I wrote a while back about the Downside of Downsizing, in which I noted an increasing number of calls from broadcasters who had trimmed their staffs to the bare minimum, only to belatedly discover that the remaining employees lacked either the experience or the time to ensure the station’s compliance with FCC and other regulations. This afternoon, the FCC released seven Notices of Apparent Liability announcing the financial damage that taking your eye off the regulatory ball can have.
The seven NALs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) all involved Children’s Television violations, with the proposed fines ranging from $25,000 to $70,000. The FCC’s grand total for the afternoon was $270,000 in proposed Children’s Television fines. While the simultaneous release of the forfeiture orders may be meant to send a message about the seriousness with which the FCC views violations of the Children’s Television rules, the FCC has been working hard on Chairman Genachowski’s watch to clear out backlogs of enforcement proceedings of all types, and it may be that these particular cases are merely the latest result of that effort.
What is certainly not a coincidence, however, is the hefty size of these fines. These NALs appear to confirm a recent FCC trend of imposing heavier fines for a variety of regulatory offenses. While cynics might argue that the government just needs the money at the moment, there does seem to be a concerted effort at the FCC to “update” its fine amounts to make violations sufficiently painful that licensees will not view them as merely a cost of doing business. It is also worth noting that while the seven NALs involve a variety of kidvid violations (exceeding commercial limits, program length commercials, failure to notify program guide publishers of the targeted age range of educational programs, failure to place the appropriate commercial certifications in the public inspection file, failure to publicize the existence and location of the station’s Children’s Television reports), they all have one other feature in common: each of the stations confessed its transgressions in its license renewal application.
In addition to giving no quarter for the licensees having confessed their own sins, the NALs are quite stern in assessing the severity of the violations. Noting that human error, inadvertence, and subsequent efforts to prevent the recurrence of such violations are not grounds for reducing the punishment imposed, the NALs apply a strict liability standard, cutting stations no slack even where the violation was based upon a misapplication of the rule (e.g., assessing compliance with children’s commercial time limits based upon a programming hour (4:30-5:30pm) rather than a clock hour (5:00-6:00pm)), where a program-length commercial was caused by a fleeting and tiny/partial glimpse of a program character during a commercial, or where the program-length commercial was caused by network content.
To be clear, the FCC staked out no new legal ground in these decisions, which for the most part apply existing precedent, and the NALs do indicate that some of the stations involved had over 100 kidvid violations. What catches the eye, however, is not just the size of the fines, but the terse manner in which the violations are listed, the defenses rejected, and the fine imposed, with each NAL noting that the base fine for a kidvid offense is $8,000, but that an upward adjustment is merited in this particular case, with the ultimate amount often appearing to have been plucked out of the air. The impression licensees are left with is that the FCC has lost patience in plowing through the backlog of enforcement cases, and there will be little or no room for error in FCC compliance going forward.
It’s good that the broadcast advertising market has begun to resuscitate, as now would be a good time to rehire those FCC compliance personnel, particularly the ones that prescreen children’s television content.