Cable/Satellite TV Category

Scott Flick of Pillsbury Speaks on "Bloomberg Law Brief: Aereo Seeks New Status", October 15, 2014

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 15, 2014

Scott R. Flick of Pillsbury and Jonathan Weinberg, a law professor at Wayne State University, discuss with June Grasso on Bloomberg Radio's "Bloomberg Law" a request by Aereo to have the FCC change the definition of a video service provider to help the company find a way to resume operations.

For more information and to download this podcast, please click here.


October 1 Must-Carry/Retrans Elections Drive the Future of Local Broadcast TV

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 18, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Few dates on the broadcasters' calendar are easier to miss than the deadline for TV stations (and a few fortunate LPTV stations) to send their must-carry/retransmission election letters to cable and satellite providers in their markets. Because it doesn't occur every year, or even every other year, but every third year, the triennial deadline can slip up on you if you don't closely monitor our Broadcast Calendar. For those that haven't been paying attention, October 1, 2014 is the deadline for TV stations to send their carriage election letters to MVPDs. The elections made by this October 1st will govern a station's carriage rights for the three-year period from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2017, and this will be the first set of election letters that stations must immediately upload to their online public inspection file at the FCC.

I noted in a post here three years ago that the impact of these elections is becoming more significant with each three-year cycle. In particular, that post focused on the fact that network-affiliated stations can no longer consider retrans revenue to be "found" money, but instead as revenue essential to both short-term and long-term survival. Short-term, in that stations must compete for programming and advertising against cable and satellite programmers that have long had two revenue streams--advertising and subscriber fees. Long-term, in that there was little doubt that networks were looking to charge affiliates more for network programming by taking an ever larger share of retrans revenue, and that it was only a matter of time before networks began selecting their affiliates based not upon past performance, but upon which station could bring the best financial package to the network going forward.

As we've learned over the past year in particular, that means not just negotiating the best retransmission deals possible, but sending an increasing portion of those revenues to the network. Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker, who will be one of our speakers at the 2014 Pillsbury Trends in Communications Finance event in New York next month, noted that pattern just a few weeks ago. Using CBS's recent projections on the overall revenue it expects to receive from affiliates, she was able to calculate the monthly affiliate cost for CBS programming at $1.30 per subscriber by 2020. Add to that the station's costs for negotiating retrans deals, as well as the increasing cost of producing local programming and securing attractive syndicated content, and it is clear that no network affiliate can afford to be cutting substandard retrans deals and hope to survive in the long term. MVPDs may grumble about those "greedy stations" during retrans negotiations, but generating the revenue necessary to retain the programming that attracts cable, satellite, and over-the-air viewers (not to mention advertisers) is not an optional activity for local TV stations.

The impact of this is not, however, limited to purely matters of retransmission. Yes, broadcasters can no longer afford to enter into amateur retrans deals that threaten to alienate their networks by providing below-market rates, or which sloppily authorize retransmission or streaming rights far outside the local broadcaster's market (this mistake becoming even more consequential if the FCC moves forward in eliminating the network non-duplication rule). The bigger trend is that these economic forces are driving consolidation in the TV industry.

Building large broadcast groups allows co-owned TV stations the critical mass necessary to negotiate difficult retrans deals against the much-larger cable and satellite operators, and, where necessary, to withstand the economic impact of a retrans impasse when it happens. Similarly, larger TV groups are better positioned to negotiate the best possible programming deals with their networks (keeping in mind that "best possible" isn't necessarily the same as "good").

Single stations and small station groups routinely have to punch well above their weight by employing smart executives and counsel with deep experience in retrans negotiations to survive in this increasingly harsh environment. That is what makes the FCC's prohibition earlier this year on certain joint retrans negotiations, as well as current efforts on Capitol Hill to broaden that prohibition, so perverse. By eliminating one of a small broadcaster's best options for cost-effectively negotiating viable retransmission agreements, the government is pushing those broadcasters to sell their stations to a larger broadcaster (or some would say, to the government itself). In the current environment, a station that fails to sell to a larger broadcaster possessing the skill and mass necessary to effectively negotiate retransmission agreements risks losing its network affiliation to just such a station group, precisely because that group can frequently deliver better retrans results.

So as you send out your elections this year, keep in mind that while the election process itself hasn't changed, what you will need to do afterwards has changed dramatically. More to the point, think hard about what you need to be doing with your retrans negotiations if you still want to be around in three years to send out that next batch of election letters.


Radio Public File Going Online?

Scott R. Flick

Posted August 8, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

For those who follow my speaking schedule on our CommLawCenter Events Calendar... wait, no one follows my speaking schedule? Disappointing. Well if you had, you would have known I was speaking on a pair of regulatory panels at the Texas Association of Broadcasters' convention yesterday (incidentally, another great show this year from Oscar Rodriguez and TAB's excellent staff).

On the first of those panels, with Stephen Lee of the FCC's Houston Enforcement Bureau office, we discussed the FCC's July 1st expansion of the TV online political file requirement to all TV stations. During that discussion, an audience member asked whether radio stations would someday have to put their public inspection files online as well. I noted that when the FCC moved TV public files online in August of 2012, it had indicated that it was starting with TV, but anticipated it would eventually consider moving radio public files online as well. However, in the two years since, the FCC has focused on working the bugs out of the online public file software and has not mentioned expanding the online requirement to radio.

Unknown to most, that changed unexpectedly about two hours after the panel, when the FCC released a Public Notice rapidly responding to a petition for rulemaking filed just six days earlier by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation. The petition asked that cable and satellite providers also be required to post their political files online. While broadcasters and those three organizations (who have filed more than a dozen complaints against TV stations for alleged online political file violations in the past few months) haven't seen eye to eye on much in the past, this might be one requirement they can agree on, albeit for very different reasons.

While the original purpose of the political file was to ensure that candidates had the information needed to enforce their rights to equal opportunity and lowest unit rate for advertising, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation have sought to use it instead to track political spending by PACs, since that information is not available, at least in real time, from the Federal Election Commission. To make it easier for them to access this information, they demanded the FCC require that TV stations post their political files online. They have also urged the FCC to require TV stations' political files be posted in a machine-readable format to make aggregating the information easier.

Broadcasters opposed those efforts, noting the burden of keeping the fast-changing political file up to date online, and the competitive concerns with posting sensitive ad rate data online for all the world to see. In particular, they found it competitively unfair that broadcasters were required to post their ad rate information online when competing cable and satellite providers were not.

The FCC agreed, and when it decided to require that TV stations post their public files online, it originally excluded the political file from that requirement, finding that uploading and updating the political file online would be too burdensome. However, after a change in personnel at the FCC, the agency reversed course and concluded that posting the political file online wouldn't be burdensome after all.

Television broadcasters therefore likely welcomed yesterday's Public Notice seeking comment on at least leveling the information playing field with cable and satellite. However, buried in the middle of the Public Notice, and completely unrelated to the petition for rulemaking on cable and satellite political files to which the Public Notice responds, is a single sentence sending chills down the collective spines of radio broadcasters:

"We also seek comment on whether the Commission should initiate a rulemaking proceeding to require broadcast radio stations to use the online public file, and on an appropriate time frame for such a requirement."

While the need to first launch a rulemaking means that a radio online public file requirement would take at least some time to implement, it appears that it is indeed (spontaneously) back on the FCC's agenda. With staffs that are typically much smaller than those of TV stations, radio stations would undoubtedly find an online public file requirement to be far more burdensome than it was for TV (not that TV stations found it to be a picnic either). If they don't want to find themselves facing that very burden in the not too distant future, radio licensees will need to speak up in what most would have assumed is a completely unrelated proceeding. To the broadcaster who asked that question at yesterday's panel, the FCC has quietly changed my answer.


Comments Due August 14 For Latest EAS NPRM

Paul A. Cicelski Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted July 15, 2014

By Paul A. Cicelski and Carly A. Deckelboim

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

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

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

A copy of the NPRM can be found here.

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

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

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

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


FCC Releases 2014 Regulatory Fee Proposals

Christine A. Reilly

Posted June 20, 2014

By Christine A. Reilly

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

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

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

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


  • Markets 1-10 - $44,875

  • Markets 11-25 - $42,300

  • Markets 26-50 - $27,100

  • Markets 51-100 - $15,675

  • Remaining Markets - $4,775

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

FCC Extends Waiver Allowing False Emergency Tones in FEMA PSAs

Scott R. Flick

Posted May 21, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Scott Flick of Pillsbury to Speak on "Will the Aereo Case Force a Rewrite of Communications and Copyright Laws?"

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 16, 2014

Scott R. Flick will speak on a panel discussing Aereo and its impact on communications and copyright laws during this Webinar hosted by the Bloomberg BNA on January 16, 2014 from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM.


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?


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.


FCC Adopts Proposed FY 2013 Regulatory Fees

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted August 15, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

The FCC has released a Report and Order which includes its final determinations as to how much each FCC licensee will have to pay in Annual Regulatory Fees for fiscal year 2013 (FY 2013), and in some cases how the FCC will calculate Annual Regulatory Fees beginning in FY 2014. The FCC collects Annual Regulatory Fees to offset the cost of its non-application processing functions, such as conducting rulemaking proceedings.

The FCC adopted many of its proposals without material changes. Some of the more notably proposals include:

  • Eliminating the fee disparity between UHF and VHF television stations beginning in FY 2014, which is not a particularly surprising development given the FCC's recently renewed interest in eliminating the UHF discount for purposes of calculating compliance with the FCC's ownership limits;
  • Imposing on Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) providers the same regulatory fees as cable providers beginning in FY 2014. In adopting this proposal, the Commission specifically noted that it was not stating that IPTV providers are cable television providers, which is an issue pending before the Commission in another proceeding;
  • Using more current (FY 2012) Full Time Employees (FTE) data instead of FY 1998 FTE data to assess the costs of providing regulatory services, which resulted in some significant shifts in the allocation of regulatory fees among the FCC's Bureaus. In particular, the portion of regulatory fees allocated to the Wireline Competition Bureau decreased 6.89% and that of all other Bureaus increased, with the Media Bureau's portion of the regulatory fees increasing 3.49%; and
  • Imposing a maximum annual regulatory rate increase of 7.5% for each type of license, which is essentially the rate increase for all commercial UHF and VHF television stations and all radio stations. A chart reflecting the FY 2013 fees for the various types of licenses affecting broadcast stations is provided here.
The Commission deferred decisions on the following proposals in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that launched this proceeding: 1) combining the Interstate Telecommunications Service Providers (ITSPs) and wireless telecommunications services into one regulatory fee category; 2) using revenues to calculate regulatory fees; and 3) whether to consider Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) providers as a new multi-channel video programming distributor (MVPD) category.

The Annual Regulatory Fees will be due in "middle of September" according to the FCC. The FCC will soon release a Public Notice announcing the precise payment window for submitting the fees. As has been the case for the past few years, the FCC no longer mails a hard copy of regulatory fee assessments to broadcast stations. Instead, stations must make an online filing using the FCC's Fee Filer system, reporting the types and fee amounts they are obligated to pay. After submitting that information, stations may pay their fees electronically or by separately submitting payment to the FCC's Lockbox. However, beginning October 1, 2013, i.e. FY 2014, the FCC will no longer accept paper and check filings for payment of Annual Regulatory Fees.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted June 30, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

June 2013

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

  • FCC Issues Heavy Fines for Late-Filed Children's Television Programming Reports
  • Motel with Multichannel Video Programming Distribution System Is Cited for Excessive Cable Signal Leakage

FCC Fines Multiple Licensees for Failure to Timely File Children's Television Programming Reports

As broadcasters have learned, the FCC takes licensees' public inspection file and reporting obligations very seriously. This month, the FCC issued multiple Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against licensees for failing to file Children's Television Programming Reports on Form 398 in a timely manner. On June 18 and 21, the FCC issued a total of seven decisions proposing to fine stations between $3,000 and $18,000 for not filing their Form 398s on time.

Under the FCC's rules, commercial television stations must report their children's educational and informational broadcast programming efforts each quarter by electronically filing FCC Form 398, the Children's Television Programming Report. Historically, the FCC has fined stations for failing to file their reports, and there would be nothing new about the FCC issuing an NAL for "failure to file".

In these seven cases, however, the stations were not fined for a failure to file their reports, but for failing to file their reports on time. In the decisions, the FCC issued the following fines:

  • For a station that missed the filing deadline twenty-three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $18,000.
  • For a licensee that missed the filing deadline eleven times on one station and thirteen times on another, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $15,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline fourteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline ten times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000 (eight reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000 (three reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the deadline sixteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline eleven times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $3,000.

The cases were all relatively similar. As an example, in the $15,000 NAL, the licensee filed license renewal applications for its two Class A TV stations. At the time of the applications, the licensee did not disclose that it had filed some of its Children's Television Programming Reports late, and in fact, certified in its renewal applications that it had timely filed all relevant programming reports with the FCC. However, the Commission subsequently reviewed its records and found that the licensee failed to file programming reports on time for 11 quarters for one station and 13 quarters for another.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch

John K. Hane

Posted April 16, 2013

By John Hane

Recently, TVNewsCheck.com ran a short item noting that a large broadcast group (not a network owned and operated group) and a large multichannel video distributor (MVPD) successfully concluded carriage negotiations. There was no interruption of service. Given the successful outcome, I was surprised to see that someone posted a comment regarding the piece saying the deal illustrates why the FCC should tighten its broadcast ownership rules. No matter how many times I read comments of this sort, I am perplexed that people actually believe it's a good thing for the government to mandate that broadcasters be the underdogs in all major negotiations that impact the quality and availability of broadcasters' programming. If anything, government policy should encourage broadcasters to grow to a scale that is meaningful in today's complex television marketplace. Not one of the other major distributors makes its programming available for free.

If independent (non-O&O) broadcasters aren't permitted to achieve a scale large enough to negotiate effectively with upstream programmers and downstream distributors, you won't have to wait long see high cost, high quality, high value programming available for free to those who choose to opt out of the pay TV ecosystem. It's much better to have two, three or four strong competitors in each market, owned by companies that can compete for rational economics in the upstream and downstream markets, than to have eight or more weak competitors, few of which can afford to invest in truly local service or negotiate at arms-length with program suppliers and distributors.

For those who have not been paying attention, the television market has changed profoundly in the past 20 years. The big programmers and the big MVPDs have gotten a whole lot bigger. The largest non-O&O broadcast groups have grown too, but not nearly as much. Fox, Disney/ABC, NBCU and the other programmers are vastly bigger companies with incomparable market power vis-a-vis even the largest broadcast groups. The same is true of the large MVPDs, which together serve the great majority of television households.

There's nothing inherently bad about big content aggregators and big MVPD distributors. And anyway, they are a fact of life. Despite their size, each is trying to deliver a competitive service and deliver good returns for shareholders. That's what they are supposed to do, and in general (with a few exceptions) they serve the country well. But again, they are much, much larger than even the largest broadcast groups. If you believe that having a viable and competitive free television option is a good thing, that's a problem.

So in response to the suggestion that the FCC further limit the scale of broadcasters, I reply: why does the government make it so damn hard for the only television service that is available for free to bargain and compete with vastly larger enterprises that are comparatively unregulated?

Continue reading "Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch"


FCC Issues Lessons Learned From First Ever Nationwide EAS Test

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 14, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

As our readers are aware, we did a great deal of reporting before and after the first-ever Nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) Test conducted on November 9, 2011. The purpose of that test was to assess the readiness and effectiveness of the system in the event of an actual national emergency. Broadcasters, as well as cable, satellite, and wireline providers across the country (EAS Participants), all took part in the test. For a quick refresher, see my previous posts on the test here, here, here, here, and here. Late this past Friday, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a report summarizing the outcome of the national test entitled: "Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test".

As the FCC and FEMA have made clear on numerous ocassions, the national EAS test was not intended to be a pass or fail event, but was to be used to identify and address the limitations of the current EAS. The Report concludes that the national EAS alert distribution architecture is sound and that the national test was received by a large majority of EAS Participants and could be seen and heard by most Americans. The results of the test show that more than 80 percent of EAS Participants across the country successfully received and relayed the FEMA test message.

The Report also indicates, however, that there are a number of technical areas where the system can be improved. According to the Report, among the problems that impeded the ability of EAS Participants to receive and/or retransmit the emergency Action Notification (EAN) issued by FEMA, and of the public to receive it, were:

  • Widespread poor audio quality;
  • Lack of a Primary Entry Point (PEP) in an area to provide a direct connection to FEMA;
  • Use of alternatives to PEP-based EAN distribution;
  • The inability of some EAS Participants either to receive or retransmit the EAN;
  • Short test length; and
  • Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.

As a result of its findings, the Report recommends that another nationwide test be conducted after the FCC commences a number of formal rulemaking proceedings seeking public comment on steps to improve EAS related to these and other shortcomings.

In its Report, the Bureau also recommends that, in connection with any future EAS testing, the FCC develop a new Nationwide EAS Test Reporting System to improve the electronic filing of test result data. The Report also encourages the Executive Office of the President to reconvene the Federal EAS Test Working Group to work with Federal partners and other stakeholders to use the results of the test to find ways to improve EAS and plan for future nationwide tests.

Despite the audio problems and other issues identified in the Report with respect to the nationwide EAS test, the first ever test appears to have achieved its goal of helping the FCC, FEMA, and EAS Participants identify areas where EAS can be improved in the event of an actual emergency. If the recommendations outlined in the Report are implemented by the FCC, the public will likely have a number of opportunities during upcoming rulemaking proceedings to provide their input to the FCC on ways to further improve the reliability of the nation's EAS.


FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 12, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

With the State of the Union Address occurring tonight, the FCC wasted no time in advising broadcast stations and other EAS Participants to take immediate steps to prevent unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System like the fake zombie attack alerts that went out over a few stations in Michigan and Montana yesterday. While federal and state authorities are investigating the source of those hoax alerts, which appear to have come from outside the U.S., the FCC has just released instructions for EAS Participants in hopes of heading off any more false alerts.

The haste with which these instructions have been generated is demonstrated by the fact that they are not even on FCC letterhead, nor formatted for such a release. It is also worth noting that they are not described as "recommendations" or "guidelines", but as actions EAS Participants "must" or "are required" to take. A copy of the FCC release can be found here, but the full text is below:

Urgent Advisory: Immediate actions to be taken regarding CAP EAS device security.

All EAS Participants are required to take immediate action to secure their CAP EAS equipment, including resetting passwords, and ensuring CAP EAS equipment is secured behind properly configured firewalls and other defensive measures. All CAP EAS equipment manufacturer models are included in this advisory.

All Broadcast and Cable EAS Participants are urged to take the following actions immediately

  1. EAS Participants must change all passwords on their CAP EAS equipment from default factory settings, including administrator and user accounts.
  2. EAS Participants are also urged to ensure that their firewalls and other solutions are properly configured and up-to-date.
  3. EAS Participants are further advised to examine their CAP EAS equipment to ensure that no unauthorized alerts or messages have been set (queued) for future transmission.
  4. If you are unable to reset the default passwords on your equipment, you may consider disconnecting your device's Ethernet connection until those settings have been updated.
  5. EAS Participants that have questions about securing their equipment should consult their equipment manufacturer.

I'll have more to say about the zombie apocalypse in the next few days, as I was already writing a post on the subject when the FCC release arrived. However, I wanted to get the FCC's message out to broadcasters, cable operators, and other EAS Participants quickly, so that they can take action to prevent further hoax alerts, as well as be aware of the seriousness with which the FCC is taking these false alerts. Management should make sure that their staff is on alert for unusual EAS activity, particularly during major events coverage.

While the farcical nature of the initial hoax caused more amusement than panic, it is easy to see how a more realistic message could have caused far more damage. Yesterday's events will hopefully be isolated incidents, but we will be seeing a lot more attention focused on the security, as opposed to the reliability, of the EAS system.