Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions in the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations. This information provided by the attorneys at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP in Washington DC.
August 1, 2020 to August 7, 2020
- The FCC acted this week on two media modernization items that had been teed up for consideration at its August 6 Open Meeting.
- The day before the meeting, the Commission adopted a Report and Order repealing rules regarding access to TV and FM antenna sites. The rules, as they were written 75 years ago, prohibited the FCC from renewing a TV or FM license if the licensee restricted access by a potential competitor to its antenna site when no other site was available to the competitor. The FCC pointed to the growth of the broadcast industry and number of available independently owned antenna sites as reasons for the repeal. We wrote about the repeal of this rule, here. (Report and Order)
- During the meeting, the FCC repealed the rule prohibiting programming duplication on commonly owned or controlled stations operating in the same area in the same service (AM or FM). Three weeks ago, when the FCC released its draft of the order to be considered at the meeting, and it was written to eliminate the rule only for AM radio. At the meeting, a majority of the Commissioners voted to also eliminate the rule as it applies to FM. It is expected that few FM stations will duplicate programming, as it likely makes less financial sense than for financially challenged AM stations, but the FCC determined that FM stations should have the flexibility to do so. We took a deeper look at the AM radio duplication rule, here. (Report and Order) (News Release)
- In response to a letter from Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) requesting that the Commission open an LPFM application filing window, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai indicated that the FCC would open such a window after Media Bureau staff has processed the applications filed in a window for new noncommercial educational FM stations that may open later this year or early next year. This may be the first confirmation of this upcoming noncommercial FM filing window. (Rep. Small Letter) (Chairman Pai Letter)
- The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau upheld its decision to fine a Palmdale, California FM translator station $12,000 for operating at transmitter output power levels that exceeded the levels specified in its license. The decision reiterated that it is the licensee’s responsibility to operate within legal limits and that the FCC need not warn a station about illegal operations before issuing a fine. Translator operators should review the Order and ensure their operations comply with all applicable FCC rules. Read more about this decision in our article here.
- In FCC leadership news, President Trump withdrew FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly’s nomination for another five-year term at the Commission. Before the withdrawal, O’Rielly’s nomination had cleared the Senate Commerce Committee and was headed for full Senate consideration when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) placed a hold on the nomination. Inhofe said he issued the hold over O’Rielly’s vote to approve an FCC Order that some argued could cause interference to GPS operations. However, there has been much press speculation that President Trump withdrew the nomination over O’Rielly’s concerns about the President’s proposals on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the provision of federal law that gives online platforms broad immunity from what users post on these platforms (see the bullet below). O’Rielly has suggested that any changes in Section 230 need to take care to not infringe on First Amendment free speech rights. Unless his nomination is reinstated, and he receives Senate confirmation, O’Rielly can continue serving only through the end of 2020.
- The FCC is inviting initial public comment on a Petition for Rulemaking submitted to the FCC by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration seeking an FCC interpretation of the protections given by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to online platforms for the contents of material posted to their platforms by third parties. One of the specific questions asked is the extent to which those platforms can edit the third-party posts and retain their immunity from liability (we wrote about Section 230, its protections, and applicability to broadcasters here and here). This petition is a response to President Trump’s Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship. The public has until September 2 to submit comments on the rulemaking petition, and 15 days to respond to any comments that are filed. As these are just preliminary comments on the petition for rulemaking, the FCC will likely issue a formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking before taking further action on the petition. Thus, any substantive action on this issue will almost certainly not come before the November general election. (FCC Public Notice)
- In letters to Reps. Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) and Chris Stewart (R-UT), FCC Chairman Ajit Pai addressed the representatives’ concerns about increases in the regulatory fees the Commission collects from broadcasters. Pai wrote that he is sympathetic to their concerns, but federal law gives the Commission little leeway to excuse broadcasters from paying these fees. The FCC by law must assess regulatory fees in an amount reasonably expected to equal the amount of money Congress has allocated to the agency, which for 2020 is $339 million. The FCC must collect those fees by September 30. The Chairman noted that the FCC has some flexibility to offer payment plans with a nominal interest rate if a station can demonstrate a financial hardship and inability to pay. The Chairman also reminded the members of Congress that Congress can change the fee requirements and could, among other things, give stations more time to pay. (Letters)
- The Solicitor General, on behalf of the FCC, submitted to the Supreme Court a reply brief encouraging the Court to take up Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project, et al., an appeal of a 2019 decision where the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s reforms to its media ownership rules. Over the last few months, the FCC has taken steps to get the Supreme Court to review that decision. The Justices are expected to decide later this year whether to consider the government’s appeal and take the case. Catch up on the history of this proceeding, here. (Reply Brief)
July 25, 2020 to July 31, 2020
- This week, many large and small radio operators that submitted license renewal applications without certifying full compliance with the FCC’s political file obligations received an email from the FCC. That email proposes that these stations enter into consent decrees to get their renewals granted. A party entering into one of these consent decrees needs to appoint a company compliance officer to monitor political advertising compliance, adopt a compliance plan, hold training sessions, and file yearly reports with the FCC on all political sales. These consent decrees appear to have gone to virtually every station that could not certify complete compliance with the public file rules, without consideration of the nature of their public file issues. The decrees are similar to the consent decrees recently entered into by six of the largest radio groups (about which we wrote here). This week’s action is a vivid reminder of how seriously the FCC takes compliance with the political file rules (for a refresher on the political broadcasting rules, see here for our political broadcasting blog articles and here for WBK’s Political Broadcasting Guide). If you received one of these emails, talk to an attorney experienced in FCC matters before you sign it to see what options may be available to you and to discuss the details of the obligations imposed by the decrees. (Consent Decree Example)
- New carriage election notice rules that apply to LPTV and Class A stations became effective July 31. The new rules require certain LPTV stations and non-commercial educational translator stations that are retransmitted by a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) to respond as soon as is reasonably possible to communications about carriage election issues that are received via the contact information the station should have provided in the FCC’s LMS database. Qualified LPTVs (i.e. LPTV stations in rural areas entitled to elect must-carry status) must also follow detailed procedures to notify an MVPD of changes to the station’s carriage election. For details as to the information that must be provided, see the FCC’s Public Notice released this week.
- The FCC released the final cost catalog for reimbursement of expenses associated with C-Band earth station transitions that result from portions of the C-Band being repurposed for 5-G wireless uses. Many radio and TV stations receiving satellite-delivered programming are affected. The FCC also announced an August 31 deadline for electing a lump sum reimbursement payment (and the format for that election). (Public Notice)
- The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division held a two-day music licensing workshop, bringing together interested parties, including representatives from the broadcast industry and from the performing rights organizations, as well as songwriters, music publishers, and economists. These parties discussed the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, public performance licensing, and general music licensing issues. (Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim’s Opening Remarks)(Video and transcripts of the sessions will be made available on the DOJ’s website for this workshop when they are available).
- We posted to the Broadcast Law Blog our monthly feature looking at important regulatory dates in the month ahead. Visit the blog to read about the August dates to watch, including license renewals, EEO reporting, the FCC Open Meeting, and Broadcast Internet rulemaking comments – and an alert to watch for the details that should be coming soon on the annual regulatory fees due in September. (Broadcast Law Blog)
- FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly appeared virtually at The Media Institute’s Communications Forum luncheon series where he discussed his views on media regulation and modernization, Next Generation TV, diversity in media, and free speech issues. (Prepared Remarks) (Video)
July 18, 2020 to July 24, 2020
- The Media Bureau settled investigations into six major radio groups (collectively 1,184 stations) over political file violations. Though negotiated individually, the consent decrees with each company are principally the same: admitting lapses in uploading to their political files records of requests for the purchase of political broadcast time, appointing a compliance offer, and agreeing to develop and follow a compliance plan that includes submitting periodic proof-of-compliance reports to the Commission. Be sure the people in your operation who handle political advertising are aware of and follow all FCC rules (good places to start are the WBK Political Advertising Guide and Broadcast Law Blog political advertising articles, including this article from Friday summarizing the political file rules). (News Release) (Consent Decrees)
- The FCC is upgrading its online payment interface and infrastructure, to comply with the Department of Treasury’s pay.gov requirements. The upgrades will give users more control over payments and financial standing with the Commission and better visibility into their payment history. Expect to see these changes rolling out throughout the summer and fall. (Public Notice)
- Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s nomination for another five-year term advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee and moves to the full Senate for consideration. (O’Rielly Statement)
- Communications Daily newsletter reported that the FCC staff who are currently teleworking will be permitted to do so into 2021 to provide more flexibility given the uncertain nature of the pandemic, and the move to the new FCC headquarters will be delayed at least through September. Early in the pandemic, we wrote about how the move to remote work was not expected to cause much disruption to the routine regulatory activities of the Commission and, now a few months later, that still seems to be the case. Where disruptions may continue to occur are to activities that require a physical presence at headquarters—like auctions. We wrote in March about the indefinite delay of an FM auction.
July 11, 2020 to July 17, 2020
- The Media Bureau reminded broadcasters that July 13, 2021—the hard deadline for LPTV stations and TV translators to transition to digital—is one year away. Stations that have not yet constructed a digital facility must cease analog television operations no later than July 13, 2021 and remain silent until construction is completed. The Public Notice details the steps stations must take if they may not meet the deadline due to delays with obtaining zoning or other approvals, inability to obtain equipment, financial hardship, the need to modify their current permits for digital operations, and similar constraints. (Public Notice) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC issued a reminder that cable and satellite TV operators must, after July 31, 2020, deliver certain notices to TV stations by email. This rule change syncs with the FCC’s requirement that TV broadcasters post to their public files, by July 31, 2020, an email address to receive notices from cable and satellite operators relating to carriage matters including must-carry and retransmission consent elections. (Public Notice) (Report and Order) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- Clarifications and rule changes regarding Next Generation TV (ATSC 3.0), that were released in June, become effective on August 17. The FCC provided additional guidance on waivers (“No Viable Local Simulcasting Partner” and “’Reasonable Efforts’ to Preserve Service”) of the local simulcasting rules to broadcasters deploying Next Gen TV, declined to allow the use of vacant broadcast channels for Next Gen TV deployment, and clarified that the “significantly viewed” status of a Next Gen TV station will not change if it moves its ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel to a host facility. (Federal Register) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The Media Bureau set aside a grant of consent to assign an FM license and remanded the assignment application to the Bureau for further proceedings after learning more about the proposed assignor’s criminal conviction. This is a good reminder that the FCC can—and will—consider even non-FCC-related wrongdoing when evaluating applications, and generally it will not allow a person with character issues to profit from the sale of a broadcast station. (Order)
- Eighteen radio stations in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee were warned that their licenses will expire if they do not file license renewal applications by midnight on August 1, 2020. Stations in these three states were required to file applications for license renewal by April 1, 2020 for terms expiring on August 1, 2020, and these stations did not meet the required deadline. This is a good reminder to check the date that your license renewal application is due and remember to timely file that application. (Public Notice)
- Two “Broadcast Internet” items were published in the Federal Register:
- Item #1, a Declaratory Ruling) makes clear that television spectrum leased for datacasting does not trigger FCC multiple ownership issues.
- Item #2, a Notice of Proposed RuleMaking, seeks comment on the industry’s ideas for uses of the datacasting potential of ATSC 3.0, what the FCC has termed the Broadcast Internet, and what regulatory barriers exist to deployment of new services. Comments and reply comments are due by August 17 and August 31 respectively.
(Broadcast Law Blog on Broadcast Internet)
- Chairman Ajit Pai announced the items the Commission will consider at its August 6 Open Meeting. Two items relevant to broadcasters made it to the agenda. (Blog) (Tentative Agenda and Draft Items)
- The Commission will vote on an order to eliminate the radio duplication rule for AM stations, while retaining the rule for FM stations. The Chairman notes that the realities of the marketplace and technical challenges faced by AM broadcasters point to elimination of the rule. The current rule prohibits a radio station in one service (either AM or FM) from duplicating more than 25% of the weekly programming of another station in the same service, if there is more than 50% overlap of the principal community contour of either of the stations. We wrote about this proposal here. (draft Report and Order)
- The second item to be voted is an attempt to clear what many might consider “regulatory underbrush” by eliminating a rule that requires a broadcaster who owns a unique tower site to share that site with competing local stations. The Commission believes there has never been a case where there was never a case where this rule was used as there was never a showing that a site was unique and, as no broadcast licensees submitted comments during the rulemaking, it plans to abolish the rule. (draft Report and Order)
- We wrote on the blog about some issues that businesses of many stripes should consider as more of normal life shifts online, namely music licensing and unlicensed use of spectrum. Music license holders need to review carefully the licenses they hold to be sure that the new activities they are involved in due to the pandemic, including conducting business and other public gatherings on ZOOM and similar platforms, are covered by the rights they hold. Similarly, businesses that have shifted to serving customers outdoors need to be mindful of their spectrum use (particularly regarding unlicensed low power FM broadcasts) and not run afoul of the FCC’s permitted uses. You may wish to share our blog post with your advertisers and clients that are dealing with the concerns we discuss in the article. (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC took a victory lap now that the 39-month post-incentive auction repacking of the television band has come to a close. In Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks before the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research and in a news release, the FCC touted the success of the repack and thanked the broadcast and wireless industries, the tower crews, the equipment manufacturers, the radio frequency engineers, and the Commission staff that made the repack possible. Chairman Pai acknowledged the difficulties encountered—and overcome—along the way and how all parties pulled together to accomplish what was once seen as a task tied to an impossible-to-meet deadline. (News Release) (Remarks) (Broadcast Law Blog)
July 4, 2020 – July 10, 2020
- FCC fines against two radio stations serve as a reminder that station managers need to pay close attention to how their staff handles on-air contests. The FCC issued Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeitures to two Texas licensees for allegedly violating the Commission’s on-air contest rules through a failure to conduct the contest substantially as announced, specifically for unreasonable delays in awarding prizes. Both licensees were hit with several thousand dollars of fines even after settling the matter with the contest winners. Both licensees pointed to human error as the reason for the mistakes, but as the decisions show, that is not an excuse. (El Paso NALF) (Mont Belvieu NALF) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC’s International Bureau released a preliminary list of C-Band earth stations (those that operate in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band) in the contiguous U.S. that the Bureau has reviewed and said appear to qualify as “incumbent earth stations,” which will be eligible for reimbursement for reasonable costs of changes to their facilities caused by the upcoming repacking of the C-Band. The C-Band will be partially reallocated for use by wireless carriers, requiring changes in many existing earth stations. All broadcasters who have registered earth stations should immediately review this list and act, if necessary – corrections must be submitted to the FCC by July 16, 2020. Instructions for submitting corrections are found in the Public Notice. (Public Notice) (PDF of Preliminary List w/ Explanatory Notes) (Xlsx of Preliminary List) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The U.S. Copyright Office has extended, until April 15, 2021, the deadline for the decision of the Copyright Royalty Board on rates to be paid to SoundExchange for royalties for the use of sound recordings in non-interactive audio streaming. This extension was because of the delays in the CRB’s trial due to the pandemic. The January 1, 2021 effective date for the new rates, however, remains in place, so any decision released later in 2021 will be retroactive. In January, webcasters and other internet radio operators (including broadcasters who stream their signals) will continue to pay the royalties currently in place, and there will be a mechanism for a true up of the amounts due once the decision on the royalties for 2021-2025 becomes effective. (Copyright Office Extension) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The Audio Division updated the FM Table of Allotments to reinstate fourteen vacant FM allotments. The allotments were removed from the FM Table because a construction permit and/or license was granted, but are now vacant because of the cancellation of the associated authorizations or the dismissal of long-form auction applications. The reinstated allotments are in California, Colorado, Iowa, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These channels will be available for application in an FM auction at some point in the future. (Order)
- Citing the ongoing public health emergency and the decision to not conduct a national EAS test in 2020 (see our article here), the FCC has waived for this year the requirement that broadcasters update their information in the EAS Test Reporting System. (Order)
- Those looking to file hand-carried documents with the FCC will have to permanently update their address book. After temporarily closing the filing window at FCC Headquarters in response to COVID-19, the Commission has now permanently closed that window and will only accept paper filings at 9050 Junction Drive, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701. This change was made to enhance security and in conjunction with the Commission’s future move to its new headquarters. (Public Notice) (See our article here about the FCC’s planned move).
June 27, 2020 – July 3, 2020
- The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into negotiated settlements with two Boston-area pirate radio operators who admitted to illegal operations and agreed to pay civil fines, to dispose of their broadcast equipment and to not commit—or help anyone else commit—acts of radio piracy for twenty years. In one case, the FCC last year initially proposed a fine of $151,005 fine for the illegal operation. After examining the operator’s finances, the Bureau agreed to a $4,000 fine now, with a penalty of $75,000 should the operator violate the law again (Radio Concorde). In the second case, the FCC had proposed a $453,015 fine last year, but agreed to take $5,000 now, with penalty of $225,000 if the operator violates the terms of the consent decree (Radio TeleBoston Consent Decree). Last year, we wrote on the Broadcast Law Blog about the fines initially proposed for these two operators.
- The Enforcement Bureau also issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for $15,000 to an LPFM licensee for violating FCC rules prohibiting non-commercial educational broadcast stations from airing commercial advertisements. The Bureau alleges that more than 1,600 advertisements improperly promoted the products, services, or businesses of at least 14 financial contributors. The Bureau said the announcements were “clearly promotional” by referring to qualitative claims about the underwriters and their products, by providing price information or an overly extensive list of the products or services provided by the companies, or by providing underwriting acknowledgments that were more than 30 seconds long. Noncommercial licensees looking to make sure their announcements comply with FCC rules should read the full FCC decision, which includes the text of the prohibited announcements. (Notice of Apparent Liability). Look for more on this decision next week in the Broadcast Law Blog.
- The FCC this week told its staff that it will not be returning to the building that has been its headquarters for the last 20 years and that they will continue to telework until at least August 27, when the move to the new headquarters building should be complete. See the Broadcast Law Blog for more details on the FCC’s move.
June 20, 2020 – June 26, 2020
- FEMA announced that it has canceled the 2020 test of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which is the technical infrastructure that delivers EAS messages to radio and TV stations. FEMA noted the “unusual circumstances and working conditions” brought on by the pandemic and acknowledged that post-test reporting would place additional burdens on station personnel already stretched thin to keep their operations on the air. (Broadcast Law Blog) (News Release)
- Through a Public Notice, the FCC announced July 13 as the effective date for certain technical rules for LPFM stations. Though some of the new rules, like changes to the waiver process regarding interference between Channel 6 TV stations and noncommercial FM stations operating on the reserved band and use by LPFM stations of FM boosters become effective next month, other rules, like changes regarding the use of directional antennas and a revision to the definition of a minor change will not be effective until a later date, as yet unannounced. See the Broadcast Law Blog post here for more detail. (Public Notice) (Report and Order)
- The FCC announced in April that, in light of the shifting economic situation facing many broadcast advertisers, it would allow stations to air certain PSAs, using time donated by commercial entities to organizations involved in the pandemic relief effort, without identifying the commercial entities paying for the time as would otherwise be required by the sponsorship identification rules (see our Broadcast Law Blog article on that decision). The waiver was to expire on June 30, but this week it was extended through August 31, 2020. (Order)
- The FCC denied an Application for Review submitted by a West Virginia LPTV operator making clear that the Communications Act and FCC rules do not require mandatory carriage of LPTV stations on satellite television systems. (Memorandum Opinion and Order)
- In a reminder that stations must file an application whenever there is a change in control of a broadcast station, even one caused by the death of a controlling shareholder, the Commission upheld the Media Bureau’s decision to dismiss an application for license renewal of a Mississippi FM station because it had failed to request such approval, which effectively terminated its right to operate. (Order on Reconsideration)
- Comments were due this week in the FCC’s video description proceeding. Video description refers to the provision on a subchannel of spoken narration describing what is happening on screen in TV programming to aid blind or visually impaired persons. The Commission sought comment on expanding the video description rules to require more TV stations to provide this service. In the first round of comments filed this week, the National Association of Broadcasters urged the Commission to delay the effective date of the proposed expansion of the video description requirements by 9 months (from January 1, 2021 to October 1, 2021). NAB cites the difficulty for stations that are already deep into budgeting for 2021 to accommodate this new financial outlay, especially as many stations are trying to recover from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. (MB Docket 11-43) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC dismissed an application to deliver Chinese programming from a studio in the US to a Mexican station which places a signal back into the United States. Federal law (Section 325(c) of the Communications Act) requires FCC approval for US-produced programming to be exported to a foreign station with significant US coverage. This procedural decision suggests that all parties producing the programming need to be co-applicants. (News Release) (Order)
- The five FCC Commissioners visited Capitol Hill to participate in a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing. The statements, questions and answers focused mostly on non-broadcast matters, but the Commissioners reiterated their support for press freedom, discussed Broadcast Internet services, the C4 radio station class and the minority tax certificate. (Commissioner Prepared Statements and Archived Video)
June 13, 2020 – June 19, 2020
- The FCC released a Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration regarding Next Gen TV (ATSC 3.0). The Report and Order provides guidance on how the Commission will evaluate petitions for waiver of the local simulcasting rules for broadcasters deploying ATSC 3.0 who cannot find a partner station to broadcast its signal in the current transmission standard, declines to allow broadcasters to use vacant in-band channels for voluntary ATSC 3.0 deployment, and clarifies that the “significantly viewed” status of an ATSC 3.0 station will not change when that station moves its ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel to a host facility. The Order on Reconsideration denied petitions challenging aspects of the Commission’s 2017 Next Gen TV order, including issues dealing with the local simulcast requirement, the application of retransmission consent rules, patent licensing issues, and sunset of the obligation to use the current transmission standard for ATSC 3.0 (that sunset allowing the new transmission mode to evolve over time without the need for FCC action). (Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration)
- The Commission granted a waiver to a Jacksonville, Florida TV station, allowing it to complete its post-incentive auction move to a new channel by September 8, beyond the current July 3 end of Phase 10 when all TV stations were to have moved to their post-transition facilities. Because of issues related to COVID-19 and other technical matters, the Commission granted this extension and authorized its Media Bureau to grant similar relief to other stations suffering from similar delays (Order)
- Two members of Congress wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging the Commission to “halt any increases to annual regulatory fees due in 2020 for broadcast licensees.” Reps. Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) and Chris Stewart (R-UT) wrote in their letter that this action requires no congressional action and would help alleviate some of the economic hardship suffered by stations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Members noted that broadcasters are a critical component of the pandemic response by, among other things, informing and educating Americans about public health guidance. (Letter). The NAB, as well as a group of state broadcast associations, also filed comments at the FCC opposing the FCC’s proposal to increase broadcast regulatory fees, arguing that broadcasters’ fees should not increase in relation to the fees paid by other industries regulated by the FCC, particularly as broadcasters have been so hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic. (NAB Comments and State Association Comments)
- Last Monday, the reply comment period closed in the FCC’s Significant Viewing proceeding. Designation as a significantly viewed station has implications for determining whether a cable or satellite TV system will carry a TV station in an area that is not part of its home market. For an in-depth look at what the FCC seeks to resolve through this proceeding, see this post at the Broadcast Law Blog. (Reply Comments)
- On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing considering the re-nomination of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to a new five-year term. The Commissioner, in response to a question, noted that he believes the FCC’s and DOJ’s current media competition rules are “problematic,” and that he hopes to work with DOJ to shift its narrow view of the competitive marketplace where it does not recognize that broadcasters don’t just compete with other broadcasters, but instead directly compete with a wide range of other media companies, including digital media outlets. (Opening Statement and Archived Video)(see Broadcast Law Blog articles here and here on the competition between broadcasters and other media and how the assessment of the definition of the marketplace is important to the evaluation of broadcast ownership limits)
- The Enforcement Bureau acted last week against two pirate radio operations, one in Pennsylvania and one in Arkansas. These actions are reminders that broadcast operators must hold a valid license to operate and that the FCC will pursue illegal operations.
- In the first case, the Enforcement Bureau shut down a station that was broadcasting on 90.7 MHz and 91.5 MHz from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The operator, as part of a consent decree, admitted to the unauthorized operation of the station, agreed to pay a $1,500 civil penalty, and agreed to not operate an unauthorized station in the future. The PIRATE Act, signed into law in early 2020, gives the FCC authority to fine pirate radio operators up to $100,000 per violation (with a $2 million cap), but, in this case, the operator claimed an economic hardship, which persuaded the FCC to lower the fine to $1,500. (Order and Consent Decree)
- In the second case, the Enforcement Bureau issued a $10,000 fine to an operator for the unauthorized operation of a radio station on 103.1 MHz in Alma, Arkansas. (Forfeiture Order)
- The US Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order throwing out a rule adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services that would have required all TV advertising for prescription drugs to state the wholesale price of the drug. Based on these court decisions, this additional information will not need to be added to the disclaimers that these ads already contain. (Court Decision)(Broadcast Law Blog article on the decision)
June 6, 2020 – June 12, 2020
- The FCC on June 9 held an Open Meeting where it unanimously adopted a Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding Broadcast Internet services. The Commission defines Broadcast Internet broadly as IP-based services delivered over broadcast TV spectrum. The Declaratory Ruling clarifies that the lease by a party of ATSC 3.0 spectrum on multiple local TV stations for Broadcast Internet services does not count as an attributable interest under the current TV ownership rules as would an LMA or similar programming agreement on multiple stations. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks comment on how industry foresees using Broadcast Internet services and what FCC rule change could encourage innovation and use of these services. Comments and reply comments on the Commission’s proposals will be due 30 days and 45 days, respectively, after publication in the Federal Register. (News Release) (Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- Thirty-five radio stations received the news last week that they were randomly selected by the Enforcement Bureau for an audit of their compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity rules. These periodic audits are good reminders to broadcasters that the Enforcement Bureau sees EEO compliance as a priority and that the Bureau can sanction stations for non-compliance. Even if your station was not selected to be audited, you can still use the publicly-released audit letter as a checklist to make sure your station is complying with all applicable EEO rules. The FCC audits about 5% of stations each year, so your time may come soon. (Public Notice) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- New technical rules for low power FM stations and the relation between reserved-band noncommercial FM stations and TV channel 6 were published last week in the Federal Register, setting the effective date for many of the new rules. New rules, including permission for LPFM stations to use boosters and the waiver process for NCE stations seeking a change in facilities near a Channel 6 TV station, become effective July 13. Other new rules, including the broadening of the definition “minor change” and the expansion of the permissible use of directional antennas by LPFMs, require additional government action and likely will not be effective for several months. (Federal Register) (Broadcast Law Blog)
May 23, 2020 – May 29, 2020
- The comment cycle was set in the FCC’s annual regulatory fee proceeding. On or before June 12, the Commission wants to hear from interested parties about the fees that it proposes to impose on the companies that it regulates – including broadcasters. The FCC proposes to complete the implementation of its change to computing fees for television stations based on population served rather than on the market in which they operate, a move it began last year (see our Broadcast Law Blog article here on the FCC decision last year to initiate the change in the way TV fees are allocated). The FCC also asks for ideas about how the Commission can extend fee relief to stations suffering COVID-19-related financial hardship. Reply comments are due on or before June 29. (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Chris Krebs, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, wrote to the nation’s governors asking them to, among other things, declare radio and TV broadcasters as essential to COVID-19 response efforts and to afford broadcasters all appropriate resources and access. (News Release)
- In a good reminder to broadcasters that transactions involving the sale or transfer of control of a broadcast station must be authorized in advance by the FCC, the Media Bureau entered into a consent decree with two companies that sold an FM station and FM translator without getting approval from the Commission. The parties mistakenly believed filing license renewal applications that reflected the assignment was sufficient approval. The consent decree includes an $8,000 penalty. (Consent Decree). See this article on past cases where the FCC has warned that even transactions among related companies that change the legal form of ownership of a broadcast station without changing the ultimate control need prior FCC approval.
- The Commission granted approval to Cumulus Media, Inc. to exceed the Commission’s twenty-five percent foreign ownership threshold. The Commission will allow Cumulus to have up to 100 percent aggregate foreign investment in the company, although additional approvals will be needed if any previously unnamed foreign entity acquires 5% or more of the company or if any foreign entity desires to acquire control. (Declaratory Ruling). This decision shows the process that the FCC must go through to approve foreign ownership above the 25% threshold and the analysis needed to issue such approvals. See our articles here and here about the evolving FCC policy in this area.
- Anyone looking to hand deliver documents to the FCC needs to learn a new address, and it is not, as you might expect, the address of the FCC’s future headquarters. Deliveries by hand must now be brought to 9050 Junction Drive, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701. The address change is to enhance security screening and is part of winding down operations at the current 12th Street headquarters. (Order)
May 30, 2020 – June 5, 2020
- As protests and civil unrest over George Floyd’s killing roiled cities across the country, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commended local broadcasters for their coverage of the events and their willingness to put themselves at personal risk to share these stories with America (News Release). Commissioner Starks called for more diversity in media ownership (News Release). We explained the minority tax certificate on our blog here. The tax certificate has historically been one of the most effective means of promoting diversity in broadcast ownership.
- The FCC issued a Public Notice setting out proposed lump sum payments for reimbursement of the costs for the relocation of authorized C-Band satellite earth stations following the repurposing of some of that band for 5-G wireless uses. The notice is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Monday, setting a June 15 comment deadline on the proposed payments.
- The Media Bureau reminded LPTV and TV translator stations operating on channels 38, 44, 45 and 46 that they must cease operations no later than 11:59 pm local time on July 13, 2020. The July 13, 2020 date for cessation of operations is a hard deadline, tied to the end of the post-Incentive Auction transition period. (Public Notice)
- The Media Bureau opened a settlement window running through July 31 for applicants for new or modified LPTV stations or TV translators, originally filed in 2009, that had filed for new channels or new technical facilities because use of their old channels was preempted by the incentive auction repack. Where more than one applicant applied for the same new channel in the same area, those applicants can file to make engineering changes to their applications (including, if no other solutions are possible, changing channels yet again) or to reach other settlements (including channel sharing) to resolve their conflicts by the July 31 deadline. (Public Notice)(see our summary of both LPTV items on the Broadcast Law Blog).
- The FCC released a list of 515 open proceedings from across its bureaus that it plans to close due to dormancy. A proceeding makes the proposed closure list when it requires no more action, no more action is planned, or no filings in the docket have been made for several years. Interested parties can review the list and submit comments urging the Commission to either keep open or close permanently items that appear on the list. (Public Notice)
- The Media Bureau issued a decision reviewing Section 312(g) of the Communications Act which automatically cancels a station’s license if it has been silent for 12 months, absent special circumstances. The decision is particularly useful in explaining the special circumstances that can justify the preservation of a license, and the way that the FCC assesses the period that a station was silent. (Letter)
- Two Notices of Apparent Liability that came out of the Commission this week serve as good reminders during this license renewal cycle that you do, in fact, have to file an application to renew your license.
- In one case, a Virginia AM station was hit with a $7,000 fine for failing to file for license renewal and then operating the station after its FCC authorization had expired. In the end, the Commission levied the fine, but also found that the station’s license should be renewed for an abbreviated two-year license term instead of the typical eight-year term. (Notice of Apparent Liability)
- In a second case, a Florida low power FM failed file an application for license renewal on January 27, 2020 that was due on or before October 1, 2019, without providing an explanation for the late filing. The Commission levied a $1,500 fine against the station and will consider the license renewal application at a later time. (Notice of Apparently Liability)
May 16, 2020 – May 22, 2020
- FCC released the agenda for its June 9 Open Meeting announcing that it will consider an item of interest to TV broadcasters planning to transition to ATSC 3.0, the next generation television transmission standard. The item deals with what the FCC is calling “Broadcast Internet services,” new IP based services compatible with other Internet devices that will allow TV broadcasters to monetize their ATSC 3.0 spectrum in new ways. If adopted at the June meeting, the item, which we summarized on the Broadcast Law Blog, would do two things:
- Allow a broadcaster to enter into spectrum lease agreements with other companies who offer Broadcast Internet services on the spectrum of several television stations in the same market without triggering the Commission’s attribution or multiple ownership rules.
- Seek comment on ideas for changing the FCC’s rules to further promote the deployment of Broadcast Internet services as part of ATSC 3.0. (draft of the Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
- Last week, FCC announced that comments are due by June 22 in the review of its video description rules. Video description refers to an audio channel provided to accompany TV programming giving a narration of what is happening on the screen to aid blind or visually impaired persons. Currently, ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC stations in the top 60 markets must supply video described programming, but under the FCC’s proposed new rules, those requirements would extend to markets 61 through 100 by January 1, 2021, with ten markets being added in the following four years. More on the proposed rule changes on Broadcast Law Blog. (Public Notice)
May 9, 2020 – May 15, 2020
- New rules were adopted implementing streamlined and standardized public notice obligations associated with various broadcast applications. The revised rules abolish requirements for printed notices in local newspapers and pre-filing announcements for license renewal. (News Release) (Second Report and Order). The effective date of these changes will be announced later, although in a separate Order, the FCC immediately waived the requirement for license renewal pre-filing announcements for all future renewal windows. The requirements for license renewal post-filing announcements are unchanged
- Amounts of the annual regulatory fees to be paid in September by broadcasters and other FCC-regulated communications entities were proposed for comment. In addition to asking for comments on the allocation of the fees to be paid, the FCC asks if it can do anything to assist those who pay the fees in light of the current pandemic. While the FCC is required by Congress to collect the regulatory fees, it asks if there are actions it can take while still complying with its statutory obligations, e.g. by allowing some companies to pay their fees over a greater period of time. The FCC also completed the transition of TV fees to a system based on population in a station’s service area instead of the size of the market in which the station operates. It also reduced the fees to be paid by certain VHF television broadcasters. The comment period for the proposed 2020 regulatory fees will be set after the notice is published in the Federal Register. (Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
- FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released its report on the August 7, 2019 test of the broadcast Emergency Alert System. The report set out concerns identified by the test, including issues with the technical quality of some alerts, the monitoring of the proper sources for the alerts, and the lower participation among low power broadcasters (particularly LPFM licensees). However, the Bureau found that the broadcast-based EAS distribution method is largely effective, as the test reached 82.5% of EAS participants. (Report)
- Initial comment period closed in the FCC’s proceeding on Significant Viewing. As we wrote in the Broadcast Law Blog, the proceeding asked, among other things, for comments as to whether the FCC should update its rules for establishing whether a TV station is “significantly viewed” in a market other than the one in which it is located. A designation of significantly viewed status is important for determining whether a cable or satellite system will carry a TV station in areas that are not part of its home market. (Significant Viewing Comments). Reply comments are due by June 15
- Last week, the comment period was set in the FCC’s Distributed Transmission System (“DTS”) proceeding. Comments are due by June 12, reply comments are due by July 13. The notice seeks comment on changes to the FCC’s rules on DTS that could expand and improve the coverage of television stations throughout their service areas as the industry begins to deploy the new ATSC 3.0 television transmission technology. We wrote more about this rulemaking at the Broadcast Law Blog. (Federal Register)
May 2, 2020 to May 8, 2020
- The FCC’s Media Bureau last week made it easier for broadcast stations to rehire employees laid off due to COVID-19-related circumstances by granting relief from the broad outreach EEO requirement otherwise required when filling job vacancies. Licensees may re-hire full-time employees who were laid off without first conducting broadcast recruitment outreach if the employees are re-hired within nine months of the date they were laid off. As the economy hopefully turns around, this partial waiver should help stations ramp up their operations to full strength quicker than they would have been able to absent the waiver. (Order)(Broadcast Law Blog article)
- Sinclair Broadcast Group (“SBG”) agreed to pay a $48 million penalty—the largest penalty ever paid to the FCC by a broadcaster—and adopt a compliance plan to settle investigations into (1) SBG’s lack of disclosure during its failed merger with Tribune Media; (2) its obligation to negotiate retransmission consent agreements in good faith; and (3) sponsorship identification failures on content produced and supplied by SBG to SBG and non-SBG stations. (News Release)
- The FCC released the final agenda for its May 13 Open Meeting, with two items of interest to broadcasters. It is expected that both these items will be adopted before the virtual meeting scheduled for next Wednesday. (Agenda)
- The first would modernize and simplify the public notices broadcasters must provide upon the filing of certain applications. This order, if adopted as drafted, would update many of the public notice requirements, end requirements for newspaper public notice, and abolish required license renewal pre-filing announcements (draft of the Report and Order).
- The second action deals with regulatory fees. The draft order, despite opposition from VHF station licensees, declines to provide any blanket regulatory fee reductions to these stations as the FCC moves fully to television regulatory fees based on the population served by the TV station rather than the size of the market in which the station operates. The same document sets out for comment the proposed annual regulatory fees to be paid in September 2020 by all FCC regulated entities, including radio and TV stations (draft of the Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking).
- The Supreme Court granted Prometheus Radio Project more time, until July 21, to file a response to the petitions by the FCC and NAB asking for review of the Third Circuit decision that rolled back the Commission’s 2017 media ownership reforms, including the abolition of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule. If the request for review is granted, the Supreme Court will take up the case, at the earliest, during its 2021 term. (Time Extension Request)(see this Broadcast Law Blog article for more on the appeal that Prometheus seeks to oppose).
- The comment period closed this week in the FCC’s FM “zonecasting” proceeding. The comments were submitted on a petition for rulemaking filed by GeoBroadcast Solutions, asking the FCC to change its rules to permit FM boosters to allow commercials, news reports or other short content to be dropped into their programming that would be different than the programming on the main station. Under the current rules, FM boosters must retransmit 100% of the programming from their originating station. (FM broadcast booster proceeding filings) (see this Broadcast Law Blog article for more information about the zonecasting proposal, and look for another article early this week summarizing the positions taken in the comments).
- A Wisconsin television station filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the President’s reelection committee claiming that an attack ad from the Priorities USA PAC which was broadcast on the station was defamatory. The motion argued that the campaign could not sustain a claim of defamation over an advertisement the station claimed was political speech protected by law including the First Amendment. (Motion to Dismiss – and watch for a summary in the Broadcast Law Blog this week).
April 25, 2020 to May 1, 2020
- The comment period ended in the FCC’s State of the Communications Marketplace Report proceeding. The FCC sought comment on the report to inform its assessment of the communications marketplace that it must deliver to Congress. In addition to the video and audio marketplaces, the report looked at the wireless, broadband, wired telephone, and satellite marketplaces. Reply comments are due by May 28. (Report)
- The FCC Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation to a Maryland AM station for violating the operating hours authorized by its license. In this case, the station was authorized for daytime operation only (average monthly local sunrise time to average monthly local sunset time) and was observed operating long past 5:15 p.m., which was the average sunset time for the station’s service area in January 2019. Notices of Violation are issued directly by Enforcement Bureau field agents and require a written response. This serves as a good reminder to stations to abide by operating hours authorized by their license. (Notice of Violation)
- In response to a January letter from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly regarding payola practices, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Universal Music Group submitted written responses that the Commissioner posted to his Twitter feed (Universal’s response will be posted when certain confidential information can be redacted). The record companies said there is nothing to support the allegations of payola and that any pay-to-play arrangements between the companies and radio stations are given the necessary on-air sponsorship identification. We wrote more about this at the Broadcast Law Blog. (@mikeofcc) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- We published to the Broadcast Law Blog our recurring monthly feature that highlights important regulatory dates for broadcasting during the upcoming month. May is a month where there are no regularly scheduled regulatory filings (e.g., no renewals, EEO reports, fee filings, or scheduled public file disclosures). Nevertheless, as always, there are a number of important regulatory dates—and changes in some dates—for May of which broadcasters should be aware. (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC voted to reorganize the Media Bureau by eliminating the Engineering Division and moving the division’s staff and work to the Industry Analysis Division. The Commission believes this reorganization is a more effective use of available resources and should enhance the Bureau’s understanding and analysis of the media industry. (Order)
- In advance of the long-expected (and delayed by COVID-19) move of its Washington, DC headquarters, the FCC adopted a new official seal. Expect to see this new seal adorning FCC materials, websites, and, when it opens, the new headquarters. (Public Notice)
- The FCC Media Bureau settled by consent decree an investigation into the retransmission consent negotiating practices of television stations of a television operator who admitted to violating the good-faith negotiation rules, agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty, and adopted a compliance plan to be followed for three years. (Order and Consent Decree). This consent decree follows up on an FCC Media Bureau decision from last year which, though heavily redacted, provides more information on the good faith negotiation standards applicable to retransmission consent agreements.
April 18, 2020 to April 24, 2020
- The Commission held an Open Meeting on April 23 and before and during the meeting acted on three items of interest to broadcasters. The first item was a Report and Order on LPFM stations that expanded the permissible use of directional antennas, expanded the definition of minor change applications, and allowed LPFM stations to operate boosters. The Order deferred to a later proceeding a decision on changing the rules for interference between Channel 6 TV stations and noncommercial FM stations operating on the reserved band (Report and Order – and for highlights of the issues in that Order see our Broadcast Law Blog). The second item was a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on the possible expansion of television station Video Description obligations (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking). Finally, the FCC adopted a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that opened use of the 6 GHz band to unlicensed wireless devices. This move could impact certain broadcast auxiliaries. (Note: The Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking has not yet been released – News Release)
- The FCC adopted a much-anticipated clarification of its Political File Order. In the Order, the Commission clarified that its Political File Order is limited to requests for the purchase of broadcast time by issue advertisers whose commercials communicate a message relating to any political matter of national importance, not to requests for the purchase of broadcast time by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate for public office. Also clarified is the FCC’s intention to apply a standard of reasonableness and good faith decision-making to decisions made by broadcasters in: (1) determining whether, in context, a particular issue ad triggers any disclosure obligations; (2) identifying and disclosing in their online political files the candidates and political matters of national importance that are referenced in each issue ad; and (3) determining when the use of acronyms or other abbreviations in their online political files would be understandable to the general public reviewing the information about issue ads. (Order on Reconsideration) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC released a Public Notice announcing the procedures for the 2020-23 television license renewal cycle. The Notice covers familiar territory like reminding licensees of their online public file, local public notice, and EEO report filing obligations. The Commission notes that Schedule 303-S largely remains the same as it has in the past but includes changes to the Children’s TV Programming and ownership questions. (Public Notice) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The Commission released the agenda for the May 13 Open Meeting, with two items for consideration that will interest broadcasters. The first is a media modernization item that proposes to modernize and simplify the written and on-air public notices broadcasters must provide upon the filing of certain applications. (Second Report and Order) The second deals with 2020 regulatory fees. In the draft FCC action, the Commission would not adopt proposals by VHF licensees to reduce their regulatory fees to account for signal limitations and degradation. The Commission also seeks comment on its proposal to assess 2020 fees for full-power TV stations based on the population covered by the station’s contour and on the other regulatory fees it would collect later this year. Stations can find their proposed fee in Appendix G. (Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
- The Media Bureau announced an update to the commercial radio station license renewal form adding a question that asks stations to certify compliance with the Commission’s ownership rules in section 73.3555. This update discards an interim procedure put in place last year after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s ownership rule changes. (Public Notice) (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau emailed EAS participants a reminder to secure their EAS devices, warning that these devices are vulnerable to hacking if not properly secured. The Notice refers all EAS Participants to review best practices for securing their EAS systems contained in the 2015 Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council IV, Working Group 3, Emergency Alert System (EAS) Subcommittee, Final Report, and in the 2014 Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council IV, Working Group 3, Emergency Alert System (EAS) Subcommittee, Initial Report.
- For more on dealing with the FCC during the pandemic, and on the many actions that the FCC has taken during the last 6 weeks – both those dealing with the current crisis and decisions made in processing its normal workload relating to broadcasting – check out the webinar which we presented on Tuesday to broadcasters across the country, available by clicking on this link.
April 11, 2020 to April 17, 2020
- The FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters with a group of industry intervenors both filed petitions for writs of certiorari in Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC. (News Release) asking the Court to review the judgment of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that forced the FCC to abandon its 2017 media ownership reforms and return to its prior rules. For more on the Third Circuit decisions, see our Broadcast Law Blog articles here and here.
- FCC to hold its monthly Open Meeting by teleconference on April 23—final agenda released. (Agenda). Issues of importance to broadcasters include changes to the rules on LPFM stations and interference between Channel 6 TV stations and noncommercial FM stations operating on the reserved band (FCC Draft Order – and for highlights of the issues in that order see our Broadcast Law Blog); a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the possible expansion of television station Video Description obligations (FCC Draft Order); and a Draft Order and Notice of Further Rulemaking dealing with the use of the 6 mHz band for unlicensed wireless which could impact certain broadcast auxiliaries (FCC Draft Order).
- Comment (May 14, 2020) and reply comment (June 15, 2020) dates were set for comments on the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Significant Viewing – a rulemaking that addresses important issues that could impact carriage of television stations by cable systems and satellite television systems. (Public Notice) You can read more about some of the specific questions asked in the NPRM at the Broadcast Law Blog. (Broadcast Law Blog)
- FCC to consider “zonecasting” for FM stations—a proposal to use boosters to allow FM stations to target different parts of their service areas with different news or advertising. Initial comments due May 4. (Broadcast Law Blog)
- The FCC’s Audio Division released a decision resolving a translator interference complaint (Decision), one of the first cases interpreting the new rules for the resolution of such complaints (see our Broadcast Law Blog for more information on those interference resolution standards).
- Chairman Pai gave remarks to the Interamerican Development Bank and the International Institute of Communications Online Workshop titled “Regulation In Times of Pandemics: Lessons For The Future.” In those remarks, the Chairman noted that broadcasters have used their platform to encourage social distancing, expanded news coverage of the pandemic to help Americans stay safe and healthy, and raised funds in their communities to help those in need. (Remarks)