February 1 is the deadline by which broadcast stations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma must place into their Public Inspection files their Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report. The report must also be available on these stations’ websites, if they have such sites. The Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report
February 1st marks the deadline for two FCC EEO requirements. First, by February 1st, radio and television stations located in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma must prepare their Annual EEO Public File Reports. Specifically, stations or Station Employment Units (SEUs) in those states with five or more full time…
The FCC today released another Public Notice announcing the random audit of the EEO performance of a number of broadcast stations – listing both radio and television stations that have to respond, with stations spread throughout the country. The FCC has promised to annually audit 5% of all broadcast licensees to assess their compliance with the FCC’s EEO rules. These rules require the wide dissemination of information about job openings at their stations and "supplemental efforts" to educate their communities about employment opportunities at broadcast stations, even in the absence of employment openings. The FCC’s audit letter requires the submission of two years worth of the Annual Public File reports that stations prepare each year on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications. These reports are placed in the station’s public file and posted on their websites (if they have websites). The FCC’s public notice about this audit emphasizes the requirement for posting the Annual Report on a station’s website, perhaps confirming rumors that we have heard about the FCC’s staffers browsing station websites to look for these reports.
Stations are given until May 4 to complete the audit responses and submit them to the Commission. Note that information needs to be supplied not just for the station named on the list, but also for all other stations in the same "station employment unit," i.e. a group of stations under common control, that serve the same general geographic area, and which have at least one common employee. As recent audits have led to significant FCC fines (see our story here about fines issues just before the holidays), broadcasters who are listed on this audit list should take care in preparing their responses. The audit notice should also remind other licensees who are lucky enough to avoid having been selected for inclusion on this audit list to review their EEO programs for FCC compliance purposes, as they could very well find themselves not so fortunate when the next FCC audit is announced.
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.
2009 – a new year, and a whole new cycle of regulatory requirements. We wrote last week about the potential for changes in regulations that may be forthcoming but, like death and taxes, there are certain regulatory dates each year that broadcasters need to note and certain deadlines that must be met. Those dates…
Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored.
With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.
Press Reports (such as this one) have stated that the Obama campaign has purchased half-hour blocks of time on at least NBC and CBS to broadcast a political infomercial to be aired at 8 PM Eastern time on October 29. Some reports indicate that other broadcast and cable networks will also be broadcasting the same program. Did the networks have to sell him the time? In fact, they probably did. Under FCC rules, Federal political candidates have a right of reasonable access to "all classes" of time sold by the station in all dayparts. This includes a right to program length time, a right that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals when the networks did not want to sell Jimmy Carter a program length commercial to announce the launch of his reelection bid. Because of this right, the networks often had to sell Lyndon LaRouche half hour blocks of time to promote his perennial candidacy for President.
How often do networks (or stations) have to make such time available? They only have the right to be "reasonable." While what is reasonable has not been defined, the amount of time that will be requested will probably be limited by the cost of such time. Even were it not limited by cost, the FCC would probably not require that a broadcaster sell such a prime time block more than once or twice during the course of an election – and given the late stage that we are in the current election, it seems unlikely that more than one such request would have to be honored during these last few weeks of the campaign. Stations do not need to give candidates the exact time that they requested – so the rumored reluctance of Fox to sell this precise time to the Obama campaign because it might conflict with the World Series would probably be reasonable – if they offered him the opportunity to buy a half hour block at some other comparable time.
Failing to meet the obligations set out under the law for required sponsorship identification on Federal political ads could, theoretically, cost candidates significant amounts of money – if stations decide to hold the candidates to the letter of the law. Under the terms of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Federal candidates airing television commercials that refer to a competing candidate must specifically state, in the candidate’s own voice, that he or she has approved the ad, while a full-screen image of the candidate appears on the screen. In addition, the name of the sponsoring candidate’s campaign committee must appear in text on the screen for at least 4 seconds at 4 percent of screen height, with sufficient color contrast to make the text readable. If the proper identification is not contained in an ad, the candidates forfeit their right to lowest unit rates for the entire pre-election period (45 days before a primary or 60 days before an election), even with respect to future ads that comply with the rules. In recent days, representatives of Democratic Congressional candidates have reportedly filed complaints that argue that Republican competitors have not complied with the rules in several cases, as their written disclosures did not air for the full four seconds. The challengers argue that television stations must take away LUR for these candidates. While the statute say that the candidates forfeit their rights to such rates, the law is unclear as to whether stations are obligated to deny that rate to candidates after the right has been forfeited – and these cases could resolve this issue.
Television stations undeniably have the power to charge full rates to candidates whose ads have not complied with the requirements of the campaign statute. However, many stations have been reluctant to do so for minor infractions such as the ones identified in this complaint. Why wouldn’t television stations want to charge more money? For several reasons. First, denying one candidate lowest unit rates will no doubt trigger a fly-specking of every commercial by the competitor who filed the complaint against the first candidate, to try to trigger a forfeiture of the second candidate’s right to Lowest Unit Rates, and adjudicating such complaints will no doubt make the station’s political sales process much more difficult and costly to administer. In addition, there is the question of whether, for a minor violation, a station really wants to give the other candidate a political advantage – especially if the candidate who gets charged more more wins the election and gets to vote on laws that may effect business in the future. But can stations legally continue to charge the lowest unit rate even when a candidate has not complied with the legal requirements for sponsorship identification?
Political Broadcasting season is now in full swing, with the Democrats just ending their convention, and the Republicans beginning theirs next week. Already, we’ve seen disputes about third party attack ads (see our post here), and there are bound to be many more issues about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules that arise during what looks to be a very contentious political season. For guidance on many political broadcasting issues, you can check out our Political Broadcasting Guide, with discussions of many common political broadcasting issues (including reasonable access, equal opportunities, lowest unit rates, public file issues, and political disclosure statements) in what we hope is an easy to follow question and answer format. Broadcasters should also remember that the Lowest Unit Rate "political window" opens on September 5, meaning that stations cannot charge political candidates any more than the lowest rate that is charged a commercial advertiser for the same class of time run at the same time as the candidate’s spot.
We have reminded broadcasters that the Lowest Unit Rate (or "Lowest Unit Charge," often abbreviated as" LUC" or "LUR")must be available to all candidates for public office – including state and local candidates. While state and local candidates have no right of reasonable access (meaning that a station can decide not to sell time to those candidates, or to restrict their purchase of time to particular limited dayparts), if the station sells state and local candidates time, it must be at Lowest Unit Rates during the political window.
According to press reports, the Obama campaign is contemplating an ad schedule during the upcoming Summer Olympics. This raises the question of what political broadcasting rules would apply to such a buy. The Olympics run from August 8 through 24, before the lowest unit rate window for political candidates. Thus, the Obama campaign is not entitled to lowest unit rates. Instead, the candidate would only be entitled to a "comparable rate" to what a commercial advertiser in a similar situation would receive. The campaign would not get frequency discounts that a big Olympics sponsor might get, unless the campaign bought in the same frequency, or other discounts that may apply to larger advertisers. But the reasonable access provisions of the rules do apply once you have a legally qualified candidate, so it would seem as if at least some political ads would have to be placed in the Olympic programming. In various political seminars held throughout the country, when this question has been raised, the FCC representatives have consistently said that, given the fact that the Olympics run for such a long period, at least some access must be made available to Federal candidates who are willing to pay the price that the airtime commands.
During the Super Bowl, the Obama campaign bought time, but it was purchased on local stations, not on the network itself (see our post here). Affiliates of NBC would also have reasonable access issues of their own, were the Obama campaign to approach them directly, or were some local Federal candidate to request time on their stations. As these stations have less inventory during the Olympics than does the network, the amount of time that would have to be provided would be less (and a candidate need not be given access to the exact time spot that they might request – not everyone can get the coveted spots in certain high profile event’s finals – as long as the access that they are given is reasonable under the circumstances). But the access rules would apply -so at least some access would have to be given. Note that in a few states with late primaries for Congress and the Senate, it is possible that there would be Federal candidates entitled to lowest unit rates, even during the Olympics. State and local candidates, however, have no right of access, so stations would not have to sell them time in the Olympics.