Advertising Category

FCC Announces New End Date for JSA Grandfathering

Scott R. Flick

Posted December 11, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

The FCC announced in March of this year that it would begin treating TV Joint Sales Agreements between two local TV stations involving more than 15% of a station's advertising time as an attributable ownership interest. However, it also announced at that time that it would provide parties to existing JSAs two years from the effective date of the new rule to make any necessary modifications to ensure compliance with the FCC's multiple ownership rule. As I wrote in June when the new rule went into effect, that made June 19, 2016 the deadline for addressing any issues with existing JSAs.

However, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR) became law on December
4, 2014. While the primary purpose of STELAR was to extend for an additional five years the compulsory copyright license allowing satellite TV providers to import distant network TV signals to their subscribers where no local affiliate is available, as often happens in Congress, a number of unrelated provisions slipped into the bill. One of those provisions extended the JSA grandfathering period by a somewhat imprecise "six months".

Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing that it would deem December 19, 2016 to be the new deadline for making any necessary modifications to existing TV JSAs to ensure compliance with the FCC's multiple ownership rule. As a result, in those situations where the treatment of a JSA as an attributable ownership interest would create a violation of the FCC's local ownership limits, the affected broadcaster will need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that it has remedied that situation by the December 19, 2016 deadline.


FCC Moves Quickly to Reject Political Ad Sponsorship ID Complaints

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 2, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Broadcasters let out a small sigh of relief today when the FCC made clear there is no requirement that TV stations have private investigators on staff.

With TV stations' political files now available online, three political activist organizations have been jointly filing complaints against TV stations alleging various errors and omissions in online public file paperwork relating to political ad buys by third-party advertisers. These three organizations, the Campaign Legal Center, Sunlight Foundation, and Common Cause, expanded their campaign (no pun intended) substantially in mid-July, when they filed complaints against a Washington, DC and a Portland, Oregon TV station. Rather than paperwork problems, however, these complaints claimed that the stations had failed to accurately disclose on-air the true identity of the sponsor behind certain "Super PAC" political ads. In both cases, the complainants asserted that their own research indicated the PACs were mostly or entirely funded by a single individual, and that the stations should have therefore identified that individual rather than the PAC as the sponsor of the political spot.

While there is ample precedent for requiring broadcasters to be comfortable that the sponsorship information in a political spot is accurate, the most recent complaints concerned broadcasters for two reasons. First, there apparently was no question that the PACs had indeed been the ones to write the check for the ads and were valid legal entities, so a TV station altering the sponsorship identification text to specify the station's opinion as to who the "real" sponsor is raises numerous legal issues, not the least of which is that the station could well get it wrong. For example, it would be a pretty brazen station that would change the sponsorship identification on Microsoft ads to "paid for by Bill Gates" on the theory that Bill Gates was the main "person" behind the organization that wrote the check. Of course, in this example the station would be doubly wrong, as Bill Gates ceased being the largest shareholder of Microsoft in May of this year, demonstrating the risk a station takes in attempting to be the arbiter of who is "behind" an advertiser.

This example also demonstrates the second issue that concerned broadcasters about the complaints. If, in the absence of an obvious sham advertiser, broadcasters had an obligation to ignore the "name on the check" and attempt to discern the actual source of the check writer's income, they would need a full-time staff of researchers doing nothing but verifying the structure of advertisers. In addition, the airing of political ads would be perpetually delayed while stations seek adequate certainty that they have discerned the true source of all ad funds.

The result would be a no-win situation for broadcasters, who would have to expend enormous resources trying to determine where an advertiser's money comes from, and having done that, expose themselves to both private liability (from the advertiser who wasn't credited as the sole sponsor of the spot, as well as from the individual who was) and regulatory liability (if the government disagrees with the licensee's sponsorship conclusions).

Today, the FCC wisely avoided placing broadcasters in that conundrum, ruling in a letter decision that:

We conclude that the complaints do not provide a sufficient showing that the stations had credible evidence casting into doubt that the identified sponsors of the advertisement were the true sponsors. As the Commission has stated previously, "unless furnished with credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party, the broadcaster may rely on the plausible assurances of the person(s) paying for the time that they are the true sponsor." While the complaint against [the station] presented some evidence that station employees may have come across facts in the course of news reporting on political issues that could have raised questions in their minds concerning the relationship of NextGen Climate Action Committee and Tom Steyer, we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance, given the need to balance the "reasonable diligence" obligations of broadcasters in identifying the sponsor of an advertisement with the sensitive First Amendment interests present here.

While it is reassuring that the FCC moved quickly to reject the complaints, today's action leaves the political sponsorship identification waters somewhat murky. In addition to the less than comforting "we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance" language, the FCC proceeded to state that "[o]ur approach might have been different if the complainants had approached the stations directly to furnish them with evidence calling into question that the identified sponsors were the true sponsors." In using this language, the FCC suggests that the only problem with the complaints "might have been" that the complainants didn't present their evidence to the stations while the spots were still airing so that the stations could have assessed the evidence at the time and decided whether to modify the sponsorship identification.

While that ruling is generally consistent with past FCC rulings, in that a broadcaster must be presented with "credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party," the FCC sidestepped the equally important issue of when a PAC's sponsorship identification may be deemed adequate, or if PAC contributors must be listed instead. As a result, broadcasters are left wondering if a sponsorship identification will be second-guessed when 80%, 90%, 95%, 99%, or some other percentage of the sponsor's income comes from one source. Similarly, what if only 50% comes from one individual, but the other 50% comes from another individual, and the two are say, brothers? Once again, broadcasters are being asked, on pain of liability, to make disclosure decisions for PACs that are more correctly the province of the Federal Election Commission.

Of course, the sponsorship identification requirement is not limited to political ads, and the flaws in the approach suggested by the complainants seem jarringly obvious when applied in the context of a business advertiser. For example, should ads for every Mom and Pop business disclose that the real sponsor is not the business, but Mom and Pop, who gave up their vacation this year in order for the business to be able to afford broadcast advertising? Similarly, if it is not the entity writing the check for advertising that is relevant, but the principal source of its income, shouldn't all ads placed by defense contractors need to disclose the U.S. government as the actual sponsor of their ads?

On the other hand, if, as the FCC has suggested in past sponsorship decisions, the real issue is the identity of the decision maker for that advertiser, how could a broadcaster ever know that information with adequate certainty to reject the assurances of the advertiser and take on the liability of unilaterally changing sponsorship identifications in ads?

To be clear, no one is suggesting that a sponsor should be able to avoid on-air attribution by creating a phony front organization whose faux nature is obvious to all, including the broadcaster. However, a Political Action Committee is an entity legally recognized under the law, which is also regulated by law. If more information about its contributors is deemed a public good, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have the authority and the responsibility to take action to accomplish that result. In the absence of such action, the task should not fall to broadcasters by default.


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.


Big Fines for False EAS Tones Demonstrate the Need for a Good Indemnification Clause

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 3, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

There was quite a stir today when the FCC, despite being closed for a snow day, issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing very large fines against Viacom ($1,120,000), NBCUniversal ($530,000), and ESPN ($280,000) for transmitting false EAS alert tones. According to the FCC, all three aired an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that contained a false EAS alert tone, with Viacom airing it 108 times on seven of its cable networks, NBCUniversal airing it 38 times on seven of its cable networks, and ESPN airing it 13 times on three of its cable networks.

The size of the fines certainly drew some attention. Probably not helping the situation was the ad's inclusion of the onscreen text "THIS IS NOT A TEST" and "THIS IS NOT A DRILL" while sounding the EAS tone. The FCC launched the investigation after receiving complaints from the public.

All three entities raised a variety of arguments that were uniformly rejected by the FCC, including that "they had inadequate notice of the requirements and applicability of the rules with respect to EAS violations." What particularly caught my eye, however, was that all three indicated the ad had cleared an internal review before airing, and in each case, those handling the internal review were apparently unaware of Section 325 of the Communications Act (prohibiting transmission of a "false or fraudulent signal of distress") and Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules, which states that "No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS."

Back in 2010, I wrote a post titled EAS False Alerts in Radio Ads and Other Reasons to Panic that discussed the evolution of the FCC's concerns about false emergency tones in media, which originally centered on sirens, then on Emergency Broadcast System tones, and now on the Emergency Alert System's digital squeals. Two months later, I found myself writing about it again (The Phantom Menace: Return of the EAS False Alerts) when a TV ad for the movie Skyline was distributed for airing with a false EAS tone included in it.

That was the beginning of what has since become a clear trend. Those initial posts warned broadcasters and cable programmers to avoid airing specific ads with false EAS tones, but were not connected to any adverse action by the FCC. After three years of EAS tone tranquility, the issue reemerged in 2013 when hackers managed to commandeer via Internet the EAS equipment of some Michigan and Montana TV stations to send out false EAS alert warnings of a zombie attack. The result was a rapid public notice from the FCC instructing EAS participants to change their EAS passwords and ensure their firewalls are functioning (covered in my posts FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts and EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality), but no fines.

From there we moved in a strange direction when the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed a public service announcement seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System, but used an EAS tone to get that message across. Because it did not involve an actual emergency nor a test of the EAS system, the PSA violated the FCC's rule against false EAS tones and broadcasters had no choice but to decline to air it. The matter was resolved when the FCC quickly rushed through a one-year waiver permitting the FEMA ad to be aired (Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay).

Late last year, however, the evolution of the FCC's treatment of false EAS alerts turned dark (FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts) when the FCC issued the first financial penalties for false EAS alerts. The FCC proposed a $25,000 fine for Turner Broadcasting and entered into a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky radio station for airing false EAS alert tones. The FCC indicated at the time that other investigations were ongoing, and more fines might be on the way.

We didn't have to wait long, as just two months later, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $200,000 against Turner Broadcasting for again airing false EAS alert tones, this time on its Adult Swim network. The size of the fine was startling, and according to the FCC, was based upon the nationwide reach of the false EAS tone ad, as well as the fact that Turner had indicated in connection with its earlier $25,000 fine that it had put in place mechanisms to prevent such an event from happening again. When it did happen again, the FCC didn't hesitate to assess the $200,000 fine.

Today's order, issued less than two months after the last Turner decision, ups the ante once again, proposing fines of such size that only some of the FCC's larger indecency fines compare. The FCC is clearly sending a signal that it takes false EAS tones very seriously, and the fact that the ads containing the EAS tones were produced by an independent third party didn't let the programmers off the hook. In other words, it doesn't matter how or why the ads got on the air; the mere fact that they aired is sufficient to create liability.

So what lesson should broadcasters and cable networks take away from this? Well, the all too obvious one is to do whatever it takes to prevent false EAS tones from making it on air. However, an equally useful lesson is to make sure that your contracts with advertisers require the advertiser to warrant that the spots provided will comply with all laws and to indemnify the broadcaster or network if that turns out not to be the case. That won't save you from a big FCC fine and a black mark on your FCC record, but it will at least require the advertiser to compensate you for the damages you suffered in airing the ad and defending yourself. Unfortunately, many advertising contracts are not particularly well drafted (and some are just a handshake), which can expose you to a variety of liabilities like this unnecessarily.

It is therefore wise to have both your ad contracts and your advertising guidelines carefully reviewed by counsel experienced in this area of the law. Vigilant review of ads submitted for airing is an excellent first line of defense, but as demonstrated in today's decision, it won't do much good if the individuals reviewing the ads don't know what to look for.


Marijuana Advertising: Don't Get Fooled Again

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 19, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

It's been three years since I first wrote about marijuana advertising here at CommLawCenter. Despite a head-spinning number of developments since then, including the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado, the answer to the question of whether broadcast stations can accept marijuana advertising is no clearer today than it was then. Since all forms of marijuana use are prohibited by the federal government, and broadcasters rely on federal licenses to operate, millions of dollars of ad revenue hang in the balance.

While steadfastly maintaining that marijuana is an illegal and dangerous drug, the federal government's enthusiasm for prosecuting marijuana-related activities that are legal under state law has waxed and waned over the years. Call it the federal freeze/thaw cycle, because the only certainty so far has been that every thaw is inevitably followed by a federal freeze.

The last thaw was in 2009, when the Department of Justice issued a memorandum indicating it was not particularly interested in pursuing medical marijuana sales that complied with state law. A number of broadcasters took this to mean that the federal government would be okay with advertising medical marijuana, and started accepting the ads. In the dark early days of the recession, marijuana ad sales kept afloat many stations that were otherwise starving for ad revenue.

You can track what happened afterward in posts here at CommLawCenter. In May 2011, I wrote about the DOJ sending threatening letters to states that were then considering enacting medical marijuana laws. Those letters went so far as to threaten state employees with civil and criminal prosecution if they participated in implementing that state's medical marijuana law. At that point, most broadcasters that had been taking the ads stopped, waiting for the federal government, and perhaps the FCC itself, to provide clarification as to whether accepting marijuana ads threatened broadcast license renewals (or worse).

In the fall of 2011, I noted that the last bank in Colorado openly servicing medical marijuana businesses in that state closed those accounts, deciding that it wasn't worth the risk. That post also noted that the DOJ had sent letters to the landlords of marijuana dispensaries threatening prosecution, including the threat to confiscate buildings and the rent received from the dispensaries. A week later, a U.S. Attorney in California raised the specter of prosecuting radio and TV stations for airing medical marijuana ads. While nothing further came from that threat, it certainly rattled media that had accepted marijuana advertising. The federal government had once again put marijuana advertising into the deep freeze.

I was reminded of this cycle last week when media stories declared another federal thaw regarding the sale of marijuana. This past Friday, FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network), a part of the Department of Treasury, announced a set of guidelines for banks "that clarifies customer due diligence expectations and reporting requirements for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana businesses. The guidance provides that financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses in a manner consistent with their obligations to know their customers and to report possible criminal activity."

The response was predictable. Advocates of marijuana legalization hailed the action as proof that the federal government had come around on the issue. Arguably adding support to this view was a memo dated the same day from the Deputy Attorney General of the U.S. to all U.S. Attorneys appearing to accept state-approved marijuana sales, and prioritizing other types of marijuana offenses for prosecution. Specifically, U.S. Attorneys were advised to focus their resources on:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Understandably, federally-chartered banks were less enthusiastic about the announcement, noting that federal law still bans the sale of marijuana, and that there was little reason for a bank to stick its neck out to service such accounts until that changes. Of course, it also didn't help that the DOJ memo was titled "Guidance Regarding Marijuana Related Financial Crimes" and that it was chock full of caveats like:

Continue reading "Marijuana Advertising: Don't Get Fooled Again"


FCC Prophecy on False EAS Alerts Comes True to the Tune of $200,000

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 14, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Over the years, I've written numerous times about the FCC's adverse reaction to advertisers seeking to make their ads more attention-getting through inclusion of an Emergency Alert System tone. The most recent was this past November, when the FCC proposed a $25,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for an EAS tone-laden Conan promo, and announced a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky TV station for a local sports apparel store ad containing an EAS alert tone.

I titled the post FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts, and noted at the end of it that

ominously, today's FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that "[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted." Given today's actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.
Today, the FCC fulfilled that prophecy, proposing an additional $200,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for distributing another ad containing EAS tones. According to the FCC, Turner's Adult Swim Network aired ads produced by Sony Music Group promoting an album by rap artist A$AP Rocky and the album's availability at Best Buy stores. While the ad did not contain any digital data from an EAS tone, it did simulate the EAS audio tone itself. The ad aired seven times over the network's East Coast feed, and then was repeated seven more times in the West Coast feed three hours later.

The FCC's decision is "spirited" (at least by FCC standards), managing to convey a fair degree of exasperation, principally because of Turner's prior violation and the fact that

In response to those [earlier] complaints, which also emphasized the potential impact on public safety of the transmission of such material, Turner represented to the Commission that it had changed certain of its internal review practices. Nevertheless, another Turner-owned channel, less than one year later, transmitted the A$AP Rocky/Best Buy advertisement 14 times over a six day period, which also contained simulations of the EAS codes. Thus, despite its experience with the problem of misusing EAS codes and Attention Signals, Turner continued to violate Section 11.45 of the Commission's rules and Section 325(a) of the Act, indicating a higher degree of culpability in this instance. Therefore, based on the number of transmissions at issue, the amount of time over which the transmissions took place, the nationwide scope of Adult Swim Network's audience reach, Turner's degree of culpability, Turner's ability to pay, and the serious public safety implications of the violations, as well as the other factors as outlined in the Commission's Forfeiture Policy Statement, we find that a forfeiture of two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) is appropriate.
Beyond the unprecedented size of the fine for such a violation, today's decision is also notable because, unlike the self-inflicted wound of putting an EAS tone in a program promo, this case involved a spot produced by a third party. While the FCC has appeared in the past to have had at least some sympathy where a problem in a third-party ad "slipped through", the FCC's sympathy seems to be exhausted at this point. Having said that, it is worth noting that the FCC went after the program network rather than the individual cable and satellite systems that actually transmitted the spots to the public. Cable and satellite providers can take at least some solace in that.

While the nationwide audience and prior violation may have made the size of this fine somewhat unique, it is safe to say that the FCC has reached the point that it is unlikely to find a false EAS tone, no matter the circumstances, to be an excusable "oops" on the part of a program distributor. While the FCC might once have been willing to just admonish a violator and save the fines for repeat offenders, it appears that there will no longer be any free bites at the false EAS tone apple, and that each bite will be appreciably more expensive than the last.

Of course, if the FCC is hoping that steadily escalating fines will cause violators to lose their taste for the forbidden fruit of false EAS tones in ads, the question is whether advertisers will also hear that message, or are broadcasters, cable operators and satellite TV providers forever doomed to play a game of whack-a-mole (whack-a-tone?) with third-party ads?


Scott R. Flick and Lauren Lynch Flick of Pillsbury to Speak on Current Issues and Concerns in Broadcast Advertising, November 21, 2013

Scott R. Flick Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted November 21, 2013

Scott R. Flick and Lauren Lynch Flick will discuss regulatory issues that are currently affecting broadcast advertising and station outreach through websites and text messaging in this webinar hosted by the Texas Association of Broadcasters on November 21, 2013 from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM Central Time. Topics of discussion will include: E-Cigarettes, False EAS Tones in Ads, COPPA Revisited, and the FCC's new Robo-Call Rules.


FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts

Scott R. Flick

Posted November 5, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Over the years, I've written a number of times of the FCC's concern about airing emergency sounds, from the siren blare telling you that Indiana Wants Me, to Emergency Alert System tones promoting the movie Skyline, to an actual EAS alert warning of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules states that "[n]o person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS." As a result, every time that annoying EAS digital squeal slips onto the airwaves during a commercial rather than in an EAS test, it is guaranteed that the employee charged with screening ads is going to have a very bad day.

Fortunately, most broadcasters and cable operators are well aware of the restriction and go to great lengths to screen out such content. Unfortunately, advertisers and ad agencies are often not so attuned, and given the sheer amount of ad content being aired, an EAS-laden ad will slip through sooner or later.

Aggravating the situation is that while airing the tone from the old Emergency Broadcast System could cause public confusion, the EAS squeal contains digital information that is relayed to other media entities, whose EAS equipment then reads that data and automatically transmits the alert on down the alert chain. The farther the alert travels from the original source (where observant viewers or listeners might have figured out it was just part of a commercial), the greater the likelihood of public confusion and panic.

While the FCC certainly takes EAS false alerts seriously, it has seemed to recognize that the media entity airing the ad is usually as much a victim of the false alert signal as anyone, and as long as prompt action was taken to prevent a recurrence, has not been particularly punitive in its enforcement actions. Its strongest reaction to false EAS alerts up till now has been to issue an Urgent Advisory after the Zombie Apocalypse telling EAS participants to change the default password on their EAS equipment to prevent hackers from commandeering the equipment over the Internet to send out false alerts.

That changed late today, when the FCC issued a News Release and an FCC Enforcement Advisory warning against "False, Fraudulent or Unauthorized Use of the Emergency Alert System Attention Signal and Codes", along with a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for $25,000 against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and a $39,000 consent decree against a Kentucky TV station.

According to the NAL, Turner aired a promo for the Conan show that contained a simulated EAS tone in connection with an appearance by comic actor Jack Black. The FCC was not amused. While the base fine for violating Section 11.45 is $8,000, the FCC found that the seriousness of the violation, particularly given the nationwide transmission of the false alert signal, as well as Turner's ability to pay, justified increasing the proposed fine to $25,000. While not specifically addressed in the NAL, the fact that Turner produced the promo itself, rather than this being a case of a third party advertiser slipping it past Turner, appears to have drawn the FCC's ire.

More interesting still is the $39,000 consent decree, where the Kentucky station did not contest that it aired an ad for a sports apparel store that "stops in the middle of the commercial and sounds the exact tone used for the Emergency Alert warnings." Besides the eye-opening $39,000 payment, the consent decree requires extensive further efforts by the licensee, including implementing a Section 11.45 compliance program for its staff, creating and distributing a compliance manual to its staff, implementing a compliance training program, filing annual compliance reports for the next three years, reporting any future violations to the FCC, and developing and implementing a program to "educate members of the public about the EAS alerts, the limits of public warning capabilities, and appropriate responses to emergency warning messages." With regard to this last requirement, the educational program must include:

  • Airing 160 public service announcements (80 on the station's primary channel and 80 on its multicast channel).
  • Interviewing local emergency preparedness officials and including vignettes on emergency awareness topics at least twice a month on the station's morning program.
  • Expanding the station's website to include links to local emergency agencies, banner messages with emergency-related information, and video messages from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local emergency preparedness agencies.
  • Installing an additional SkyCam at its tower site and using "special radio equipment" to communicate with local emergency management officials and which will relay alerts to the station's master control personnel.
  • Leasing tower space to the local emergency management agency for a "new modernized communications system" linking local agencies and organizations.
  • Using social media and digital technologies to promptly disseminate emergency alerts, including posting information culled from the station's public service announcements, vignettes, and the local emergency management agency on the station's Facebook page weekly, and including timely late-breaking news coverage of severe weather conditions and forecasts on the station's smartphone app.
  • Utilizing specific computer hardware and software to render weather data and maps for use on-air, online, and in mobile applications, as well as to track severe weather events.
  • Periodically reviewing and revising the station's educational program to improve it and ensure it is current and complete, including conferring with the National Weather Service and state, county and federal emergency preparedness managers and public safety officials.
The consent decree does not indicate how many times the offending ad aired, or if the station produced it, but the severity of the consent decree terms is startling. Also noteworthy is the FCC Enforcement Advisory's admonition that not just broadcast stations and multichannel video programming distributors are on the hook, but that "[t]he prohibition thus applies to programmers that distribute programming containing a prohibited sound regardless of whether or not they deliver the unlawful signal directly to consumers; it also applies to a person who transmits an unlawful signal even if that person did not create or produce the prohibited programming in the first instance."

The FCC has therefore decided that it is time to crack down on violations, and ominously, today's FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that "[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted." Given today's actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.


New "Robocall" Rules Impact How Businesses Can Text Consumers

Lauren Lynch Flick Andrew D. Bluth

Posted October 15, 2013

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Andrew Bluth

Beginning tomorrow, October 16, 2013, new FCC "robocalling" rules go into effect that require all businesses to obtain specific written consent from a consumer before sending that consumer marketing messages by telephone or text. While we did an earlier Pillsbury Advisory on these rules, they still appear to be catching businesses off-guard, as many business owners incorrectly assumed that the rules were targeted only at robocallers and text spammers, and are just now beginning to realize that the breadth of business activities reached by these rules is far more extensive.

When calling or texting a cell phone for any non-emergency reason, the FCC's rules have always required that businesses using autodialer technology, like that used in text campaigns, or pre-recorded voices, must first get express consent from the recipient. Prior express consent has also been required before making marketing calls to residential landlines, but the rules contained an exception to that requirement if the business had an established business relationship with the called party (e.g., you ordered something from their catalog in the past eighteen months).

The big change under the new rules is that the prior express consent required to send marketing messages to cell phones (the FCC treats calls and texts the same) or to residential landlines must now be in writing, and there is no longer an exception to that requirement for those with an established business relationship with the called party.

While the impact of this rule change on robocallers is obvious, it applies to most other businesses as well. For example, many broadcast stations have a variety of texting programs, ranging from news, weather and traffic alerts to promotional texts about upcoming programming events or contests. Those stations should now review how the numbers they are texting were originally added to their contact lists, and either be certain that they meet the FCC's new requirements, or suspend texting to those numbers.

For purely informational texts, such as news, weather and traffic alerts, the station need only have previously received express consent to send the type of text message involved. Written consent was not required and is still not required if there is no marketing component to the call. As a result, if the station previously stated it would only use the consumer's cell phone number to send weather alert texts, then weather alerts are the only type of texts the station can send to those who signed up for that type of text message. The weather alert contact database therefore could not be combined with the station's marketing contact database.

The rub is that such stations must also make sure that those weather texts do not include any marketing messages in addition to the weather-related messages. If a marketing component is included (and the definition of marketing for this purpose is very broad), starting tomorrow, they will need to get written consent before sending any more of those messages.

To send promotional or other forms of marketing texts, a business needs to have made a clear and conspicuous disclosure and received clear consent in writing. Importantly, the business cannot require that the written consent be given as a condition of purchasing any product or service. As to the consent being in writing, the FCC permits electronic signatures collected via webforms, email, text messages, telephone keypresses, or voice recordings.

Businesses that previously signed consumers up for their texting programs via a webform, for example, may have given sufficiently clear notice and generated an electronic signature sufficient to fulfill these requirements. Affected businesses should therefore review the language used in their disclosures to be sure that it clearly communicated to the consumer what the texting program involves, and that it did not condition the consumer's ability to make a purchase on their giving this consent. If a business is able to meet these tests, then it should verify that it has retained sufficient records to demonstrate that it obtained the necessary written consent before continuing to text the affected consumers.

While we have covered the high points of the new rules in this post, those affected should definitely read the more detailed description found in our Pillsbury Advisory. In particular, businesses need to be aware that these new rules were adopted pursuant to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. That law is the source of many class action lawsuits brought on behalf of consumers who have received texts or calls alleged to be in violation of the law, and provides statutory damages where violations are found to have occurred.

Unfortunately, the prospect of class action damages is likely to attract lawsuits for even benign potential violations of the new rules, and just being named a defendant in such a lawsuit can have devastating consequences for that business. While the effort involved in ensuring that your business is in compliance with these rules could be substantial, the risks of proceeding to contact consumers via marketing texts or calls, even where they are your existing customers, is far too great to be ignored.


DOJ Clears the Air on E-Cigarette Ads

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 18, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

One of the perennial challenges of being a broadcaster is determining what you can air, when you can air it, and how it must be aired without incurring the wrath of the federal government. While the FCC tends to be the federal agency most commonly encountered on content issues, various other government agencies create additional layers of complexity, with the Department of Justice, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission all having an interest in what is aired, particularly where it involves advertising. As new products become available and are marketed, the government struggles to keep up, sometimes leaving the media in the lurch as to whether a particular ad is "safe" for airing.

For that reason, broadcasters have stepped carefully with regard to advertisements for medical marijuana (which I've discussed previously here), tobacco products, and other items of federal concern. While enforcement encounters with the FCC can be unpleasant, encounters with the DOJ can be downright incarcerating. Fortunately, broadcasters' encounters with the DOJ are rare, and usually involve the DOJ bringing a court action to enforce collection of an FCC-imposed fine. However, that also means the body of DOJ precedent on substantive content issues can be pretty thin, leaving broadcasters guessing as to what can and cannot be aired.

One area where the DOJ has definitely had a broad role to play is in the advertising of tobacco products. From the original ban on broadcast cigarette advertising implemented in 1971 to its later expansion to little cigars (1973) and smokeless tobacco (1986), the DOJ is the entity charged with enforcing the ban on most types of tobacco broadcast advertising. While a ban on tobacco advertising might seem straightforward, complying with it can be fairly complex, resulting in a number of DOJ decisions regarding what can be said in advertising for tobacco shops and tobacco products not affected by the ad ban. Our recently updated Pillsbury Advisory on tobacco advertising restrictions is a good place to learn more about those nuances.

One new product that continues to garner attention (and confusion) is e-cigarettes, which are battery-powered devices designed to imitate the look and feel of a cigarette, but which deliver nicotine vapor rather than tobacco smoke to the lungs. While e-cigarettes have become fairly common, only limited research has been done on their health effects, and many countries have now regulated them in a variety of ways.

In the U.S., the FDA has expressed serious concerns about the manufacturing and marketing of e-cigarettes, but has not yet been successful in implementing restrictions on e-cigarette sales. However, there have been indications the FDA will move as early as next month to launch a rulemaking to implement restrictions on e-cigarette sales. While it is likely that any ultimate FDA rules will prohibit the marketing of e-cigarettes to minors, it is at this point unknown whether the FDA might try to impose broader restrictions on advertising, and whether such restrictions would stand up in court. What is known is that rulemakings at federal agencies take time, so it will likely be a while before any new FDA rules could be implemented.

That pretty much leaves the question of whether e-cigarettes can currently be advertised up to the DOJ. Given the DOJ's dim view under existing tobacco ad restrictions of any ad that even mentions the word "cigarette", many assumed that the DOJ would take a similar view of e-cigarette advertising. However, because the DOJ has not publicly moved to take action against a growing number of e-cigarette ads, broadcasters have so far been left wondering where the government stands on the issue.

We now know the answer to that question. My Pillsbury colleague Paul Cicelski has obtained clarification from the Department of Justice in the form of a letter stating the DOJ's position on e-cigarette advertising. The letter notes that the ad ban covers "any roll of tobacco" wrapped in paper, tobacco, or any other substance likely to be purchased by consumers as a "cigarette". It proceeds to note that while e-cigarettes are often manufactured to look like conventional cigarettes, they do not contain a "roll of tobacco" and therefore are not subject to the federal ban on cigarette ads.

So does that mean the floodgates are open on e-cigarette ads? Not quite. First, the DOJ letter indicates that it reflects the views of the Consumer Protection Branch of the DOJ and not "any other governmental office, agency or department," specifically noting that the Federal Trade Commission has authority over e-cigarette ads that are deceptive, such as those that make health claims without adequate scientific support. Similarly, many states have grown concerned about e-cigarettes and have introduced legislation to restrict their use and advertising. As a result, in addition to being wary of health claims in ads like "e-cigarettes will help you stop smoking", broadcasters should check the laws of their state for any state-based limitations on e-cigarette advertising. Finally, as noted above, the FDA is clearly interested in this area, and likely will have something to say about e-cigarette regulation once it concludes its soon-to-be-launched e-cigarette proceeding.

Fortunately, the FTC and FDA have traditionally focused their enforcement efforts on advertisers rather than on the media entities carrying the ads, so even if e-cigarette regulations are ultimately adopted, those regulations are unlikely to principally target broadcasters for merely running the ads. As a result, the DOJ's position on e-cigarettes goes a long way toward resolving a significant source of confusion and angst for many broadcasters while opening up an additional avenue for broadcast ad dollars.


Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay

Scott R. Flick

Posted May 31, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

In what has been a recurring theme at CommLawCenter, I've written about the FCC rule prohibiting the airing of Emergency Alert System codes and tones unless there is an actual emergency or EAS test. Despite the rule, the draw of using an EAS tone is apparently irresistible, and we've seen it used in movie ads, oil company ads, and even zombie alerts.

Unlike many FCC rules, the ambiguity of which can leave seasoned practitioners arguing over what is or isn't prohibited, Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules has been a model of clarity:


"No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS."

As a result, while advertisers might succumb to the temptation to slip an EAS tone (really, it's more of a digital squeal) into their ads, the broadcaster's duty was straightforward--try to catch the ad before it airs, and then let the advertiser know that the ad can't be run unless it is modified to delete the tone.

Yesterday, however, life suddenly became more complicated for broadcasters when stations began receiving copies of a Public Service Announcement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System using the EAS tone to get that message across. Station operators were understandably confused, thinking that surely FEMA, as a fellow federal agency to the FCC (and an expert on all things related to EAS), wouldn't be distributing a PSA that included an illegal EAS tone.

That was not, however, a safe assumption. On multiple occasions, federal and state agencies have, for example, distributed ads or PSAs that lack the sponsorship identification announcement required by the FCC, with one of the more famous examples leading to a 2002 FCC decision refusing to grant a waiver of its sponsorship identification rule to allow the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to run anti-drug ads without disclosing that it was the sponsor.

As stations began to decline to run the PSAs for fear or incurring the FCC's wrath, the FCC moved quickly (and quietly, I might add) to break from its prior approach, and today released a decision granting an unprecedented one-year waiver of Section 11.45, permitting FEMA spots to use the EAS tone as long as they make "clear that the WEA [Wireless Emergency Alert] 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." The FCC also "recommend[s] that FEMA take steps to ensure that such PSAs clearly state that they are part of FEMA's public education campaign."

The good news today is that the FCC approached the problem head on by granting a waiver rather than trying to "interpret" its rule to somehow not cover the FEMA PSA tones. Such an interpretation would have left broadcasters scratching their heads every time an EAS tone pops up in a future spot, trying to figure out whether that use might also fit into such an exception. The bad news, however, is that broadcasters have now been told that fake EAS tones are sometimes okay, and they need to be watching the FCC's daily releases to determine if a particular use has suddenly become acceptable. Hopefully, such spots will actually educate the public to better understand the purpose of EAS alerts, as opposed to merely acclimating them to hearing the tone on-air and learning to ignore it.


Time to Get CALM for the Holidays

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted December 13, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick

Today, December 13, 2012, is the effective date of the FCC's rules implementing the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act. As a result, all commercial broadcast television stations and multichannel video program providers ("MVPDs") must have by today either sought a waiver or installed equipment and undertaken procedures to comply with the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) A/85: "ATSC Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television," also known as the RP.

For locally inserted commercials, stations must install and maintain equipment and software that measures the loudness of the content and ensures that the dialnorm metadata value matches the loudness of the content when encoding audio for transmission (try saying that three times fast!). For commercials already embedded in the programming, stations must be able to pass through that CALM-compliant programming without adverse changes.

As long as that benign pass-through is accomplished, stations can rely on appropriate certifications from program suppliers to demonstrate compliance with respect to embedded commercials. If a program supplier does not provide the certification, "large" television stations and "large" and "very large" MVPDs (as defined by the FCC) must conduct annual spot checks of the programming. The first spot checks must be completed one year from today, by December 13, 2013. Details on these compliance requirements can be found in Paul Cicelski's post on the CALM Act earlier this year. We will also shortly be posting a Pillsbury Advisory on ensuring continuing CALM Act compliance.

As noted above, the FCC created a waiver procedure for stations and MVPDs where compliance would be financially burdensome, allowing them up to a year of additional time to come into compliance. Waiver requests were originally due back in October, but the FCC announced two days ago that it would accept waiver applications from small television stations filed through today. "Small" television stations, that is, those with less than $14 million in revenues in 2011 or that are in markets 150 to 210, were not required to submit highly detailed financial data with their waiver requests, and the FCC indicated that waiver requests would be deemed granted upon filing unless the FCC later advises the applicant otherwise.

In response, more than 125 waiver requests were filed. Earlier this week, the FCC granted two of them, including one from a television station in the midst of a studio move that will include installation of upgraded equipment for CALM Act compliance. Stations that do not have a waiver request on file with the FCC by today need to have the equipment and procedures in place to ensure they are operating in compliance with the CALM Act. That means that stressed television viewers will be having a calmer holiday season, while station and MVPD engineers and managers stress out trying to remain CALM.


FCC Provides Clarity for Businesses Responding to Texting Opt-Outs

Lauren Lynch Flick Andrew D. Bluth

Posted December 3, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Andrew D. Bluth

Resolving a conundrum faced by every business that has entered the world of consumer texting, the FCC has ruled that businesses are not violating the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act ("TCPA") by sending a confirmation text to consumers who have just opted out of receiving further texts. However, the FCC did impose limitations on the content of such confirmation texts to ensure compliance with the TCPA. The threshold requirement is that the purpose of the reply text be solely to confirm to the consumer that the opt-out request has been received and will be acted on. The FCC then enumerated several additional requirements that businesses must observe when sending confirmation texts to avoid violating the TCPA. For those affected, which is pretty much every business that uses texts to communicate with the public, we have released a Client Alert on the subject.

To many, sending a confirmation text to a consumer who has previously opted in to receiving a company's text messages would appear to be nothing more than good customer service and an extension of the common practice of sending a confirmatory email message when a consumer has chosen to unsubscribe from an email list. Indeed, many wireless carriers and mobile marketing and retail trade associations have adopted codes of conduct for mobile marketers that include sending confirmation texts to consumers opting out of future text messages.

However, the TCPA, among other things, makes it illegal to make a non-emergency "call" to a mobile telephone using an automatic telephone dialing system or recorded voice without the prior express consent of the recipient. The FCC's rules and a decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit define a "call" as including text messages. As a result, many businesses have had class action lawsuits filed against them by consumers arguing that, once they send a text message opting out of receiving future texts, their prior consent has been revoked, and the business violates the TCPA by sending ANY further texts, even in reply to the consumer's opt-out text.

Seeking to avoid facing such lawsuits and the potential for conflicting decisions from different courts, businesses sought the FCC's intervention. After reviewing the issue, the FCC rejected the fundamental argument raised by the class action suits, noting that the FCC has never received a single complaint from a consumer about receiving a confirmatory text message. The FCC did note, however, that it had received complaints from consumers about not receiving a confirmation of their opt-out request. The Commission therefore held that when consumers consent to receiving text messages from a business, that consent includes their consent to receiving a text message confirming any later decision to opt out of receiving further text messages.

To avoid creating a loophole in the TCPA that might be exploited by a business, the FCC proceeded to set limits on confirmation texts designed to ensure that they are not really marketing messages disguised as confirmation texts. First and foremost, the implied permission to send a confirmation text message only applies where the consumer has consented to receiving the company's text messages in the first place. Next, the confirmation text message must be sent within five minutes of receiving the consumer's opt-out request, or the company will have to prove that a longer period of time to respond was reasonable in the circumstances. Finally, the text of the message must be truly confirmatory of the opt-out and not contain additional marketing or an effort to dissuade the consumer from opting out of future texts. You can read more about the FCC's decision and these specific requirements in the firm's Client Alert.

By providing clarity on the relationship between confirmation texts and the TCPA, the FCC's ruling provides marketers and other businesses with some welcome protection from class action TCPA suits. In an accompanying statement, Commissioner Ajit Pai stated that "Hopefully, by making clear that the Act does not prohibit confirmation texts, we will end the litigation that has punished some companies for doing the right thing, as well as the threat of litigation that has deterred others from adopting a sound marketing practice." Businesses just need to make sure they comply with the FCC's stated requirements for confirmation texts to avail themselves of these protections.


Randall Terry Focuses His Campaign on the FCC

Scott R. Flick

Posted November 7, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

While most presidential candidates were concentrating yesterday on last minute campaign events aimed at swaying undecided voters, independent presidential candidate Randall Terry was instead focused on winning votes at the FCC, filing multiple election day political advertising complaints against broadcast stations.

I wrote last week of an FCC decision holding that a DC-area station had failed to provide Terry reasonable access to airtime as required by Section 312 of the Communications Act. According to the FCC, Terry, an independent presidential candidate known for seeking to air visually disturbing political ads prominently featuring aborted fetuses, was entitled as a federal candidate to purchase airtime because he was on the ballot in West Virginia. While Terry was apparently not on the ballot in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, the area primarily served by the station, the FCC concluded that the station's Noise Limited Service Contour covered nearly 3% of the population of West Virginia, making Terry a legally qualified candidate for purposes of demanding airtime on the DC-area station.

Apparently buoyed by that success, Terry yesterday filed complaints against five Florida television stations arguing that he has once again been denied reasonable access rights. What makes these filings odd is that, although dated November 5th, they were not filed with the FCC until November 6th, election day. Even if Terry actually intended to file them on November 5th, that would still be too late for the FCC to take any meaningful action before the election was over. That means Terry has already begun the process of positioning himself for the next election, and is perhaps looking to establish friendly FCC precedent now that can be used against stations then.

What also makes Terry's Florida filings notable is that he is not seeking reasonable access as a candidate for president (presumably because he was not on the presidential ballot in Florida). Instead, his reasonable access complaints are based upon being on the ballot as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, representing South Florida's 20th Congressional District. Terry alleges in his complaints that all five stations cited Section 99.012(2) of the Florida Statues as a reason for not accepting his ads. That Section provides that "No person may qualify as a candidate for more than one public office, whether federal, state, district, county, or municipal, if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other." Since Terry was on the ballot in a number of states running for president, the stations argued that the Florida Statute prevented him from also appearing on a ballot in Florida as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. The stations' argument is that Terry was therefore not a legally qualified candidate for federal office in Florida, and thus not entitled to reasonable access.

Terry's response to that argument cites no caselaw, FCC or otherwise, but argues by analogy that stations did air Romney/Ryan ads in Florida despite Ryan also being on the ballot in Wisconsin to keep his House seat. That is not a particularly strong argument, however, as I suspect that stations in Florida were actually airing Romney ads, and Romney was unquestionably a legally qualified candidate on the ballot. If Ryan also appeared in those ads, that would not alter a station's obligation to provide reasonable access to Romney for his ads, and the "no censorship" provision of the Communications Act means that Romney is free to present anyone else he wants in his ads without interference.

Since the FCC is not generally in the business of interpreting state election laws, the central question in these complaints is whether the FCC will defer to a licensee's reasonable judgment as to who is a legally qualified candidate in the licensee's own state. If not, broadcasters will find that once simple reasonable access analysis is growing steadily more complex and dangerous. As foreshadowed by last week's post, reasonable access issues seem destined to become a growing part of future elections. Yesterday's Terry complaints appear to be an effort to turn up the heat on stations, even where there is no useful remedy available to a candidate whose multiple campaigns have already concluded.

Copies of the Terry complaints can be found here.


Randall Terry Pushes the FCC's Political Envelope

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 31, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

The FCC today released a political advertising decision that, while perhaps not surprising, will still alarm many broadcasters. Back in February, I wrote a pair of posts (here and here) about Randall Terry, who was then seeking airtime during the Superbowl to air ads featuring graphic footage of aborted fetuses, ostensibly in support of his effort to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. It appears that the Democratic Party didn't want him, as the Democratic National Committee sent stations a letter asserting that Terry was not a candidate for the Democratic nomination and was not entitled to the broadcast airtime benefits legally qualified federal candidates receive.

In my first post in February, I noted that Section 312 of the Communications Act, which requires broadcast stations to grant "reasonable access" to airtime for federal candidates, was growing increasingly susceptible to a First Amendment challenge, and that the situation presented by the Terry ads -- broadcasters being forced to air visually repugnant material that they would otherwise never subject their audience to, regardless of their own political bent -- represents just the kind of scenario that might motivate broadcasters to challenge this statutory requirement. It certainly gives a judge or Congress an appealing set of facts to consider overturning or reforming the current law.

It is also worth noting that broadcasters are not allowed to channel such ads into parts of the day when children are less likely to be in the audience. This inability to channel such ads away from children has always been curious, as a candidate can hardly complain about being unable to reach an audience that is too young to vote anyway (and the candidate is of course free to reach out to them with more age-appropriate ads in any event). Indeed, the FCC, which has done a respectable job over the years of applying the Communications Act's political ad requirements in the real world, once held that broadcasters could choose to shift such ads away from kid-friendly hours. The FCC was rebuffed in court, however, in a decision that focused entirely on how such channeling could infringe upon a candidate's freedom of expression, seemingly oblivious to the freedom of expression of stations unwilling to subject their child viewers to such content.

As I wrote in my second post, the FCC was able to avoid a confrontation over recent Terry ads for a bit longer when it ruled in February that Terry was not a legally qualified presidential candidate on the Illinois ballot (where the station being challenged was located). It also ruled that even had that not been the case, the station was reasonable in turning down a request for Superbowl ad time since it is a uniquely popular event in which the station might well find it impossible to accommodate ads from competing candidates demanding "equal opportunities" under the Communications Act to air their ads in the Superbowl as well.

Knowing how attractive the plum of guaranteed ad time at a station's lowest unit charge is to anyone wishing to get their message out there, it came as no surprise when the Terry campaign, now running Terry as an independent candidate, filed another complaint, this time against Washington, DC station WUSA(TV). Terry sought access on the basis of being a legally qualified candidate in West Virginia, a small portion of which, he asserted, falls within WUSA(TV)'s signal.

The station rejected Terry's ads, noting that Terry was not a legally qualified candidate in its DC/Maryland/Virginia service area. When challenged at the FCC, it submitted a Longley-Rice signal contour map, which takes blocking terrain (e.g., mountains) into account, and which indicated that the station's actual coverage of West Virginia was slim to none ("de minimis" in FCC parlance).

In determining where reasonable access must be granted, the FCC looks at a station's "normal service area", and for TV, it has generally considered a station's Grade B contour to be the "normal service area". The transition to digital TV, however, has eliminated the analog concept of a Grade B contour. In reaching today's decision, the FCC concluded that since the FCC considers a digital station's Noise Limited Service Contour (NLSC) to be the equivalent of an analog Grade B contour in other FCC contexts, it is appropriate to use the NLSC as the appropriate "normal service area" for purposes of reasonable access complaints. While engineers readily acknowledge that Longley-Rice contour analysis is a more accurate predictor of actual signal reception than the NLSC, Longley-Rice analysis can be complex, and it appears the FCC opted for the simplicity and bright line certainty of using the NLSC. While the NLSC represents a somewhat hypothetical coverage area, NLSC coverage maps are widely available, including on the FCC's own website, making it an easier tool for candidates to utilize in planning their media buys.

Since, according to the FCC, WUSA(TV)'s NLSC covers nearly 3% of West Virginia's population, the FCC concluded in today's decision that the station was unreasonable in rejecting Terry's ads. While the FCC's decision is a pragmatic one, it adds more kindling to the reasonable access fire, as stations are now forced to offend their audiences with content from candidates that are legally qualified in any area that is within their NLSC service area, whether or not actual TV reception exists. This not only increases the number of reasonable access requests stations may face, but will further antagonize their viewers, who might understand why a station has to air ads for a candidate that is on the ballot in their area, but will be particularly perplexed as to why a station is airing offensive content from a candidate they have never heard of and cannot vote for or against. When Congress drafted the reasonable access and "no censorship of political ads" provisions of the Communications Act, it probably assumed that extreme content would not be a problem since a candidate was unlikely to air such content if he or she wanted to be elected. However, that logic evaporates when the viewing audience doesn't even have the opportunity to vote against such a candidate.

While the FCC appears to have been concerned that a more complex contour analysis could be gamed by a broadcaster, the result instead unfortunately encourages issue activists of every persuasion to game the system for their own gain. In the present case, it is pretty obvious that buying very expensive airtime in the nation's capital is not a cost-effective way of reaching less than 3% of the voters in West Virginia, and that the real audience is the large DC-area population for which Terry was apparently unable to qualify to be on the ballot. That became even more obvious when WUSA(TV) provided the Longley-Rice contour map indicating that the station actually had little or no coverage in West Virginia, but the Terry campaign nonetheless continued to press for airtime on the station.

The obvious path for future issue activists is to declare their candidacy for federal office, but instead of doing the hard work of qualifying for the ballot in large population centers in order to be heard, taking the easier path of qualifying for the ballot in less populated surrounding areas that are just within the fringe coverage of a big market station's predicted NLSC coverage. By following this formula, they get guaranteed access to airtime in front of a large market audience, and at much lower rates than commercial advertisers would pay, with the added benefit that the station cannot edit the ad or decline to air it no matter how offensive the content.

For those who make the not unreasonable argument that putting up with some questionable exploitation of the political ad rules is necessary to ensure that legitimate candidates can get their message out, consider the following: only federal candidates have a right of reasonable access. In this heated political season, particularly in the heavily contested large population centers, stations have been forced to preempt the spots of many of their normal commercial advertisers to make room for political spots for federal candidates (seen a car ad lately?), and local and state candidates have similarly suffered from having their ads pushed aside to make way for federal candidate ads. As a result, forcing broadcasters to air content that offends adult viewers, disturbs child viewers, and damages the relationship of trust between the broadcaster and its public harms more than just the broadcaster and its audience. It harms each and every local and state candidate that actually is on the ballot in a station's market. They too would like to get their message out, but in their case, to people who can actually vote for them and that are affected by who is elected to represent them. To the extent that "all politics is local", it make little sense to shunt aside these local and state candidates merely to guarantee access to those using the Communications Act's "federal formula" to game the system for their own agendas.

While today's decision is not one that will be welcomed by broadcasters, make no mistake, it is not the FCC's fault that we have reached this point. The reasonable access requirements for federal candidates are encoded into the Communications Act, and there is only so much the FCC can do in applying the statute in a political landscape that is far more complex than those who drafted these provisions likely ever contemplated. With election season nearly over, and many stations sold out of airtime through the election, the immediate impact of today's decision will be limited. It is a safe bet, however, that the underlying issue will continue to haunt future elections.