprisingly,  found that the “#1” label, no matter how it was derived, was a qualitative claim and thus prohibited as part of an underwriting acknowledgment on a noncommercial station.   Such announcements cannot be commercial in nature – meaning that they cannot contain a call to action, price information or qualitative claims about the products or services offered by the sponsor.  See articles that we have previously written on underwriting issues: here and here and here, as well as a presentation on that issue that is discussed here.


Continue Reading $3000 Fine Against Noncommercial Station for Underwriting Violations – With Discussion of PSAs as Public Interest Programming and Cigarette Ads in Classic Radio Program

As Federal funding to public broadcasters faces serious challenge in a Washington looking to cut the budget for all but the most essential government services, and where voluntary contributions to all noncommercial broadcasters have been constrained by the economic issues faced by the entire nation, more and more noncommercial broadcasters are facing tough questions about the future.  We’ve seen colleges and municipalities sell stations that have been community fixtures for decades, and noncommercial groups (including some religious broadcasters) deciding to call it a day and liquidate their holdings.  At the same time, the ratings success of many noncommercial broadcasters (both public broadcasters and those owned by religious or other community organizations), especially in the radio world, are showing much success in developing a large listening audience.  With noncommercial stations, by law restricted to raising funds without commercial advertising, many are looking for new ways of operating.  How are FCC regulations and interpretations reacting to these new realities? 

The FCC’s Future of Media Study (and the resulting Report on the Information Needs of Communities that we summarized here) recognized the importance of the diversity provided to communities by noncommercial broadcasters and, without detailing any proposals, indicated support for the development of new funding sources for those stations.  Similar general statements were echoed in the hearing on the report recently held by the FCC in Arizona.  But the options of the FCC in pursuing solutions are limited.  In a recent decision, a noncommercial entity that operated a number of stations in small rural markets asked for a waiver of the FCC’s underwriting rules to allow it to air a limited amount of advertising for commercial entities, restricted to the top of the hour, and presented so as to not break up normal programming.  The applicant justified the request on the current financial climate that made donations and grants hard to come by, especially in the rural areas where this group operates its stations.  While the Commission’s staff expressed sympathy for the applicant’s financial plight, it stated that it was powerless to waive the Communications Act, which prohibits noncommercial stations from broadcasting "any advertising."  Faced with this prohibition, and a fear of opening the floodgates to similar requests, the FCC denied the waiver.


Continue Reading Financial Challenges to Noncommercial Broadcast Funding – What Is the FCC Doing?

The question has recently arisen as to when underwriting announcements can be aired on noncommercial radio and TV stations.  The New York Times recently quoted me on the subject in an article discussing the plans of PBS to experiment with putting underwriting announcements in programming, rather than merely in the breaks between the end of one program and the beginning of the next.  The FCC rules for both radio and TV state, in italics, that the scheduling of underwriting announcements "may not interrupt regular programming."  What does that mean?

In 1982, in adopting the rules as to the timing of sponsorship announcements and the acknowledgment of donations, the FCC relied on what was then a recently-enacted statute addressing the sponsorship of public broadcasting programming.  The House of Representatives report adopting that legislation contained language interpreting the meaning of the prohibition against these announcements interrupting regular programming.  The FCC relied on that language in adopting the rules currently on the book.  There, Congress said that announcements could be run "at the beginning and end of programs,…between identifiable segments of a longer program" or, in the absence of identifiable segments, during "station breaks" where the flow of programming was "not unduly disrupted."  For radio, this seems like a much easier test to meet, as there are always breaks in programs, e.g. between stories on a news program like Morning Edition, between guests on a program like Fresh Air, or between music sets on a noncommercial music-oriented station.  For TV, the issue is somewhat more complicated, thus the questions that the Times wrote about in connection with the PBS tests.


Continue Reading When Can Underwriting Announcements Be Run on Noncommercial Radio and TV Stations?

As part of the Local Community Radio Act which, among other things, repealed restrictions against protecting full-power FM stations from third-adjacent channel interference from LPFM stations, Congress required that the FCC conduct a study of the economic impact that such stations will have on full-power FM stations.  The FCC began the process of conducting that study, asking for public comment on a series of questions designed to look at that impact.  Comments are due on June 24, 2011, with reply comments to be filed by July 25.  The Commission asks for comments in two general areas, asking what impact LPFM will have on full-power stations’ revenues and on their audience share, but tentatively decided that it would not look at any economic impact that interference from LPFM would have on full-power stations.

What led the FCC to this tentative conclusion?  The FCC said that the Act did not specifically require any study of the economic impact of interference and, since the principal purpose of the Act was to set out how the FCC should deal with interference remediation, Congress had already addressed all that needed to be considered about any potential interference.  This view was bolstered by the inclusion in previous legislation of a specific directive to study interference, which led to the report from the MITRE  Corporation.  That report concluded that there would be no substantial interference from LPFM to full-power stations, which opened the door to the passage of the Act.  Thus, the Commission reached the tentative conclusion that no additional study of the economic impact of LPFM was necessary, but they seek comment on that tentative conclusion.  We expect that there will be such comments.


Continue Reading FCC to Study Economic Effect of LPFM on Full-Power FM – But Not the Economic Impact of Any Interference that May Be Caused

Fines for noncommercial broadcasters who air acknowledgments of their donors and contributors that sound too much like commercials have been a problem area for many noncommercial educational radio and television stations, and have resulted in significant fines from the FCC.  The FCC allows "enhanced underwriting announcements" that identify a sponsor, what their business is

Stations that are licensed as "noncommercial educational" stations are prohibited by the FCC from running commercials – seemingly a pretty straightforward prohibition.  Yet drawing the line between a prohibited commercial and a permissible sponsorship acknowledgment is sometimes difficult in these days of "enhanced underwriting."   In a recent case, the FCC fined a noncommercial radio station $12,500 for repeatedly airing 4 announcements from sponsors that the Commission found to have crossed the line by being overly promotional.  These announcements, which appear to have been recordings of unscripted sponsor acknowledgments, demonstrate how carefully noncommercial stations must police their sponsorship announcements to avoid risking an FCC sanction.

The announcements in these cases are worth reviewing. Some have subtle promotional messages, while the areas of concern are more clear in others.  But in reaching its decision, the Commission goes through a close analysis of the wording of each announcement to see if the announcement contains "comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease", all prohibited language in a noncommercial sponsorship identification.  So, when one of the announcement referred to "beautiful Harley Davidson light trucks" sold by a local auto dealer who sponsored the station, the FCC found that this was a qualitative claim that went over the line.  Similarly, statements that "we have it here" or "where we are proud to be Mexicans" (these announcements having been run on a Spanish-language station in California) were found to be attempts to qualitatively distinguish this dealer from others, or to be inducements to buy – a prohibited call to action.  And a specific statement that "no downpayment" would be required on a purchase constituted the kind of price information that should not be contained in a sponsorship acknowledgment.  Another announcement for a local tire store had similar problems in the content of the ads, using phrases such as stating that the company "knows about tires" and that the company’s product "reduces [the] loss [of tire] pressure" and "has less risk of suffering damages . . . last longer and [is] not too expensive cause you to save more . . . [and] save more in gas per mileage."


Continue Reading Noncommercial FM Station Fined $12,500 for Sponsorship Acknowledgments That Were Too Commercial

On September 10, 2009, David Oxenford addressed the Christian Music Broadcasters’ Momentum ’09 Conference in Orlando, Florida.  Dave’ s presentation was titled 18 Issues in 18 Minutes: What a Broadcaster Should Worry About From Washington DC.  In 18 minutes, Dave discussed topics including the FCC’s proposed localism rules, sponsorship identification and noncommercial underwriting issues, contest fines, FCC technical