A recent stir was created when a Midwestern television company was reported to have signed a contract with a state government agency, promising to market the agency and its programs throughout the state.  This promotion was to include a segment in the company’s televised news promoting the effects of the work of the agency.  Questions were immediately raised about whether this was prohibited by FCC rules.  But, when the news pieces ran, the company was very careful to state after these segments that they were sponsored by the station and the state agency.  As the FCC has no rules about what can be included in the "news" (and probably could not consistent with the First Amendment), the only real issue was one of sponsorship identification.  As the licensee did here, if the sponsor of the story is identified, making clear to the public who was attempting to persuade them on the issue addressed, there should be no FCC issues.

This is different from the issues that have arisen previously at the FCC, where there have been fines levied against television stations and cable systems for airing programming that was sponsored, but for which no sponsorship identification was provided (see our posts here and here).  This includes the video news release or VNR issues, where the FCC has fined stations for using news actualities provided by groups with a financial interest in the issue that was being addressed, but without identifying the fact that the material was provided by the interested parties.  Where a program addresses a controversial issue of public importance, the disclosure rules are more strict, requiring that the station not only disclose that it received money to air a story – but to also disclose anything that it got from the interested party – including tapes or scripts.


Continue Reading Selling Stories In a Broadcast Station’s News Programs – Remember the Sponsorship Identification

The press was abuzz yesterday with the news that Julius Genachowski is apparently the pick of the Obama Administration for the position of FCC Chairman.  Mr. Genachowski was at the FCC during the Reed Hundt Administration, and has since worked in the private sector in the telecommunications industry, including work with Barry Diller and running a DC-based venture capital fund.  From the positive reactions that the appointment has received from all quarters, the choice would seem to be a great one.  But, in looking at some of the reactions, you have to question whether everyone has to be reading what they want to see into the new Commission.  For instance, while the NAB has praised the choice of Genachowski (stating  that he "has a keen intellect, a passion for public service, and a deep understanding of the important role that free and local broadcasting plays in American life"), so too did media-reform organization Free Press ("This moment calls for bold and immediate steps to spur competition, foster innovation and breathe new life into our communications sector. With his unique blend of business and governmental experience, Genachowski promises to provide the strong leadership we need.")  What will this appointment really mean for broadcasters?

In short – who knows?  When Kevin Martin was appointed Chairman of the FCC, few would have imagined that a former communications attorney, a person deeply involved in the Bush campaign, and a former staffer of FCC Commissioner Harold Furtchgott-Roth (perhaps the most free market Commissioner ever) would have supported sustained, wide-reaching inquiries into the underbrush of FCC regulation – e.g. localism, embedded advertising, indecency.  So we can’t really know what a Chairman will do until he does it.  The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both suggest that the new chairman will be focused on Internet issues, and may be less interested in indecency – but who knows?


Continue Reading Julius Genachowski as New FCC Chair – What Will It Mean to Broadcasting’s Future?

The FCC has adopted new procedures for the submission of complaints about the failure to adequately provide closed captioning of video programming carried on television stations and cable systems.  In the same order, the Commission issued clarifications about the impact of the digital transition on the obligations of stations and networks to caption programming

The FCC’s Notice of Inquiry and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Sponsorship Identification issues (which we summarized in our firm’s advisory and about which we wrote here), which deals with a host of issues including embedded advertising and product placement, was published in the Federal Register late last week, starting the clock on

Last week, the FCC commenced its long anticipated proceeding to reexamine its sponsorship identification rules. This proceeding has been rumored for over six months, having appeared on an agenda for a Commission open meeting in December, only to be pulled from the agenda days before it was to have been voted on. The Commission has initiated this proceeding, to a great degree, at the urging of Commissioner Adelstein who has been vocal in his concerns that the broadcast and advertising industries, in adopting advertising techniques to respond to technological and marketplace changes, has been exposing the public to commercial messages without their knowledge.  One of the principal practices of concern to the Commission, though not the only one, is embedded advertising (as the Commission refers to product placement and product integration into the dialog and/or plot of a program). While many of the trade press reports have focused on embedded advertising, this proceeding is wide-ranging and important to the broadcast, cable and advertising industries. Comments on the proceeding will be due 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register, with replies 30 days later.   We have prepared an Advisory, summarizing the issues raised by the Commission in this proceeding, which can be found here.

According to trade press reports, this proceeding was initially planned as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which would have proposed rules which, after public comment, could have been immediately adopted. After significant lobbying from the advertising community, the Notice was released in two parts. First, there is a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), asking a series of questions about the current state of advertising on broadcast and cable outlets, and asking how the Commission should amend its rules to deal with new advertising techniques. Second, the Commission’s announcement contains an NPRM with respect to certain specific items, including proposing to clarify the type of sponsorship identification necessary in television advertising, the extension of the sponsorship identification rules beyond local origination cablecasting to cable network programming, and clarification of the rules with respect to live-read radio commercials. The specifics of the NOI and the NPRM are set forth in our Advisory


Continue Reading FCC Begins Investigation of Embedded Advertising and Sponsorship Identification

A recent Washington Post article highlights a bill that was recently introduced in Congress suggesting that the FCC bring back their rules for audio descriptions of video programming – rules which were thrown out by the Courts several years ago as being beyond the scope of the Commission’s authority without explicit Congressional authorization.  But not only does this bill propose to give that missing Congressional approval to the FCC to re-introduce video description requirements for broadcast television, but it would authorize the FCC to introduce these rules, and closed-captioning requirements, on all video screens, including MP3 players, wireless devices and other video devices getting their programming through the Internet or other digital technologies.  With this bill, and various other proposals that have surfaced in recent months, it seems more and more likely that, as the Internet becomes even more important in the provision of broadcast-like programming in the future, the FCC may be called on by Congress to impose broadcast-like restrictions on that programming.

The full text of the recent bill, introduced by Congressman Markey, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, can be found here.  A summary of the bill is also available on Congressman Markey’s website.  The bill deals first with the accessibility of telephones and other communications devices, before setting out the provisions dealing with the captioning and video description requirements for broadcast and Internet video devices.  The bill first asks the FCC to study and report to Congress on the issues with captioning and video description on video devices, and then asks the FCC to adopt rules governing these matters, making video programming placed on the Internet that was either broadcast on a television stations or which is "comparable" to broadcast programming to be subject to these rules.  The idea is to make all TV-like programming subject to the rules, no matter what device it is viewed on.  Presumably, if adopted, the law would allow the FCC to make exemptions for certain types of programming (just as it currently allows exemptions from the current closed captioning requirements for small entities that have insufficient resources to caption a program).  The bill also requires that the FCC make sure that program guides and emergency information are available to those with hearing or visual difficulties, and that the navigation devices on video receivers can  be worked by those with disabilities.  So the FCC would have much to do to comply with this law, if adopted, and all within an 18 month period.


Continue Reading Closed Captions and Video Description – The First Step to FCC Regulation of On-Line Media?

The FCC has released the full text of its Order adopting enhanced disclosure requirements for broadcast television stations – requiring that they post their public files on their websites and that they quarterly file a new form, FCC Form 355, detailing their programming in minute detail, breaking it down by specific program categories, and certifying that the station has complied with a number of FCC programming rules.  The Commission also released the new form itself and, as detailed below, the form will require a significant effort for broadcasters to document their programming efforts – probably requiring dedicated employees just to gather the necessary information.  The degree of detail required is more substantial than that ever required of broadcasters – far more detailed than the information broadcasters were required to gather prior to the deregulation of the 1980s – though, for the time being, much (though not all) of the information is not tied to any specific programming obligations set by the FCC.

 Before getting to the specifics of the new requirements, the thoughts of the Commission in adopting this order should be considered.  The Commission’s decision focuses on its desire to increase the amount of citizen participation in the operation of television stations and the decisions that they make on programming matters.  While many broadcasters protested that the public rarely cared about the details of their operations, as evidenced by the fact that their public files were rarely if ever inspected, the Commission suggested that this was perhaps due to the difficulty the public had in seeing those files (the public actually had to go to the station to look at the file) and the lack of knowledge of the existence of the files (though broadcasters routinely broadcast notice of the public file’s existence during the processing of their license renewal applications, rarely producing any viewers visiting the station to view the file).  With respect to the new Form 355 detailing the station’s programming, the Commission rejected arguments that reporting of specific types of programming in excruciating detail imposes any First Amendment burden on stations, as the Commission claims that it has imposed no new substantive requirements.  Yet the Commission cites its desires that the public become more involved in the scrutinizing of the programming of television stations, which it states will be aided by the new form, and also emphasizes the importance that the Commission places on local service (an item detailed in Form 355).  At the same time, in its proposals detailed in its Localism proceeding (summarized here), the Commission is proposing rules requiring specific amounts of the very programming that is reported on Form 355, the very numbers that, in this proceeding, it claims have no significance.  Moreover, citizens will be encouraged by the Commission’s actions to scrutinize the new reports, and file complaints based on the perceived shortcomings of the broadcaster’s programming.  Broadcasters in turn will feel pressured to air programming that will head off these complaints.  So, implicitly, the Commission has created the First Amendment chilling effect that it claims to have avoided.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Rules for Enhanced TV Disclosure Requirements

The FCC has taken the unusual step of issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability, i.e. an announcement that it has fined a broadcaster, against two TV station owners for failing to provide a sponsorship identification for political material sponsored by another Federal agency–the Department of Education ("DOE").  The proposed fines for these two broadcasters totaled over $70,000.  In connection with the same broadcasts, the Commission also issued a citation against the producer of the programs for failing to include a disclosure of the sponsor of the programs, warning that company that it would be fined if it were to engage in such activity in the future, even though the entity was not an FCC licensee.  These actions demonstrate the concern of the Commission over programs that attempt to influence the public, particularly those dealing with controversial issues of public importance, where those who have paid to do the convincing are not evident to the public.

These cases all stem from programs associated with conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid by DOE to promote the controversial No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLBA") supported by the current administration.  He did so on two television programs:  his own show, titled "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" and on "America’s Black Forum," where he appeared as a guest.  These shows were aired by various television stations without any sponsorship identification to indicate that Williams was paid by DOE to promote NCLBA on the air.

In one case, the television broadcaster received $100 per broadcast for airing Right Side, but failed to reveal that it had received any consideration.  The broadcaster claimed that the consideration received was "nominal," which is generally an exception to the sponsorship ID requirement.  However, the FCC noted that the exception for "nominal" consideration applies only to "service or property" and not to "money," holding that receipt of any money, even if only a small sum, triggers the requirement for sponsorship identification.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Fines for Political Sponsorship ID Violations

We wrote last month about the fact that the Copyright Office has initiated a major proceeding to reexamine the statutory licenses that allow cable systems and satellite distributors to retransmit the programming of local television stations.  A statutory license allows retransmission of television signals by these multichannel video providers without getting the consent of copyright owners of each and every program (and program elements contained in the programming, e.g. music) that a broadcast station may feature in its programming. As part of this proceeding, the Copyright Office promised to hold public hearings on these licenses. The Office has announced the schedule for these hearings, to be held from July 23  to July 26. Parties interested in participating in the hearings need to register their interest on or before June 15. The Copyright Office’s notice about the hearing, which contains instructions on the process for filing a request to testify, can be found here.

Written comments in this important proceeding are due July 2. The Copyright Office has also encouraged interested parties to file suggested questions to be posed to the participants in the hearing by July 2.  Reply comments in the case are due on September 13.  The Copyright Office has also encouraged parties to respond to the testimony presented at the hearing in their reply comments. 


Continue Reading Copyright Office to Hold Hearings on Video Statutory Licenses