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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Enforcement Bureau and Long-Distance Provider Agree to $100,000 Settlement for Violations of FCC’s Rural Call Completion Rules
  • FCC Cancels $3,000 Fine Against TV Licensee for Untimely Kidvid Filings, Upholds $10,000 Fine for Missing Issues/Programs Lists
  • FM Construction Permit Auction Winner Fined $3,000 For Late Application

Dropped Call of the Wild: Investigation of Rural Call Problems Ends With $100,000 Consent Decree

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Utah-based long distance carrier to resolve an investigation into whether the carrier failed to sufficiently respond to a rural customer’s complaints of poor call quality and failed to cooperate with the FCC’s resulting investigation.

The FCC has adopted several “Rural Call Completion Rules” in recent years to address poor call quality and call completion problems in rural and other high-cost areas. The Commission clarified in a 2012 declaratory ruling that a carrier violates Section 201 of the Communications Act of 1934 when it knows or should know that calls are not being completed to certain areas and fails to correct the problem or fails to ensure that its intermediate providers correct the problem.

The FCC has also determined that practices that allow lower quality service to rural or traditionally high-cost areas to persist constitute unjust or unreasonable discrimination (based on locality) in violation of Section 202 of the Communications Act. Further, the FCC has interpreted Section 208 of the Act and Section 1.717 of the Commission’s Rules to require that a carrier satisfy (or adequately explain why it cannot satisfy) any informal rural call completion complaints.

In December 2014, a consumer filed an informal complaint with the FCC detailing ongoing problems with receiving work calls. The calls were sent over the carrier’s long distance network to the consumer’s home office, which is served by an intermediate rural local exchange carrier. The carrier investigated the matter and explained in its response to the informal complaint that (1) the consumer had not responded to a follow-up email about the complaint, and (2) the consumer was not its customer.

The carrier took action in March 2015—after the FCC reminded the carrier of its obligations to address rural call quality problems—but the problem recurred. The consumer subsequently filed additional complaints alleging continued call problems in May and June of 2015. Finding that the carrier failed to sufficiently address and resolve the call quality problems with its intermediate provider until late July 2015, the FCC issued a Letter of Inquiry to the carrier and opened an investigation.

To settle the matter, the carrier entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC, wherein the carrier: (1) admitted that it failed to ensure call quality from its intermediate providers and that it did not cooperate with the FCC’s investigation; (2) agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty; and (3) agreed to implement a compliance plan going forward. As part of the plan, the carrier must establish operating procedures and training on the Rural Call Completion Rules, and file regular compliance reports with the FCC during the three-year compliance period.

Island Jam: Guam TV Station Successfully Appeals Proposed Fine for Late Kidvid Reports, But Remains on the Hook for Issues/Programs List Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau cancelled a proposed $3,000 fine against a Guam TV licensee for failing to timely file five Children’s Television Programming Reports, but upheld a $10,000 fine against the licensee for failing to place fifteen Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists in the station’s public inspection file. The FCC also admonished the licensee for its failure to upload copies of its Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists that were in the station’s local file prior to August 2, 2012.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today issued a decision vacating the FCC rule effectively banning television Joint Sales Agreements (“JSAs”) and threatened to throw out all of the FCC’s remaining broadcast ownership rules if the FCC does not complete its required “quadrennial” review of those rules by the end of 2016.

The case returned broadcasters and advocacy groups to this court for its third major decision on the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules since 2004.  This time around, the case addressed three issues:  public interest groups’ request that the court require the FCC to adopt a new definition of “eligible entity” aimed at promoting female and minority broadcast ownership; broadcasters’ request that the court vacate all broadcast ownership rules due to the FCC’s failure to complete the statutorily mandated quadrennial reviews of those rules; and broadcasters’ request that the court vacate the FCC’s rule making television JSAs an attributable ownership interest.

The first two of these issues date back to the FCC’s 2002 biennial review of its ownership rules.  Congress mandated that the Commission conduct periodic reviews of its broadcast ownership rules, originally every two years, but later extended to every four years, in the 1996 Telecom Act.  The Commission undertook reviews in 2002 and 2006 that resulted in orders that were appealed to the Third Circuit.  Thereafter, the Commission consolidated each still-pending quadrennial review with the succeeding one, with the result that the FCC has not concluded a review or updated its ownership rules since 2006.

In its 2002 biennial review, the FCC modified certain of its broadcast ownership rules, including changing its definition of a radio market, with the result that its ownership rules for radio stations were actually more restrictive.  The FCC grandfathered existing radio station combinations that would have exceeded the new limits, but required those combinations be broken up and brought into compliance with the new standards if sold.  To encourage female and minority ownership, the Commission excluded “eligible entities” from the new rules, allowing those meeting the definition to acquire a combination that would otherwise have to be split up under the revised radio ownership rules.

Other similar FCC rules also rely on the definition of an “eligible entity”, making that definition central to the FCC’s efforts to increase female and minority ownership.  The FCC has been using a definition of “eligible entity” based on revenue that was developed by the Small Business Administration, arguing that the test will survive judicial scrutiny because it is not based on race or gender.  However, advocacy groups have countered that there is no evidence that the definition actually enhances female and minority ownership, as opposed to small business entity ownership.  The Third Circuit agreed in 2011, finding the Commission’s use of the definition to be arbitrary and capricious.  However, since the Commission has not completed its required quadrennial reviews, the definition has remained in place, contrary to the Third Circuit’s order that the FCC adopt another definition.

Five other ownership rules, the local television ownership rule, the local radio ownership rule, the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, the radio/television cross-ownership rule, and the dual network rule have similarly gone without an update since 2006.  The court lamented that this lack of review has left broadcasters subject to rules that are decades old, preventing parties from taking advantage of deregulatory options the FCC has considered, but not acted on.  It specifically highlighted the continued existence of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, which was created in the 1970s.  The FCC determined more than a decade ago that the rule is no longer necessary, but it remains on the books because the FCC has not successfully concluded the required quadrennial reviews to eliminate it.

The court dissected the rationales the Commission espoused to justify rolling each quadrennial review into the next one and found that they did not justify the years-long delay.  It stopped short, however, of granting the requested invalidation of all broadcast ownership rules, finding that the delays do not yet justify doing so.  Instead, the court mandated that the Commission go to mediation with the public interest groups to set a timetable for defining “eligible entity”, and based on a promise by the FCC that the Chairman would circulate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for revised ownership rules by June 30, gave the agency until the end of the year to take comments, reach a decision completing the 2010 and 2014 quadrennial reviews, and issue new broadcast ownership rules.

Against this backdrop, the court considered the third issue before it—broadcasters’ challenge to the Commission’s decision to attribute television JSA arrangements that had been routinely treated as non-attributable before.  The FCC adopted this rule of its own accord in 2014, arguing that JSAs involving more than 15% of another in-market station’s airtime gave one station influence approximating ownership over the other station, thereby enabling it to evade the limitations of the Commission’s local television ownership rule.  Broadcasters argued, however, and the court agreed, that the Commission could not “expand the reach” of the local television ownership rule without justifying the rule’s continued existence in the first instance in a quadrennial review.

The court’s decision sets in motion activity on a number of fronts.  First, the Commission, while in the midst of its first-ever broadcast incentive auction, will have to participate in mediation with public interest groups.  Second, the Commission will have to quickly finalize a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that it represents has been in the works for some time.  Third, it will have to collect comments and reply comments, perhaps complete new ownership studies, analyze the record these actions create, and in the next six months, conclude proceedings that have been underway for more than 10 years.

If this timeline is to be accommodated, comment periods will have to be short, extensions of comment deadlines may not be available, and resources the Commission might put toward other activities may need to be reallocated.  Despite having ten years since the 2006 quadrennial review, reasoned decision making may have to give way to rushed decision making.

As a result, broadcasters should start prepping now to participate in the proceeding.  By necessity, it will be fast-moving, and strange things can happen in fast-moving proceedings.  Getting the right result in this quadrennial review will require a lot of effort, and summer vacation just got a lot shorter.

 

 

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On a day when a major broadcast ownership decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit garnered most of the attention, the FCC worked on more prosaic matters, issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations maintain letters and e-mails from the public in their public file.  This requirement is one of the only vestiges of the physical public file that remained after the FCC’s decisions to move television and radio public files online.

The FCC based its proposal to eliminate the requirement in part upon the increase in communication between the public and broadcast stations on social media platforms, and the corresponding decrease in communication by letter and e-mail.  The NPRM also proposes to eliminate a requirement that cable television operators maintain the location of their cable system’s principal headend in their public file.

Initial comments on the FCC’s proposals will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 60 days after Federal Register publication.

As we wrote recently, eliminating the requirement to maintain correspondence from the public in a physical file would free stations from the need to provide free and unfettered access to their offices, and to maintain staff at all times during business hours ready to handle public file requests.

The NPRM enjoyed support from all five Commissioners, each of whom issued a separate statement in support of the proposal—a somewhat rare display of unanimity by the current Commission.  Of particular interest was Chairman Wheeler’s statement that today’s proposal, if adopted, would enable broadcasters to “lock their doors and redeploy resources once used to help the public access the file at the studio.”  Many in the TV and radio community may find themselves quietly nodding in agreement.

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June 1, 2016 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming to place their Annual EEO Public File Report in their public inspection file and post the report on their station website. In addition, certain of these stations, as detailed below, must electronically file their EEO Mid-term Report on FCC Form 397 by June 1, 2016.

Under the FCC’s EEO Rule, all radio and television station employment units (“SEUs”), regardless of staff size, must afford equal opportunity to all qualified persons and practice nondiscrimination in employment.

In addition, those SEUs with five or more full-time employees (“Nonexempt SEUs”) must also comply with the FCC’s three-prong outreach requirements. Specifically, Nonexempt SEUs must (i) broadly and inclusively disseminate information about every full-time job opening, except in exigent circumstances, (ii) send notifications of full-time job vacancies to referral organizations that have requested such notification, and (iii) earn a certain minimum number of EEO credits, based on participation in various non-vacancy-specific outreach initiatives (“Menu Options”) suggested by the FCC, during each of the two-year segments (four segments total) that comprise a station’s eight-year license term. These Menu Option initiatives include, for example, sponsoring job fairs, participating in job fairs, and having an internship program.

Nonexempt SEUs must prepare and place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files and on the websites of all stations comprising the SEU (if they have a website) by the anniversary date of the filing deadline for that station’s license renewal application. The Annual EEO Public File Report summarizes the SEU’s EEO activities during the previous 12 months, and the licensee must maintain adequate records to document those activities. Nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports with their license renewal applications.

In addition, all TV station SEUs with five or more full-time employees and all radio station SEUs with more than ten full-time employees must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports at the midpoint of their eight-year license term along with FCC Form 397 – the Broadcast Mid-Term EEO Report.

Exempt SEUs – those with fewer than five full-time employees – do not have to prepare or file Annual or Mid-Term EEO Reports.

For a detailed description of the EEO rule and practical assistance in preparing a compliance plan, broadcasters should consult The FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Rules and Policies – A Guide for Broadcasters published by Pillsbury’s Communications Practice Group. This publication is available at: http://www.pillsburylaw.com/publications/broadcasters-guide-to-fcc-equal-employment-opportunity-rules-policies.

Deadline for the Annual EEO Public File Report for Nonexempt Radio and Television SEUs

Consistent with the above, June 1, 2016 is the date by which Nonexempt SEUs of radio and television stations licensed to communities in the states identified above, including Class A television stations, must (i) place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files of all stations comprising the SEU, and (ii) post the Report on the websites, if any, of those stations. LPTV stations are also subject to the broadcast EEO rules, even though LPTV stations are not required to maintain a public inspection file. Instead, these stations must maintain a “station records” file containing the station’s authorization and other official documents and must make it available to an FCC inspector upon request. Therefore, if an LPTV station has five or more full-time employees, or is part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file.

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May 2016

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Michigan and Ohio and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by June 1, 2016. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file. Television stations must ensure that a copy of the form is posted to their online public inspection file at https://stations.fcc.gov.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC established for all commercial radio and television stations. The new deadline will not become effective until the revised rule is published in the Federal Register. Until then, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by June 1, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Michigan and Ohio and Noncommercial Television Stations in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

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Television broadcasters have had to comply with an online Public Inspection File requirement since 2012.  This past January, the FCC announced that it would expand the online Public File requirement to certain broadcast radio, satellite radio, cable system, and DBS operators.  Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing the effective date of that new obligation.  It also announced that it has established a new filing system, the Online Public Inspection File (“OPIF”), for use by these newly-covered entities, as well as by television broadcasters who until now have been using the existing online Broadcast Public Inspection File (“BPIF”).

The entities that are newly covered by the online Public File requirement will begin use of the new system in two “waves,” with larger entities going first and having a phase-in period, and smaller entities going later, but having no phase-in period.  There are lots of dates to keep track of, which include:

  • To Be Announced:  FCC Webinar Demonstrating Use of OPIF
  • June 24, 2016:  Public Inspection File documents (including Political File documents) created on or after this date must be uploaded to OPIF by the “first wave” of newly-covered entities:
    • Commercial radio stations that have five or more full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • DBS providers
    • SDARS licensees
    • Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers (except with respect to the Political File, for systems with fewer than 5,000 subscribers)
  • June 24, 2016:  OPIF use by full-power and Class A television stations becomes mandatory and BPIF use is disabled
    • The FCC says it will transition television stations’ existing documents from the BPIF to the OPIF automatically by this date
  • December 24, 2016:  Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents created prior to June 24, 2016 must be uploaded to the OPIF by the “first wave” entities listed above
  • March 1, 2018:  A “second wave” of newly-covered entities must begin use of OPIF for all newly created Public Inspection and Political File documents and upload all existing Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents.  The “second wave” consists of:
    • All NCE radio stations
    • Commercial radio stations that have fewer than five full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • Commercial radio stations located outside of the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets, regardless of staff size
    • Cable systems with between 1,000 and 5,000 subscribers, with respect to newly-created Political File documents only

Commercial broadcast licensees must continue to retain letters and emails from the public at their main studios; the FCC will not let them be posted in the online public file.  However, as we noted last week, the FCC is circulating a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes eliminating such letters and emails from the public file entirely.

The Public Notice announces that the OPIF will include a number of technical improvements not found in the BPIF system currently used by television licensees.  According to the FCC, these improvements are meant to allow stations to better manage their online files, including implementing APIs to enable the upload of multiple documents from a third-party website and permitting a document to be placed into multiple folders.  OPIF will also feature improved .pdf conversion software to speed uploads, and allow more flexibility to delete empty folders.

While radio stations have been nervously gearing up to face the new frontier of online public files, TV stations may be a bit surprised that the online file is changing for them as well.  Particularly surprised will be those TV stations who haven’t been following these developments and who try to log into the old public file system on July 10 to file their quarterly reports.  Whether you are a TV or radio broadcaster, or a cable, DBS, or SDARS provider, now is the time to start learning how OPIF will work; it’s not a BPIF world anymore.

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The FCC released the tentative agenda for its May 25 Open Meeting today, and topping the agenda is an item that could lift a burden that has been on the shoulders of commercial broadcasters for half a century.  The FCC will vote on adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection files.

That simple description understates, however, the actual impact the proposed change could have.  Letters and emails from the public may have at one time simply been one category of documents among many that broadcasters were required to keep in the public file, but when the FCC started requiring that public files be moved online, it recognized that “including these documents in the online file could risk exposing personally identifiable information and . . . requiring stations to redact such information prior to uploading these documents would be overly burdensome.”  As a result, the FCC decided that while it would require broadcasters to upload all other public file documents to the online file, broadcasters would not be permitted to upload letters or emails from the public and instead would have to continue to maintain those documents in the local public file at the station’s main studio.

In the rulemaking proceeding that resulted in the online public file requirement being expanded to radio, we filed comments on behalf of all 50 State Broadcasters Associations questioning the utility of maintaining a physical public file at the station solely to hold letters from the public:

If every part of the file is moved online except Letters from the Public, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever visiting a station solely for the thrill of reading its mail.  Still, station personnel must remain eternally vigilant for that one person who might show up to look at what will be the last vestige of a station’s local public file.

Those comments encouraged the FCC to take steps to eliminate the requirement, explaining that “as long as this single requirement effectively forces stations to maintain a local public file regardless of whether they also have an online public file, the burden of maintaining both files will for many small stations be a bridge too far.”  Commissioner O’Rielly added his support in a blog post this past September.

The biggest benefit of this change, if adopted, would be to allow stations to cease having to maintain a local “paper” public file and ensure that it is continuously available to the public during regular business hours (including lunchtime).  This would not only benefit stations struggling to ensure that there is always a staffer standing by to provide immediate access to the file, but increasingly important, eliminate a major security risk for broadcast stations seeking to prevent dangerous individuals from entering the building, as happened last week in Baltimore.

If the FCC ultimately eliminates the requirement to maintain letters and emails from the public in a local public file, access to the other content in the file will still be available to the public (online), and stations will no longer have to grant access to an individual just because he knows the “open sesame” phrase of American broadcasting: “I’m here to see the public file.”

In a blog post today (All That’s Old is New Again), Chairman Wheeler hinted that this rulemaking is unlikely to see much resistance, stating that elimination of this “outdated public file requirement[]” would be consistent with the agency’s “process reform initiative to review all Commission regulations and update or repeal outdated and unnecessary rules.” Broadcasters couldn’t agree more.