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  • FCC Begins to Move on Pending Video News Release Complaints
  • Failure to Monitor Tower Lighting Results in $12,000 Penalty

Video News Releases Garner $4,000 Fines for Two Television Broadcasters
After a flurry of complaints from advocacy groups a few years ago raised the issue at the FCC, the Commission has been pondering how to treat Video News Releases (VNRs) with respect to its sponsorship identification rule. The result has been a growing backlog of enforcement investigations involving VNRs. However, the release of two decisions proposing fines for stations that aired all or part of a VNR without identifying the material on-air as being sponsored appears to indicate that the dam is about to break. In its first VNR enforcement actions in years, the FCC fined two unrelated television stations $4,000 each for violating the sponsorship identification requirements found in Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC’s Rules.

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Caught between a rock and the Second Circuit, the FCC hesitantly took the defense of its indecency policy to the Supreme Court today. The FCC filed a petition seeking the Court’s review of the Second Circuit’s decisions in indecency cases involving Fox and ABC programs. Last year, the Second Circuit found the FCC’s interpretation of indecency to be arbitrary and capricious. On appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed, and lobbed this perennial hot potato back over the net to the Second Circuit for an assessment of the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy.

Whether intentional or not, the Supreme Court’s return of the matter to the Second Circuit was the legal equivalent of a high lob, and the Second Circuit enthusiastically slammed the ball back across the net, ruling that the FCC’s current indecency policy is unconstitutionally vague. In light of its earlier ruling, the Second Circuit’s conclusion was hardly a surprise. More curious, however, was the government’s reaction to it. Rather than again storming to the Supreme Court to defend its indecency policy, the FCC first asked the Second Circuit to reconsider its decision (a request that was denied in November 2010), and then sought not one, but two extensions of the deadline for requesting Supreme Court review.

The FCC waited until the end of even that extended period before seeking joint review of the Fox and ABC decisions (the deadline for the Fox decision was today, while the FCC actually had until May 4th to seek review of the ABC decision). In asking that the cases be considered together, the FCC is making the calculation that “scripted nudity” in ABC’s NYPD Blue presents a more compelling case for government regulation than the Fox case, where the agency concluded that fleeting expletives (during the Billboard Music Awards) were a form of actionable indecency despite years of precedent to the contrary. That new interpretation, which the FCC first announced with regard to an NBC broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards, gave everyone (including FCC staff) a case of regulatory whiplash, whereas the FCC’s ongoing, if erratic, feud with broadcast nudity was hardly a surprise (and therefore less controversial).

The government’s hesitance to bring all of this to the Supreme Court’s doorstep a second time is even more curious after reading the petition, which bluntly states that “The court of appeals has effectively suspended the Commission’s ability to fulfill its statutory indecency enforcement responsibilities unless and until the agency can adopt a new policy that surmounts the court of appeals’ vagueness rulings.” The petition then suggests that no functional indecency policy could overcome that hurdle. It is therefore apparent that the FCC’s delay in bringing the challenge (which to be fair, necessarily involves getting the Department of Justice on board) is not the result of any belief that the agency might have been able to “live with” or “work around” the Second Circuit’s ruling by revising its policy. There is clearly something else at work here.

From a legal perspective, the FCC’s petition is well written. However, in reading through it, you can’t avoid the impression that even the FCC is trying to convince itself that the technological and cultural shifts of the last decade or two have not rendered the notion of government second-guessing broadcast content an anachronism. In particular, it is hard to escape the irony of the FCC seeking to bring high speed Internet into every home by reallocating broadcast spectrum based on the argument that only 10% of Americans are viewing over-the-air television. If true, then the government is expending a lot of effort to control what that 10% sees on their televisions, while racing to use those airwaves to bring these same households the wonders of the Internet–including all of that content that they aren’t allowed to see on their TV’s.

The convergence of distribution technologies is upon us, and whether that claimed 10% of households uses their TV’s V-Chip, or an Internet software filter on their computer, to prevent unwelcome content from entering their home, the result is hardly different. The FCC’s sudden shyness in defending its indecency policy suggests that it is concerned that the Supreme Court may note that incongruity as well.

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As we all know, unsolicited spam email can be annoying and intrusive. In 2003, Congress enacted the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act to curb spam. As required by the Act, the FTC and FCC adopted rules that prohibit sending unwanted commercial messages without prior permission. Among other things, the CAN-SPAM Act makes it “unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission, to a protected computer, of a commercial electronic mail message, or a transaction or relationship message, that contains, or is accompanied by, header information that is materially false or materially misleading.”

On March 28, 2011, a U.S. District Court in California held for the first time that the CAN-SPAM Act’s restrictions on the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-mail extends beyond traditional e-mail to include communications to other electronic medium, including Facebook friends’ walls, news feeds, and home pages. As John Nicholson of Pillsbury’s Global Sourcing group describes in detail in a recent Client Alert found here, the ruling is the most expansive judicial interpretation so far regarding the types of messages that fall within the scope of the CAN-SPAM Act.

John’s Client Alert is definitely worth a read for companies using social media in marketing. As John points out, companies should verify that they (and any marketing services they engage) comply with CAN-SPAM’s requirements for commercial messages sent via social media platforms.

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4/12/2011
The board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has scheduled a June 20th meeting to approve the process for proposing new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). If this date holds, the application process will begin in late October, with new gTLDs being approved and added to the Internet starting around July 2012. As more organizations announce their plans to apply for a specific domain, the clock is ticking for other organizations who might want to apply for a TLD or who may need to react to TLDs being registered by competitors or other entities. Chief Marketing Officers, with the assistance of other senior executives, legal and external advisors, should be evaluating whether to apply, defend or do nothing, and how to prepare for the consequences of each decision.

Pillsbury, in cooperation with Architelos and CollectiveIntell, is offering a webinar on the gTLD process on April 14 titled, “New Generic Top Level Domains: Why Should You Care and What to Do Now.” To register, please visit WebEx.

For additional background on the gTLD process see our March 10, 2011, alert, “New Generic Top-Level Domain Application Process Brings Business Opportunities, Issues.”

As discussed previously, there are currently 21 TLDs (.com, .org, and .net being the most popular), and more than 270 country code top-level domains (ccTLDs). After years of debate, a set of policy recommendations for creating new gTLDs was adopted in October 2007. After a succession of drafts for an Applicant Guidebook for the would-be operators of new gTLDs, and unprecedented back-and-forth with representatives of various governments, ICANN has proposed the following timeline for the gTLD process:

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4/7/2011
On March 28, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held in Facebook, Inc. v. MaxBounty, Inc.< sup>1 that messages sent by Facebook users to their Facebook friends’ walls, news feeds or home pages are “electronic mail messages” under the CAN-SPAM Act. The court, in denying MaxBounty’s motion to dismiss, rejected the argument that CAN-SPAM applies only to traditional e-mail messages. The ruling is the most expansive judicial interpretation to date of the types of messages falling within the purview of the CAN-SPAM Act. While the court did not address the underlying merits of the CAN-SPAM claims, companies using social media in marketing should verify that they (and any marketing services they engage) comply with CAN-SPAM’s requirements for commercial messages sent via social media platforms.

MaxBounty is an advertising and marketing company that uses a network of content-producing publishers to drive traffic to its customers’ websites. MaxBounty acts as an intermediary between its network of publishers (advertisement content creators) and its customers (third-party advertisers).

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By John K. Hane

Ever since Time Warner Cable released an app that allows users to watch two or three dozen cable channels on iPads we’ve been barraged by press reports of litigation and plans of other multichannel providers to launch similar services. Cablevision has announced it’s launching a similar app that lets subscribers watch their entire channel lineup on an iPad.

Suddenly cable and satellite companies are rushing to review their programming and retransmission deals to figure out what rights they have obtained, while programmers frantically review distribution agreements to see what rights they may have given away. We can find a few lessons about retransmission consent agreements in the App Flap, but let’s save those for another day.

What this really comes down to is whether the iPad apps qualify as “cable system” distribution, Internet distribution, or something else. Most programmers (and a few careful broadcasters) specifically carve out Internet distribution when signing carriage agreements – existing deals cover distribution for in-home viewing over cable and DBS systems. Internet distribution rights are negotiated separately, if at all. But many broadcasters who signed MSO form retrans agreements may have given away a lot more than they intended to.

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