Articles Posted in Advertising

Published on:

I wrote in March of last year that the FCC had proposed fines of $1,120,000 against Viacom, $530,000 against NBCUniversal, and $280,000 against ESPN for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that promoted the movie with an EAS alert tone. Seven Viacom cable networks aired the spot a total of 108 times, seven NBCUniversal cable networks aired it a total of 38 times, and ESPN aired it a total of 13 times on three cable networks.

According to the FCC, NBC elected to pay its $530,000 fine shortly thereafter and call it a day, but Viacom and ESPN challenged their respective fines, arguing that the fines should be rescinded or reduced because:

  • as programmers, Viacom and ESPN lacked adequate notice that Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules (the prohibition on false EAS tones) and Section 325 of the Communications Act (the prohibition on false distress signals) applied to them;
  • the prohibition on false EAS tones does not apply to intermediary program distributors, as opposed to broadcast stations and cable systems that transmit directly to the public;
  • the use of the EAS tone in the ad was not deceptive as it was clear from the context that it was not an actual EAS alert; and
  • Viacom and ESPN did not knowingly violate the prohibition on transmitting false EAS tones.

In an Order released earlier today, the FCC rejected these arguments, noting that Section 325 of the Communications Act and Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules are not new, and that they apply to all “persons” who transmit false EAS tones, not just to broadcasters and cable/satellite system operators. The FCC found that transmission of the network content to cable and satellite systems for distribution to subscribers constituted “transmission” of false EAS tones sufficient to trigger a violation of the rule. In reaching this conclusion, the FCC noted that both Viacom and ESPN had reviewed the ad before it was aired and had the contractual right to reject an ad that didn’t comply with law, but had failed to do so. The FCC also concluded that it was irrelevant whether the use of the EAS tone was deceptive, as the law prohibits any use of the tone except in an actual emergency or test of the system.

In line with many prior FCC enforcement decisions, the FCC found the violations to be “willful” on the grounds that it did not matter whether the parties transmitting the ads knew they were violating a law, only that they intended to air the ads, which neither party disputed. The FCC summed up its position by noting that it “has consistently held that ignorance or mistake of law are not exculpating or mitigating factors when assessing a forfeiture.”

While Viacom and ESPN also challenged the sheer size of the fines, the FCC noted that the base fine for false EAS tone violations is $8,000, and that in assessing the appropriate fines here, it took into account “(1) the number of networks over which the transmissions occurred; (2) the number of repetitions (i.e., the number of individual transmissions); (3) the duration of the violation (i.e., the number of days over which the violation occurred); (4) the audience reach of the transmissions (e.g., nationwide, regional, or local); and (5) the extent of the public safety impact (e.g., whether an EAS activation was triggered).” Because there were “multiple violations over multiple days on multiple networks, with the number of transmissions doubled on some networks due to the separate East Coast and West Coast programming feeds,” the FCC concluded the size of the fines was appropriate.

In describing more precisely its reasoning for the outsize fines, the FCC’s Order stated:

As the rule clearly applies to each transmission, each separate transmission represents a separate violation and Viacom cites no authority to the contrary. Moreover, the vast audience reach of each Company’s programming greatly increased the extent and gravity of the violations. Given the public safety implications raised by the transmissions, and for the reasons set forth in the [Notice of Apparent Liability], we find that the instant violations, due to their egregiousness, warrant the upwardly adjusted forfeiture amounts detailed by the Commission.

Finally, to buttress its argument for such large fines, the FCC pulled out its “ability to pay” card, noting the multi-billion dollar revenues of the companies involved and stating that “entities with substantial revenues, such as the Companies, may expect the imposition of forfeitures well above the base amounts in order to deter improper behavior.”

While today’s Order is not surprising in light of the FCC’s increasingly tough treatment of false EAS tone violations since 2010, it is not all bad news for the media community. To the extent that one of more of the Viacom, ESPN or NBCUniversal networks that transmitted the ads is likely carried by nearly every cable system in the U.S., the FCC could have elected to commence enforcement actions and issue fines against each and every system that failed to delete the offending content before transmitting the network programming to subscribers. Pursuing such fines would be expensive for all affected cable and satellite systems, but particularly devastating for smaller cable systems.

While it is always possible that the FCC could still commence such proceedings, it is notable that the FCC specifically rejected Viacom’s argument that it was unfair for the FCC to fine the networks while not fining the ad agency that created the ad or the cable and satellite systems that actually delivered the ad to subscribers. It therefore appears that, at least for now, the FCC is content to apply pressure where it thinks it will do the most good in terms of avoiding future violations. Should the FCC decide to broaden its enforcement efforts in the future however, we’ll be hearing a lot more about my last post on this subject–ensuring you are contractually indemnified by advertisers for any illegal content in the ads they send you to air.

Published on:

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:

  • Sponsorship Identification Violation Yields $115,000 Civil Penalty
  • $13,000 Increase in Fine Upheld for Deliberate and Continued Operation at Unauthorized Location
  • FCC Reduces $14,000 Fine for EAS and Power Violations Due to Inability to Pay

FCC Adopts Consent Decree Requiring Licensee to Pay $115,000 Civil Penalty

Earlier this month, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Nevada TV station terminating an investigation into violations of the FCC’s sponsorship identification rule.

The FCC’s sponsorship identification rule requires broadcast stations to identify the sponsor of content aired whenever any “money, service, or other valuable consideration” is paid or promised to the station for the broadcast. The FCC has explained that the rule is rooted in the idea that the broadcast audience is “entitled to know who seeks to persuade them.”

In 2009, the FCC received a complaint alleging that an advertising agency in Las Vegas offered to buy air time for commercials if broadcast stations aired news-like programming about automobile liquidation sales events at dealerships. The FCC investigated the complaint and found that the licensee’s TV station accepted payment to air “Special Reports” about the liquidation sales. The “Special Reports” resembled news reports, and featured a station employee playing the role of a television reporter questioning representatives of the dealership about their ongoing sales event.

The licensee acknowledged the applicability of the sponsorship identification rule to the “Special Reports,” but asserted that the context made clear their nature as paid advertisements despite the absence of an explicit announcement. The FCC disagreed, contending that the licensee failed to air required sponsorship announcements for twenty-seven “Special Reports” broadcast by the station from May through August of 2009.

As part of the Consent Decree, the licensee admitted to violating the FCC’s sponsorship identification rule and agreed to (i) pay a civil penalty of $115,000; (ii) develop and implement a Compliance Plan to prevent future violations; and (iii) file Compliance Reports with the FCC annually for the next three years.

FCC Finds That Corrective Actions and Staffing Problems Do Not Merit Reduction of Fine

The FCC imposed a $25,000 fine against a Colorado radio licensee for operating three studio-transmitter links (“STL”) from a location not authorized by their respective FCC licenses.

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications signals by radio, except in accordance with the Act and with a license from the FCC. In addition, Section 1.903(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires that stations in the Wireless Radio Services be operated in accordance with the rules applicable to their particular service, and only with a valid FCC authorization.

In August 2012, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s Denver Office inspected the STL facilities and found they were operating from a location approximately 0.6 miles from their authorized location. The agent concluded–and the licensee did not dispute– that the STL facilities had been operating at the unauthorized location for five years. A July 2013 follow-up inspection found that the STL facilities continued to operate from the unauthorized location.
Continue reading →

Published on:

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.

Published on:

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.

Published on:

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.

Published on:

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.

Published on:

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 →

Published on:

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?

Published on:

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.

Published on:

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.