Comments Due August 14 For Latest EAS NPRM

Paul A. Cicelski Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted July 15, 2014

By Paul A. Cicelski and Carly A. Deckelboim

For those of you following our numerous posts on EAS matters over the years, a new chapter starts today. After participating in EAS summits and meetings for such a long time, it's hard to disagree that working to improve emergency alerts for all of us is one of the more important items before the FCC. The EAS summits hosted to address improvements to the alert system have been very useful toward achieving that goal, and many thanks should go out to the state broadcasters associations, the FCC, FEMA, the National Association of Broadcasters, Capitol Hill staff, and many others for working hard to save lives in emergencies, realizing in particular the vital role that local broadcasters play in that effort.

Today, the FCC's latest EAS NPRM was published in the Federal Register, which means that parties will have 30 days to file comments and an addition fifteen days for reply comments. Comments are therefore due on August 14, and reply comments are due on August 29.

The NPRM is highly technical, but the proposed changes to Part 11 of the Commission's Rules are a response to the nationwide EAS test held in November 2011. The FCC notes in the NPRM that since the national test, it has implemented CAP and the Wireless Emergency Alert system to standardize geographically-based alerts and interoperability among equipment. According to the Commission, the proposals in the NPRM are intended as first steps to fix the vulnerabilities uncovered in the national test.

A copy of the NPRM can be found here.

Lots of very specific questions are posed in the NPRM, but the principal proposals are:

  • The FCC proposes that all EAS participants have the capability to receive a new six zero (000000) national location code. The national test used a location code for Washington, DC, but many EAS units apparently rejected it as outside their local area. The FCC says that the proposal is intended to remedy this problem by providing a code that will trigger EAS units regardless of location.
  • The second major proposal is to amend the rules governing national EAS tests. The FCC proposes to amend the rules to create an option to use the National Public Test for regular EAS system testing and seeks comment on the manner in which the National Public Test should be deployed.
  • The Commission is also proposing to require that all EAS Participants submit test reports on an electronic (as opposed to paper) form. The information in the electronic reports that identifies monitoring assignments would then be integrated into State EAS Plans. The FCC proposes to designate the EAS Test Reporting System (ETRS) as the primary EAS reporting system and to require that all EAS Participants submit nationwide EAS test results data electronically via the ETRS for any future national EAS test.
  • The NPRM also asks whether the FCC should require that emergency crawls be positioned to remain on the screen (and not run off the edge of the screen) and be displayed for the duration of an EAS activation.

Finally, although not a primary topic of the NPRM, the FCC proposes that a reasonable time period for EAS Participants to replace unsupported equipment and to perform necessary upgrades and required testing to implement the proposed rules be six months from the effective date of any rules adopted as a result of the NPRM.

The NPRM attempts to tackle some difficult technical issues and is a tough read. However, given what is at stake, and the challenges of implementing a more nationwide approach to EAS, it is worth the effort.

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted June 30, 2014

By Scott R. Flick and Carly A. Deckelboim

June 2014

Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • Bad Legal Advice Leads to Admonishment for Public File Violations
  • $10,000 Fine for Tower Violation
  • Missing Emergency Alert System Equipment Results in $6,000 Fine

Licensee's Poor Financial Condition and Reliance on Bad Legal Advice Fend Off Fines

Earlier this month, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau issued an order against the former licensee of a Texas radio station admonishing the licensee but declining to impose $40,000 in previously proposed fines relating to public inspection file violations.
In December of 2010, agents from the Enforcement Bureau's local office reviewed the station's public inspection file and determined that, among other things, the file did not contain any quarterly issues-programs lists. In response, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL"), and ultimately a Forfeiture Order, imposing a fine of $25,000, which the licensee subsequently paid.

After the original NAL was issued, the station hired an independent consultant to assist it in ensuring that the station's public inspection file was complete. In August of 2011, the licensee submitted a statement to the FCC in which it certified that all of the required documents had been placed in the station's public inspection file. However, field agents visited the station again in October of 2011, and found that the public inspection file still did not contain any issues-programs lists. In response, the FCC issued two more NALs in June of 2012 (the "2012 NALs") for the still-incomplete public inspection file and for the false certification submitted in response to the original NAL. The 2012 NALs proposed a $25,000 fine for providing false information to the FCC and a $15,000 fine for the still-missing issues-programs lists.

In this month's order, the FCC analyzed the now-former licensee's claim that it had engaged an independent consultant to assist it in responding to the original NAL and that it had subsequently placed documentation regarding issues-programs in its public inspection file. The FCC noted that the outside consultant's advice that placing copies of the station's daily program logs in the file would be adequate to meet the requirement was erroneous. However, since the licensee had sought to fix the problem by hiring a consultant and had relied on the consultant's advice, the FCC concluded that the licensee had not negligently provided incorrect information to the Enforcement Bureau, and therefore the FCC did not impose the originally-proposed $25,000 fine for false certification.

In contrast, the FCC concluded that the former licensee had indeed willfully violated Section 73.3526 of the FCC's Rules by not including issues-program lists in its public inspection file. The former licensee had, however, submitted documentation of its inability to pay and asked that it not be required to pay the proposed $15,000 fine. The FCC agreed that the former licensee had demonstrated its inability to pay, and therefore declined to impose the $15,000 fine.

In doing so, the FCC also noted that while "[r]eliance on inaccurate legal advice will not absolve a licensee of responsibility for a violation, [it] can serve as evidence that the licensee made an effort to assess its obligations, that its assessment was reasonable, if erroneous, and was made in good faith." In light of all the facts, the FCC elected to formally admonish the former licensee, and warned that, should the former licensee later acquire broadcast licenses, it could face substantial monetary penalties, regardless of its ability to pay, for future rule violations.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

Supreme Court Finds That Aereo's Major Innovation Is Copyright Infringement

Scott R. Flick

Posted June 25, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

In a 6-3 decision released this morning, the Supreme Court didn't just rain on Aereo's parade, but drenched it. For a case involving fairly convoluted points of law, the Supreme Court's decision is surprisingly straightforward: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, no amount of technology will change the fact that it is a duck.

At this early stage of the case--keep in mind this was just about whether an injunction against Aereo should have been issued by the lower courts for one specific type of copyright infringement--the question before the Court was whether Aereo's system "performs" broadcasters' copyrighted works, and whether that is a "public" performance. If so, Aereo's operations infringe on broadcasters' copyrights in that programming. Aereo's argument in response was that since its system does nothing until activated by a subscriber, and even then only transmits a single private copy to that subscriber, Aereo was not involved in generating public performances.

The Court strongly disagreed, finding that an essential purpose of Congress's passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 was to make clear that transmissions of broadcast programming by third-parties to the public (e.g., cable systems) create public performances that implicate copyright law. Specifically, the Court noted "the [Copyright] Act is unmistakable: An entity that engages in activities like Aereo's performs," and "the fact that Aereo's subscribers may receive the same programs at different times and locations is of no consequence. Aereo transmits a performance of petitioners' works 'to the public.'"

Aereo's argument that it is just a renter of receiving equipment fared no better, with the Court stating: "We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier and that Aereo 'performs.'" Of note for those concerned about whether an Aereo decision for broadcasters might affect the public's ability to store other data in the cloud, the Court agreed with the brief filed by the Department of Justice that there is an important distinction between members of the public storing their own content in the cloud and those using the Internet to access the content of others, finding that a transmission to "the public" for purposes of implicating the Copyright Act "does not extend to those who act as owners or possessors of the relevant product."

However, the most interesting aspect of the decision is that the Court is far more hostile to Aereo than even the 6-3 vote would indicate. Some of the strongest arguments against Aereo are actually found in Justice Scalia's dissent, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. While criticizing the majority for its "looks like a cable system" premise, in making his best case for finding in favor of Aereo, Justice Scalia makes two telling statements. The first, after he argues that Aereo is just a passive conduit for subscribers' content reception and therefore does not "perform" broadcasters' copyrighted content, is his statement noting

"[t]hat conclusion does not mean that Aereo's service complies with the Copyright Act. Quite the contrary. The Networks' complaint that Aereo is directly and secondarily liable for infringing their public-performance rights (Section 106(4)) and also their reproduction rights (Section 106(1)). Their request for a preliminary injunction--the only issue before this Court--is based exclusively on the direct-liability portion of the public performance claim.... Affirming the judgment below would merely return this case to the lower courts for consideration of the Networks' remaining claims."

Justice Scalia then goes much further, stating:

"I share the Court's evident feeling that what Aereo is doing (or enabling to be done) to the Networks' copyrighted programming ought not to be allowed. But perhaps we need not distort the Copyright Act to forbid it."

He then proceeds to note again that there are other copyright infringement claims before the lower court that should be considered on remand, and that Congress is always free to modify the law to eliminate any perceived "loophole" if necessary.

As a result, while today's ruling is a 6-3 decision in favor of granting an injunction against Aereo, it ultimately reads like a 9-0 rebuke of Aereo's business plan. One of the most interesting legal analogies is also found in Justice Scalia's dissent, where he likens Aereo to a copy shop where the shop owner plays no part in the content copied:

"A copy shop rents out photocopiers on a per-use basis. One customer might copy his 10-year-old's drawings--a perfectly lawful thing to do--while another might duplicate a famous artist's copyrighted photographs--a use clearly prohibited by Section 106(1)."

The reason this analogy is (perhaps unintentionally) revealing is that in the Aereo scenario, the subscriber can't use the system to display his ten-year-old's drawings; he can only display the content that Aereo puts on the shelf in its copy shop for the subscriber to access--all of which is copyrighted. Even if a particular program has entered the public domain, the broadcast signal--including its combination of program selections, current advertising, and station interstitials--is not in the public domain. In any event, Aereo has never attempted to limit its relay of content to subscribers to public domain materials (which admittedly would be the worst business plan ever).

While there had been some concern among broadcasters (and hope for Aereo supporters) after oral argument in this proceeding that Aereo was gaining traction with its claim that a ruling against Aereo was a ruling against innovation, the Court's decision states that it sees today's ruling as narrowly focused on the issue of transmission of broadcast signals, and that parties seeking to expand its principles to issues like cloud computing will have to wait until that issue is actually before the Court. In the meantime, the Court made clear that the only innovation it saw in Aereo was copyright infringement, and that has already been around for a long time.

FCC Releases 2014 Regulatory Fee Proposals

Christine A. Reilly

Posted June 20, 2014

By Christine A. Reilly

With the heat of Summer now upon us, the FCC is gearing up for its annual regulatory fee filing window, which usually occurs in mid-September. Like other federal agencies, the FCC must raise funds to pay for its operations ("to recover the costs of... enforcement activities, policy and rulemaking activities, user information services, and international activities."). For Fiscal Year 2014, Congress has, for the third year in a row, mandated that the FCC collect $339,844,000.00 from its regulatees.

Accordingly, the FCC is now tasked with determining how to meet the Congressional mandate. At its most basic level, the FCC employs a formula that breaks down the cost of its employees by "core" bureaus, taking into consideration which employees are considered "direct" (working for one of the four core bureaus), or "indirect" (working for other divisions, including but not limited to, the Enforcement Bureau and the Chairman's and Commissioners' offices). The FCC factors in the number of regulatees serviced by each division, and then determines how much each regulatee is obligated to pay so that the FCC can collect the $339M total.

In its quest to meet the annual congressional mandate, the FCC evaluates and, for various reasons, tweaks the definitions or qualifications of its regulatee categories to, most often, increase certain regulatory fee obligations. FY 2014 is just such an occasion. In FY 2013, the FCC, which historically has imposed drastically different fees for VHF and UHF television licensees, decided that, effective this year, FY 2014, VHF and UHF stations would be required to pay the same regulatory fees. In addition, a new class of contributing regulatees, providers of Internet Protocol TV ("IPTV"), was established and is now subject to the same regulatory fees levied upon cable television providers. Prior to FY 2014, IPTV providers were not subject to regulatory fees.

The FCC's proposals for FY 2014 regulatory fees can be found in its Order and Second NPRM ("Order"). In that Order, the FCC proposes the following FY 2014 commercial VHF/UHF digital TV regulatory fees:


  • Markets 1-10 - $44,875

  • Markets 11-25 - $42,300

  • Markets 26-50 - $27,100

  • Markets 51-100 - $15,675

  • Remaining Markets - $4,775

  • Construction Permits - $4,775
Other proposed TV regulatory fees include:
  • Satellite Television Stations (All Markets) - $1,550
  • Construction Permits for Satellite Television Stations - $1,325
  • Low Power TV, Class A TV, TV Translators & Boosters - $410
  • Broadcast Auxiliaries - $10
  • Earth Stations - $245
The proposed radio fees depend on both the class of station and size of population served. For AM Class A stations:
  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 - $775
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 - $1,550
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 - $2,325
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 - $3,475
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 - $5,025
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 - $7,750
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 - $9,300
For AM Class B stations:
  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 - $645
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 - $1,300
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 - $1,625
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 - $2,750
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 - $4,225
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 - $6,500
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 - $7,800
For AM Class C stations:
  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 - $590
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 - $900
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 - $1,200
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 - $1,800
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 - $3,000
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 - $4,500
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 - $5,700
For AM Class D stations:
  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 - $670
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 - $1,000
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 - $1,675
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 - $2,025
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 - $3,375
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 - $5,400
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 - $6,750
For FM Classes A, B1 &C3 stations:
  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 - $750
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 - $1,500
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 - $2,050
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 - $3,175
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 - $5,050
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 - $8,250
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 - $10,500
For FM Classes B, C, C0, C1 & C2 stations:
  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 - $925
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 - $1,625
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 - $3,000
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 - $3,925
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 - $5,775
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 - $9,250
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 - $12,025
In addition to seeking comment on the proposed fee amounts, the Order seeks comment on proposed changes to the FCC's basic fee formula (i.e., changes in how it determines the allocation of direct and indirect employees and thus establishes its categorical fees), and on the creation of new, and the combination of existing, fee categories. The Order also seeks comment on previously proposed core bureau allocations, the FCC's intention to levy regulatory fees on AM Expanded Band Radio Station licensees (which have historically been exempt from regulatory fees), and whether the FCC should implement a cap on 2014 fee increases for each category of regulatee at, for example, 7.5% or 10% above last year's fees. Comments are due by July 7, 2014 and Reply Comments are due by July 14, 2014.

FCC Announces June 19, 2016 Deadline for Revising TV Joint Sales Agreements

Scott R. Flick

Posted June 18, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

When the FCC voted at its March 31, 2014 meeting to deem television Joint Sales Agreements involving more than 15% of a station's weekly advertising time as an attributable ownership interest, it announced that broadcasters that are parties to existing JSAs would have two years to modify or terminate those JSAs to come into compliance. However, the FCC's Report and Order adopting that change to the rules was not released until April 15, 2014, and noted that the effective date of the rule change would be 30 days after the Report and Order was published in the Federal Register.

The Federal Register publication occurred on May 20, 2014, and the FCC today released a Public Notice confirming that the effective date of the JSA attribution rule is therefore tomorrow, June 19, 2014. At that time, the two-year compliance period will also commence, with the deadline for existing JSAs to be modified to come into compliance with the new rule being June 19, 2016. As a result, subject to any actions the courts may take on the matter, all new TV JSAs must comply with the FCC's multiple ownership rules from their inception, and JSAs that were already in existence before the rule change can remain in place until June 19, 2016.

FCC Announces Freeze on LPTV Displacements and New Digital Replacement Translator Applications

Christine A. Reilly

Posted June 12, 2014

By Christine A. Reilly

Surprise, surprise, the FCC has instituted yet another application filing freeze! The FCC effectively said "enough is enough" and stopped accepting applications for LPTV channel displacements and new digital replacement translators.

Yesterday, the FCC released a Public Notice indicating that, effective June 11, 2014, the Media Bureau would cease to accept applications seeking new digital replacement translator stations and LPTV, TV translator, and Class A TV channel displacements. The FCC did provide that in certain "rare cases", a waiver of the freeze may be sought on a case-by-case basis, and that the Media Bureau will continue to process minor change, digital flash cut, and digital companion channel applications filed by existing LPTV and TV translator stations.

According to industry sources, there have been grumblings at the FCC that low power television broadcasters have been using the digital replacement translator and LPTV displacement processes to better position themselves from the fallout of the upcoming spectrum auction and subsequent channel repacking. That appears to be confirmed by the Public Notice, as it states that the freeze is necessary to "to protect the opportunity for stations displaced by the repacking of the television bands to obtain a new channel from the limited number of channels likely to be available for application after repacking...." Setting aside the freeze itself for a moment, it seems clear from this statement that the FCC has no illusions that there will be room in the repacked spectrum for all existing low power television stations.

While there have been myriad FCC application freezes over the years, they have been occurring with increasing frequency. From the radio perspective, absent a waiver, extraordinary circumstances, or an FCC-announced "filing window", all opportunities to seek a new radio license (full-power, low power FM or translator) have been quashed for some time now.

The first notable television freeze occurred in 1948 and lasted four years. The FCC instituted a freeze on all new analog television stations applications in 1996. In furtherance of the transition to digital television, the FCC instituted a freeze on changes to television channel allotments which lasted from 2004 to 2008. In 2010, the FCC froze LPTV and TV translator applications for major changes and new stations; a freeze which remains in effect today.

Yet another freeze on TV channel changes was imposed in 2011 in order to, among other things, "consider methodologies for repacking television channels to increase the efficiency of channel use." And as Scott Flick wrote here last year, still another television application freeze on full power and Class A modifications was launched on April 5, 2013. That freeze remains in effect and effectively cuts off all opportunities for existing full-power or Class A television stations to expand their signal contours to increase service to the public. The volume of application freezes has grown to such an extent that it is difficult to keep track of them all.

In terms of reasoning, yesterday's Public Notice indicated that since the DTV transition occurred five years ago, the impact of the instant freeze would be "minimal" since transmission and contour issues should have been addressed as part of, or generally following, that transition. The Notice proceeded to say that LPTV displacement and digital replacement applications were necessary after the DTV transition, and up to the FCC's April 2013 filing freeze, for purposes of resolving "technical problems" associated with the build-out of full-power DTV stations, but that since there have been no "changes" to those service areas because of the last freeze, there should be no need for LPTV channel displacements or digital replacement translators.

Left out in the cold by these cascading freezes are broadcast equipment manufacturers and tower crews. As previously noted by numerous broadcasters and the NAB, the FCC's frosty view of just about every form of station modification is effectively driving out of business the very vendors and equipment installers that are critical to implementing the FCC's planned channel repacking after the spectrum auction. As we learned during the DTV transition, the size and number of vendors and qualified installers of transmission and tower equipment is very limited and, given the skills required, can't be increased quickly. Driving these businesses to shrink for lack of modification projects in their now-frozen pipelines threatens to also leave the channel repacking out in the cold.

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted May 29, 2014

By Scott R. Flick and Carly A. Deckelboim

May 2014

Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes $11,000 Fine for Marketing of Unauthorized Device
  • $2,944,000 Fine for Robocalls Made Without Recipients' Consent
  • Sponsorship Identification Complaint Leads to $185,000 Consent Decree
  • Premature Consummation of Transaction Results in $22,000 Consent Decree

Modifying Design of Parking Meter Requires New FCC Certification and Warning to Users

Earlier this month, the Spectrum Enforcement Division of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against a company that designs, develops, and manufactures parking control products (the "Company"). The NAL indicated the Company had marketed one of its products without first obtaining an FCC certification and for failing to comply with consumer disclosure rules. The FCC's Enforcement Bureau proposed an $11,000 fine against the Company.

In August of 2013, the FCC received a complaint that a particular product made by the Company did not have the required FCC certification and that the product did not comply with consumer disclosure requirements. After receiving the complaint, the FCC's Spectrum Enforcement Division issued a Letter of Inquiry ("LOI") to the Company. The Company responded in the middle of March, at which time it described the product in question as a "parking meter that accepts electronic payments made with credit cards, smart cards, or Near Field Communications-enabled mobile device applications." The response to the LOI indicated that the Company had received an FCC authorization in 2011 but had since refined the design of the product. Although one refinement involved relocating the antenna on the device, which increased the field strength rating from the level authorized in 2011, the Company assumed that the changes to the device qualified as "permissive changes" under Section 2.1043 of the FCC's Rules. In addition, the Company admitted to marketing the refined product before obtaining a new FCC certification for the increased field strength rating, and that its user manual did not contain required consumer disclosure language. However, the Company had not actually sold any of the new parking meters in the U.S.

Section 302(b) of the Communications Act prohibits the manufacture, import, sale, or shipment of home electronic equipment and devices that fail to comply with the FCC's regulations. Section 2.803(a)(1) of the FCC's Rules provides that a device must be "properly authorized, identified, and labeled in accordance with the Rules" before it can be marketed to consumers if it is subject to FCC certification. The parking meter falls under this requirement because it is an intentional radiator that "can be configured to use a variety of components that intentionally emit radio frequency energy." The Company's product also meets the definition of a Class B digital device, in that it is "marketed for use in a residential environment notwithstanding use in commercial, business and industrial environments." Under Section 15.105(b) of the FCC's Rules, Class B digital devices "must include a warning to consumers of the device's potential for causing interference to other radio communications and also provide a list of steps that could possibly eliminate the interference."

The base fine for marketing unauthorized equipment is $7,000, and the base fine for marketing devices without adequate consumer disclosures is $4,000. The Company argued that even though it had marketed the device before it was certified, it had not sold any, and it promptly took corrective action after learning of the issue. The Enforcement Bureau declined to reduce the proposed fines because the definition of "marketing" does not require that there be a sale, and "corrective measures implemented after the Commission has initiated an investigation or taken enforcement action do not nullify or mitigate past violations." The NAL therefore assessed the base fine for both violations, resulting in a total proposed fine against the Company of $11,000.

Unsolicited Phone Calls Lead to Multi-Million Dollar Fine

Earlier this month, the FCC issued an NAL against a limited liability company (the "LLC") for making unlawful robocalls to cell phones. The NAL followed a warning issued more than a year earlier, and proposed a fine of $2,944,000. The LLC provides a robocalling service for third party clients. In other words, the LLC's clients pay it to make robocalls on their behalf to a list of phone numbers provided by the client.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act ("TCPA") prohibits robocalls to mobile phones unless there is an emergency or the called party has provided consent. These restrictions on robocalls are stricter than those on live calls because Congress found that artificial or prerecorded messages "are more of a nuisance and a greater invasion of privacy than calls placed by "live" persons." The FCC has implemented the TCPA in Section 64.1200 of its Rules, which mirrors the statute.

The LLC received an LOI in 2012 from the Enforcement Bureau's Telecommunications Consumers Division (the "Division") relating to an investigation of the LLC's services. The Division required the LLC to provide records of the calls it had made, as well as to submit sound files of the calls. This preliminary investigation revealed that the LLC had placed 4.7 million non-emergency robocalls to cell phones without consent in a three-month period. After making these findings, the Division issued a citation to the LLC in March of 2013, warning that making future calls could subject the LLC to monetary penalties and providing an opportunity to meet with FCC staff and file a written reply. The LLC replied to the citation in April of 2013, and met with FCC staff.

However, in June of 2013, the Division initiated a second investigation to ensure the LLC had stopped making illegal robocalls. The LLC objected, but produced the documents and audio files requested. The Division determined, by analyzing the materials and contacting customers who had received the prerecorded calls made by the LLC, that the Company made 184 unauthorized robocalls to cellphones after receiving the citation.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

FCC Extends Waiver Allowing False Emergency Tones in FEMA PSAs

Scott R. Flick

Posted May 21, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Just two months after assessing nearly $2 million in fines to cable operators for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen containing false EAS tones, the FCC today granted an 18-month extension of its 2013 waiver allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue to use false emergency tones in Public Service Announcements.

In this case, the tone being used is not the "broadcast" EAS tone, but the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) tone transmitted to cell phones and other wireless devices in an emergency. In the words of the FCC, "[t]he WEA Attention Signal is a loud, attention-grabbing, two-tone audio signal that uses frequencies and sounds identical to the
distinctive and familiar attention signal used by the EAS."

According to the FCC's waiver extension order, the FEMA PSAs are a reaction to the public being "startled or annoyed" when hearing the WEA tone for the first time, and then seeking to turn off all future alerts. The PSAs are aimed at teaching the public how WEA works and how their mobile devices will behave when receiving a WEA alert.

Given these facts, on May 31, 2013, the FCC granted an unprecedented waiver of the prohibition on airing false emergency tones to permit FEMA PSAs containing the WEA tone to be aired. However, that waiver was limited to one year. Since that year is about up, FEMA recently sought an extension, and by today's order, the FCC has extended the waiver for an additional 18 months.

While FEMA indicates that it believes the announcements have been a success, it continues to receive negative media coverage and individual complaints about the WEA alerts. As a result, it wishes to continue distributing the PSAs for airing and needed today's waiver to accomplish that.

Of course, while FEMA is the party that sought the waiver, it is broadcasters and cable operators that are typically found liable when a false emergency tone airs. Both of those groups should therefore be concerned that the FCC did not grant an unconditional waiver, but instead extended the waiver only to announcements that "mak[e] it clear that the WEA Attention Signals are being used in the context of the PSA and for the purpose of educating the viewing or listening public about the functions of their WEA-capable mobile devices and the WEA program." As a result, the FCC warned that "leading off a PSA with a WEA Attention Signal, without warning, may be an effective attention-getting device, but it would violate the conditions of this waiver because of the effect that it could have on the listening or viewing public."

Broadcasters and cable operators will therefore need to screen all FEMA PSAs containing an emergency tone to ensure it is a WEA (and not an EAS) tone, and that the PSA meets the FCC's waiver conditions and therefore does not pose a risk of confusing the public as to whether an emergency is actually occurring. In other words, if FEMA runs afoul of this requirement in a future PSA, it is the broadcasters and cable operators airing it who will be facing the emergency.

FCC Adopts Rules for the Broadcast Spectrum Auction

Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted May 15, 2014

By: Carly A. Deckelboim

Earlier today, the FCC held its monthly Open Meeting, where it adopted rules to implement the Broadcast Television Incentive Auction.You can watch a replay of the FCC's Open Meeting on the FCC's website.

Thus far, the FCC has released three documents relating to the actions it took today in this proceeding, as well as separate statements from four of the five commissioners, providing at least some initial guidance to affected parties: (1) a News Release, (2) a summary of upcoming proceedings, and (3) a staff summary of the Report & Order.

At the meeting, the commissioners noted that, when released, the Report and Order will contain a number of rule changes to implement the auction. The major takeaways are:

  • The reorganized 600 MHz Band will consist of paired uplink and downlink bands, with the uplink bands starting at channel 51 and expanding downwards, followed by a duplex gap and then the downlink band;
  • These bands will be comprised of five megahertz "building blocks", with the Commission contemplating variations in the amount of spectrum recovered from one market to the next, meaning that not all spectrum will be cleared on a nationwide basis, and in some markets, repacked broadcasters will be sharing spectrum with wireless providers in adjacent markets;
  • The FCC anticipates there will be at least one naturally occurring white space channel in each market for use after the auction by unlicensed devices and wireless microphones;
  • The auction will have a staged structure, with a reverse auction and forward auction component in each stage. In the reverse auction, broadcasters may voluntarily choose to relinquish some or all of their spectrum usage rights, and in the forward auction, wireless providers can bid on the relinquished spectrum;
  • In the reverse auction, participating broadcasters can agree to accept compensation for (1) relinquishing their channel, (2) sharing a channel with another broadcaster, or (3) moving from UHF to VHF (or moving from high VHF to low VHF);
  • The FCC will "score" stations (presumably based on population coverage, etc.) to set opening prices in the auction;
  • The FCC will use a descending clock format for the reverse auction, in which it will start with an opening bid and then reduce the amount offered for spectrum in each subsequent round until the amount of broadcast spectrum being offered drops to an amount consistent with what is being sought in the forward auction;
  • The auction will also incorporate "Dynamic Reserve Pricing", permitting the FCC to reduce the amount paid to a bidding station if it believes there was insufficient auction competition between stations in that market;
  • The rules will require repurposed spectrum to be cleared by specific dates to be set by the Media Bureau, which can, even with an extension, be no later than 39 months after the repacking process becomes effective;
  • The FCC will grandfather existing broadcast station combinations that would otherwise not comply with media ownership rules as a result of the auction; and
  • The FCC continues to intend to use its TVStudy software to determine whether a repacked station's population coverage will be reduced in the repacking process, despite NAB's earlier protests that the current version of the software would result in reduced coverage for nine out of ten stations in the country.
Finally, the FCC will be asking for public input on numerous additional issues, such as opening bid numbers, bid adjustment factors, bidding for aggregated markets in the forward auction, dealing with market variations, setting parameters for price changes from round to round, activity rules, and upfront payments and bidding eligibility. The FCC will consider in future proceedings ways to mitigate the impact of repacking on LPTV/TV translators, how to address interference between broadcast and wireless operations, and how best to facilitate the growth of "white spaces" devices in the unlicensed spectrum.

Although today's Open Meeting and these preliminary documents provide some guidance on many complex incentive auction issues, they only scratch the surface, and there are many blanks the FCC will need to fill in between now and the auction. One of those that broadcasters will be watching very carefully is how the Media Bureau will be handling reimbursement of stations' repacking expenses. That has turned out to be a very challenging issue in past FCC efforts at repurposing spectrum, and the fact that the amount set aside by Congress for reimbursement might well fall short of what is needed has many broadcasters concerned.

We will know more about this and many other issues when the Report and Order is released, hopefully in the next week or two, but the real answers are going to reveal themselves only very slowly over the next year or two. The FCC has to hope that they will still have broadcasters' attention by the time we reach that point.

Knock Knock. Who's There? The FCC and an $89,200 Fine.

Christine A. Reilly

Posted May 2, 2014

By Christine A. Reilly

The FCC just gave broadcasters another reason to answer the door graciously. Earlier this week, the FCC whacked a Pennsylvania Class A Television broadcaster with an $89,200 Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for refusing to allow FCC inspectors to inspect the station's facilities, not just once, but on three different occasions. It is rare to see the FCC show its irritation in an NAL, but the language used by the FCC in this particular NAL leaves no doubt that the Commission was not happy with the licensee, particularly with what the FCC believed was blatant disregard for its authority. As the FCC put it, "this is simply unacceptable."

Regarding specific rule violations by the licensee, the FCC alleged violations of Section 73.1225(a), which requires a broadcaster to make its station available for inspection by the FCC during normal business hours or at any time of operation; Section 73.1125(a), which requires a broadcaster to maintain a main studio location staffed with at least two employees during regular business hours; and Section 73.1350(a), which requires a broadcaster to operate its station in compliance with the FCC's technical rules and in accordance with its current station authorization.

The NAL indicated that local field agents from the Enforcement Bureau's Philadelphia Office attempted a station inspection during regular business hours once on August 17, 2011, and twice on September 30, 2011, without success. Physical access to the main studio of record was blocked by a locked gate.

After calling the station, the field agents were met at the locked gate by the station manager, who indicated that he was on his way to a doctor's appointment, that no one else was available at the station to facilitate an inspection, and that the field agents would have to return the next day in order to gain access to the station. After leaving the site of the main studio, one field agent attempted to call the sole principal of the licensee but was forced to leave a voicemail requesting that the owner return the call to discuss the inaccessibility of the main studio. The field agent also called the main studio and left a voicemail. The call was later returned by the station manager, who indicated that he was still at his doctor's appointment. According to the NAL, the agent identified the caller ID number on the returned call as being that of the main studio. When questioned about it, the station manager indicated "that the Station used his personal cellular number as the Station's main studio number."

On the second inspection attempt, the field agents again encountered the locked gate. The station manager, who met them at the gate, asked the field agents to wait outside the gate until he returned from the main studio building. The field agents left "after waiting more than ten minutes for the Station Manager to return...." The field agents returned later that day and once again encountered the locked gate. An agent called the main studio and spoke to the station manager, who indicated that, the "gate must remain locked for security reasons and that the public must contact the station to obtain access." The field agents noted that there was no signage or other information posted at the locked gate to indicate such a requirement.

After their departure, one of the agents again attempted to contact the station owner in order to discuss the inaccessibility of the main studio. The agent was forced to leave a second voicemail, reiterating his request for a return call. Neither call was returned by the owner.

In March 2012, a local field agent determined that, after monitoring the station's transmissions, the station was operating from a tower structure that was not specified in its current authorization. The agent, with the collaboration of the tower owner, determined that the station was operating from a tower approximately two-tenths of a mile away from its authorized transmitter site. Both towers were owned by the same tower company.

The NAL noted that the FCC has previously fined broadcasters for failure to provide access for inspection, but that "none of those cases involved repeated, direct, in-person refusals of access by the highest level of a broadcast station's management, as well as multiple failures by the licensee's sole principal to return FCC agent calls concerning the refusals." The NAL also stated that, "continued refusal...is an egregious violation of the Commission's rules warranting stringent enforcement action." These events led to the maximum fine of $37,500 for each day the field agents were refused access. The $75,000 was then added to the fines for the main studio and unauthorized operation violations. The main studio base forfeiture is $7,000. The unauthorized operation base forfeiture is $4000, but the FCC elected to upwardly adjust that amount by another $3200. At the end of the day, the licensee was assessed a fine of $89,200.

In hindsight, it seems very unlikely that, even had the station been in a state of disarray or total chaos, any potential fine from the FCC could have exceeded the nearly $90,000 fine the licensee instead received for refusing access.

The obvious lesson learned here if is that if the FCC comes knocking at your door, let them in.

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Paul A. Cicelski Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted April 30, 2014

By Paul A. Cicelski and Carly A. Deckelboim

April 2014

Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes $12,000 in Fines for Contest Violations
  • $20,000 Fine for Unlicensed Operation and Interference
  • Violations of Sponsorship Identification and Indecency Rules Lead to $15,000 Consent Decree

Changing Rules and Delay in Conducting Contest Lead to $12,000 in Fines

Late last month, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau issued two essentially identical Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NALs") against two radio station licensees for failure to conduct a contest as advertised. Although the stations have different licensees, one licensee provided programming to the second licensee's station through a time brokerage agreement. The brokering station's response to a letter of inquiry ("LOI") addressed both licensees' actions with regard to the contest. In the subsequent NALs, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau proposed a $4,000 fine against the brokered licensee and an $8,000 fine against the brokering licensee.

In July of 2009, the FCC received a complaint that several radio stations held a weekly contest called "Par 3 Shoot Out" but did not conduct the contest substantially as announced or advertised. Specifically, the complaint maintained that at least one participant did not receive a promised prize of a golf hat and was not entered into a drawing to win a car or other prizes (as was promised in the contest's rules). About four months later, the FCC issued an LOI to the licensee conducting the contest about the claims made in the complaint. In its response to the LOI, the licensee conducting the contest indicated that the contest consisted of two phases. The first was an 18-week, online golf competition where the highest-scoring contestant each week would win a hat from a golf club. Each weekly winner and one write-in contestant would be able to participate in the second phase of the contest, a real golf competition consisting of taking one shot at a three par hole. As was publicized online, the prize for the winner of the second phase was a $350 golf store gift certificate, and if anyone hit a hole-in-one, they would win a Lexus car.

According to the brokering licensee, the first phase of the contest took place between June and November 2008. The contest took place entirely online, and although the second phase was scheduled to begin in November 2008, it was postponed due to inclement weather and ultimately did not occur at all because the employee who was tasked with running the live golf competition was fired, and the remaining staff never resumed the contest. The brokering licensee further indicated that it forgot about the contest until it received the FCC's LOI, and, after receiving the LOI, the second phase of the contest occurred and was completed by January 2010. The brokering licensee indicated that it had provided additional prizes of a $25 golf store gift card and a catered lunch to each finalist in the second phase given the delay in conducting the contest.

Section 73.1216 of the FCC's Rules requires that a station-sponsored contest be conducted "substantially as announced or advertised" and must fully and accurately disclose the "material terms," including eligibility restrictions, methods of selecting winners, and the extent, nature and value of prizes involved in a contest.

The Enforcement Bureau determined that the contest was not conducted as announced or advertised because the rules were changed during the course of the contest and the contest was not conducted within the promised time frame. The Bureau further found that the licensees failed to fully disclose the material terms of the contest as required by the Commission's rules. According to the Bureau, the on-air announcements broadcast by the stations failed to mention all of the prizes the licensee planned to award and failed to describe any of the procedures regarding how prizes would be awarded or how the winners would be picked. The brokering licensee argued in its response to the LOI that the full rules were included online, which was a better way to make sure that potential contest participants were not confused. However, the Bureau found that while licensees can supplement broadcast announcements with online rules, online announcements are not a substitute for on-air announcements.

The base fine for failure to conduct a contest as announced is $4,000. The Bureau determined that, contrary to the argument presented in response to the LOI, "neither negligence nor inadvertence" due to the overseeing employee's departure "can absolve licensees of liability." The Bureau also said that providing additional prizes to make up for the delay does not overcome the violation of Section 73.1216. Finally, the FCC found that the licensees had failed to disclose the material terms of the contest because the advertisements that were broadcast over the air did not mention certain prizes.

The FCC proposed to impose the base fine amount of $4,000 against the time-brokered station after determining that the licensee had violated Section 73.1216. For the brokering licensee, the FCC proposed an increased fine of $8,000 because of the licensee's "pattern of violative conduct, and because it conducted the Contest over four stations, not one, thus posing harm to a larger audience."

Nine Years of Unauthorized Operation and Interference to Wireless Operator Lead to Large Fine

The FCC recently issued a Forfeiture Order to the former licensee of a Private Land Mobile Radio Service ("PLMRS") station. The Forfeiture Order follows an NAL that the FCC released in July of 2012 proposing a fine of $20,000 for the former licensee of the facility for operating without a license for nine years and causing interference to another wireless service provider.

The former licensee initially received the license for the PLMRS station in April 1997 for a five-year term. Three months before the expiration of the license, the FCC sent the licensee a reminder to renew the license, but the licensee never filed a renewal application. Therefore, the license expired in April of 2002. Nevertheless, the licensee continued operating the station, and on July 31, 2011, filed a request for Special Temporary Authority ("STA") with the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the FCC. The licensee stated in the application that it had recently discovered that its license had expired and that it needed an STA to continue operating the station. The Wireless Bureau granted the STA three days later for a period of six months, until the end of January 2012.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

FCC Extends Comment Deadlines for Multilingual EAS

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 25, 2014

By Paul A. Cicelski

Back in March, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Safety Bureau (PSHSB) issued a Public Notice seeking to update the record on a 2005 Petition for Immediate Interim Relief regarding proposals to make fundamental changes to the FCC's EAS Rules with respect to requiring broadcast stations to air multilingual EAS alerts. Yesterday, the PSHSB released a Public Notice extending the comment deadlines in the proceeding. Comments are now due by May 28, 2014 and replies are due by June 12, 2014.

The March Public Notice seeks comments on a number of issues, but the most-discussed issue is the Petitioner's proposal to have the FCC adopt a so-called "designated hitter" requirement for multilingual EAS.

The Public Notice quotes the Petitioner in describing the proposal:

Such a plan could be modeled after the current EAS structure that could include a "designated hitter" approach to identify which stations would step in to broadcast multilingual information if the original non-English speaking station was knocked off air in the wake of a disaster. Broadcasters should work with one another and the state and/or local government to prepare an emergency communications plan that contemplates reasonable circumstances that may come to pass in the wake of an emergency. The plan should include a way to serve all portions of the population, regardless of the language they speak at home. One market plan might spell out the procedures by which non-English broadcasters can get physical access to another station's facilities to alert the non-English speaking community - e.g. where to pick up the key to the station, who has access to the microphones, how often multilingual information will be aired, and what constitutes best efforts to contact the non-English broadcasters during and after an emergency if personnel are unable to travel to the designated hitter station.

The March Public Notice asked for comment on a number of questions related to this proposal. The Commission also acknowledged in the March Public Notice that broadcasters have raised concerns that a multilingual EAS requirement using the designated hitter approach would require them to hire additional personnel capable of translating emergency alert information into one or more additional languages.

Given that there is a nine year record in this proceeding and that any multilingual EAS requirements will have wide-ranging implications, those wishing to file comments in the proceeding now have some additional time to make that happen.

Supreme Court Seems Skeptical About Aereo's Business Model

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 23, 2014

By Paul A. Cicelski

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Aereo case, providing the first indication of how the Justices view the case pitting Aereo against content providers, particularly broadcast networks. For background on Aereo's technology and the previous lower court cases, Scott Flick of our office has written extensively on the subject, and a variety of his writings on Aereo can be found here. While trying to read the Court's mind solely through the questions asked by the Justices can be risky, it is fair to say that Aereo encountered some skepticism on its claim to be an innovator and not a copyright infringer.

Given the significant amount of lower court litigation preceding Tuesday's oral arguments, there wasn't much in the way of surprises in the arguments made, many of which focused on the question of whether Aereo engages in a "public performance" when it transmits content to paying subscribers requesting that programming. A transcript of the proceeding can be found here. A number of the Justices focused on the question of whether Aereo's fabled sea of mini-antennas served any purpose beyond seeking to circumvent the Copyright Act of 1976. Chief Justice Roberts noted that Aereo's system seemed designed specifically "to get around the copyright laws," and Justice Ginsburg asked Aereo's counsel if there is any "technical reason" Aereo needed to have 10,000 dime-size antennas to operate, or if it was merely designed that way to "avoid the breach of the Copyright Act."

What was a bit of a surprise was the extent to which the Justices' questions focused on Aereo's strategic effort to cloak itself as just another provider of cloud services. A number of the Justices indicated concern that there might not be an elegant way of ruling against Aereo without risking a ripple effect to cloud-based services, and it was obvious that none were interested in seeing that happen. Justice Kagan sought clarification regarding how Aereo could be distinguished from other cloud service companies, asking:

What if --­­ how about there are lots of companies where many, many thousands or millions of people put things up there, and then they share them, and the company in some ways aggregates and sorts all that content. Does that count?

Counsel for the broadcasters and the Justice Department attempted to respond to this concern, largely reiterating the position taken in the DOJ's amicus brief:

The proper resolution of this dispute is straightforward. Unlike a purveyor of home antennas, or the lessor of hilltop space on which individual consumers may erect their own antennas . . . [Aereo] does not simply provide access to equipment or other property that facilitates customers' reception of broadcast signals. Rather, [Aereo] operates an integrated system--i.e., a "device or process"--whose functioning depends on its customers' shared use of common facilities. The fact that as part of that system [Aereo] uses unique copies and many individual transmissions does not alter the conclusion that it is retransmitting broadcast content "to the public." Like its competitors, [Aereo] therefore must obtain licenses to perform the copyrighted content on which its business relies. That conclusion, however, should not call into question the legitimacy of businesses that use the Internet to provide new ways for consumers to store, hear, and view their own lawfully acquired copies of copyrighted works.

The catchphrase for this idea in the oral arguments became a "locker" in the cloud, where consumers could safely store their lawfully obtained content, but which would cross the copyright line if stocked for the consumer for a fee with infringing content by a commercial service like Aereo. While a useful analogy, it did not appear to put an end to the Justices' concern that the line between a fair use and infringement might not always be clear in the cloud. That is certainly true, but it is also true outside the cloud, where copyright questions are notoriously complex and difficult.

Of course, the most interesting aspect of the Court's diversion into an examination of cloud services is that it is technically irrelevant to the case at hand. It is safe to say that when Congress enacted the Copyright Act of 1976, cloud computing wasn't even a distant dream. Imputing an intent on the part of Congress to draft the law in 1976 so as to neatly exclude such services from what might have then been considered copyright infringement is an unrealistic expectation. As a result, courts have always been faced with the task of applying existing copyright law to evolving applications of technologies, with the understanding that Congress will need to step in and change the law if the results cease to be satisfactory.

Having said that, it is the policy of the Supreme Court to narrowly rule on questions before it wherever possible, and drafting a decision addressing only Aereo without reaching the broader question of copyright law in the cloud is certainly the judicious approach, and what most expect the Court to do when a decision is released this summer.

Broadcasters Get a Free Throw in Aereo Case

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 17, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are less than a week away in the Aereo case, and broadcasters are feeling pretty good about their chances. With the Department of Justice, Professor Nimmer (who, along with his father, quite literally wrote the book on copyright), and a host of other luminaries filing in support of the broadcasters' position, the storyline looks a lot like broadcasters have portrayed it from the beginning: that this is a simple case of copyright infringement hidden behind a veil of modern technological obfuscation.

Sensing that such a storyline is fatal to its prospects, Aereo has responded by casting this case as an attack on consumers' use of the cloud, and has attracted some allies based on that storyline. However, it is a pretty thin storyline, as few think that the country's highest court is so careless as to draft a broadcast retransmission rights decision that accidentally destroys the world of cloud computing. The two are not tough to distinguish, and even if the Court secretly disliked cloud computing, it hardly needs to opine on the copyright implications of cloud computing to decide the Aereo question.

Still, lower courts have disagreed on these issues, and only a fool enters the Supreme Court certain that the court will rule in his favor. There are many moving parts, and if a case were easy to decide, it would not have made it to the Supreme Court. That is why both sides will be anxiously watching the oral arguments for hints as to where the various justices stand on the matter.

As of today, however, broadcasters have one less reason to sweat about the outcome. The Court announced yesterday that Justice Alito, who had previously recused himself from the case, is now able to participate. This is a significant development for broadcasters. Because the 2nd Circuit decision being appealed was in Aereo's favor, Alito's earlier recusal meant that the case would be heard by the remaining eight justices. That created the risk of a 4-4 tie, which would leave the adverse 2nd Circuit decision in place.

In that scenario, broadcasters would need to win 5 of the 8 possible votes in order to overturn the lower court decision. That can be a tall order, and impossible if it turns out that four justices are firmly on the Aereo side of the fence. With Alito no longer recused, broadcasters now have an additional avenue for scoring that fifth vote. In other words, it's easier to attract 5 votes out of 9 than it is to get 5 votes out of 8. That means broadcasters are unlikely to find themselves losing on a tie vote, and if the rest of the court should split 4-4, Alito's entry into the fray effectively gives broadcasters a free throw opportunity at the buzzer to score his vote and break that tie. Now broadcasters just need to convert on that opportunity.

The Supreme Court Giveth Where the FCC Taketh Away

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 2, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

After Monday's FCC meeting left television broadcasters facing higher expenses and lower revenues by restricting the use of Joint Sales Agreements and joint retransmission negotiations, broadcasters were due for some good news. Where the FCC is the bearer of bad news, it has often fallen to the courts to be the bearer of good news, generally by overruling the adverse FCC decision. Unfortunately, that process can take years, meaning that in Washington you have to take a very long term view of "the good outweighs the bad."

This week, however, the FCC's bad news was followed very quickly by the Supreme Court's decision today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. In McCutcheon, the Court ruled that while limits on political contributions to individual candidates continue to be permissible, overall limits on contributions to candidates and party committees are unconstitutional. In other words, the government can limit how much you donate to an individual candidate or party committee, but cannot limit the number of candidates or party committees you support with your donations.

While campaign finance reform will continue to be a hot-button issue, a direct effect of today's decision will be to increase the war chests of candidates and parties through greater political donations. Much of those increased funds will ultimately be used for political advertising, redounding to the benefit of media in general, but particularly to local broadcasters.

The Court's 5-4 decision was not particularly a surprise, as many saw McCutcheon as the sequel to 2010's Citizens United decision, in which the Court found restrictions on political expenditures by corporations and unions to be unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court released its decision in Citizens United, we all understood the immediate financial implications for media, but no one was quite sure just how great that impact would be. It turned out to be very substantial, completing the multi-decade transition of political advertising from being a "not worth the regulatory headaches" obligation of broadcasters to now being a highly sought after segment of the overall advertising market. Indeed, there is no stronger validation of this than the fact that cash flow multiples used in station acquisitions are based on two-year averages, balancing political year revenue with revenue from a non-political year.

As in 2010, the question is not whether today's decision will result in more ad revenue for media outlets, but how much more. Given that in recent years the number of donors bumping up against the now-unconstitutional cap measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the economic impact of today's decision is unlikely to match that of Citizens United. However, it may have a more interesting effect. The limit on overall donations effectively forced a political contributor to pick and choose a small number of candidates to support with the maximum ($2600 at the moment) donation, and to turn away others because of the cap. The practical result was that donors tended to focus their contributions on candidates in hotly contested races where the contribution could have the most impact.

With today's elimination of the overall cap, a donor can make the maximum individual donation to every federal political candidate it wishes to support. The likely result is an increased flow of political contributions to candidates in races previously deemed to be lost causes, creating tighter races through the influx of political ad dollars.

From a political standpoint, this means the number of hotly contested races around the country will increase. From an economic standpoint, it means political ad dollars will flow on a more geographically diverse basis, ensuring that a larger number of local stations benefit, rather than just those in swing states and swing districts. This will be welcome news for stations that previously found themselves missing out on political ad dollars while candidates and parties flung large sums at stations in nearby swing districts. By itself, it may not entirely remove the sting of Monday's FCC actions, but given enough time, the courts may eventually produce some good news in that regard as well.