Articles Posted in FCC Enforcement

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March 2015

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:

  • Deceptive Practices Yield Multi-Million Dollar Fines for Telephone Interexchange Carriers
  • LPFM Ads Cost $16,000
  • Multiple TV Station Licensees Face $6,000 Fines for Failing to File Children’s TV Programming Reports

Interexchange Carriers’ “Slamming” and “Cramming” Violations Yield Over $16 Million in Fines

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $7.62 million fine against one interexchange carrier and proposed a $9 million fine against another for changing the carriers of consumers without their authorization, commonly known as “slamming,” and placing unauthorized charges for service on consumers’ telephone bills, a practice known as “cramming.” Both companies also fabricated audio recordings and submitted the recordings to the FCC, consumers, and state regulatory officials as “proof” that consumers had authorized the companies to switch their long distance carrier and charge them for service when in fact the consumers had never spoken to the companies or agreed to the service.

Section 258 of the Communications Act and Section 64.1120 of the FCC’s Rules make it unlawful for any telecommunications service carrier to submit or execute a change in a subscriber’s selection of telephone exchange service or telecommunications service provider except with prior authorization from the consumer and in accordance with the FCC’s verification procedures. Additionally, Section 201(b) of the Communications Act requires that “all charges, practices, classifications, and regulations for and in connection with [interstate or foreign] communications service [by wire or radio], shall be just and reasonable.” The FCC has found that any assessment of unauthorized charges on a telephone bill for a telecommunications service is an “unjust and unreasonable” practice under Section 201(b), regardless of whether the “crammed” charge is placed on consumers’ local telephone bills by a third party or by the customer’s carrier.

Further, the submission of false and misleading evidence to the FCC violates Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules, which states that no person shall “provide material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information . . . without a reasonable basis for believing that any such material factual statement is correct and not misleading.” The FCC has also held that a company’s fabrication of audio recordings associated with its “customers” to make it appear as if the consumers had authorized the company to be their preferred carrier, and thus charge it for service, is a deceptive and fraudulent practice that violates Section 201(b)’s “just and reasonable” mandate.

In the cases at issue, the companies failed to obtain authorization from consumers to switch their carriers and subsequently placed unauthorized charges on consumers’ bills. The FCC found that instead of obtaining the appropriate authorization or even attempting to follow the required verification procedures, the companies created false audio recordings to mislead consumers and regulatory officials into believing that they had received the appropriate authorizations. One consumer who called to investigate suspect charges on her bill was told that her husband authorized them–but her husband had been dead for seven years. Another person was told that her father–who lives on another continent–requested the change in service provider. Other consumers’ “verifications” were given in Spanish even though they did not speak Spanish on the phone and therefore would not have completed any such verification in Spanish. With respect to one of the companies, the FCC remarked that “there was no evidence in the record to show that [the company] had completed a single authentic verification recording for any of the complainants.”

The FCC’s forfeiture guidelines permit the FCC to impose a base fine of $40,000 for “slamming” violations and FCC case law has established a base fine of $40,000 for “cramming” violations as well. Finding that each unlawful request to change service providers and each unauthorized charge constituted a separate and distinct violation, the FCC calculated a base fine of $3.24 million for one company and $4 million for the other. Taking into account the repeated and egregious nature of the violations, the FCC found that significant upward adjustments were warranted–resulting in a $7.62 million fine for the first company and a proposed $9 million fine for the second.

Investigation Into Commercials Aired on LPFM Station Ends With $16,000 Civil Penalty

Late last month, the FCC entered into a consent decree with the licensee of a West Virginia low power FM radio station to terminate an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s underwriting laws by broadcasting announcements promoting the products, services, or businesses of its financial contributors.

LPFM stations, as noncommercial broadcasters, are allowed to broadcast announcements that identify and thank their sponsors, but Section 399b(b)(2) of the Communications Act and Sections 73.801 and 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting advertisements. The FCC has explained that the rules are intended to protect the public’s use and enjoyment of commercial-free broadcasts in spectrum that is reserved for noncommercial broadcasters that benefit from reduced regulatory fees.

The FCC had received multiple complaints alleging that from August 2010 to October 2010, the licensee’s station broadcast advertisements in violation of the FCC’s noncommercial underwriting rules. Accordingly, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to the licensee. In its response, the licensee admitted that the broadcasts violated the FCC’s underwriting rules. The licensee subsequently agreed to pay a civil penalty of $16,000, an amount the FCC indicated reflected the licensee’s successful showing of financial hardship. In addition, the licensee agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan, including annual reporting requirements, to ensure no future violations of the FCC’s underwriting rules by the station will occur.

Failure to “Think of the Children” Leads to $6,000 Fines

Three TV licensees are facing $6,000 fines for failing to timely file with the FCC their Form 398 Children’s Television Programming Reports. Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) requires a commercial licensee to prepare and place in its public inspection file a Children’s Television Programming Report on FCC Form 398 for each calendar quarter. The report sets forth the efforts the station made during that quarter and has planned for the next quarter to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Licensees are required to file the reports with the FCC and place them in their public files by the tenth day of the month following the quarter, and to publicize the existence and location of those reports.

This month, the FCC took enforcement action against two TV licensees in California and one TV licensee in Ohio for Form 398 filing violations. The first California licensee failed to timely file its reports for two quarters, the second California licensee failed to file its reports for five quarters, and the Ohio licensee failed to file its reports for eight quarters. Each licensee also failed to report these violations in its license renewal application, as required under Section 73.3514(a) of the Rules. Additionally, the Ohio licensee failed to timely file its license renewal application (in violation of Section 73.3539(a) of the Rules), engaged in unauthorized operation of its station after its authorization expired (in violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act), and failed to timely file its biennial ownership reports (in violation of Section 73.3615(a) of the Rules).

Despite the variation in the scope of the violations, each licensee now faces an identical $6,000 fine. The FCC originally contemplated a $16,000 fine against the Ohio licensee, as its guidelines specify a base forfeiture of $10,000 for unauthorized operation alone. However, after assessing the licensee’s gross revenue over the past three years, the FCC determined that a reduction of $10,000 was appropriate, resulting in the third $6,000 fine.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.

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Whenever we report on FCC indecency decisions, it is always an interesting test of our subscribers’ spam filters. I am betting today’s FCC enforcement action will trigger more than its share of spam alerts.

In recent years, the FCC has been less active in issuing indecency fines as it struggles to draw a line between permissible and impermissible broadcast content that the courts will support. As a result, it has been relying more heavily on consent decrees, in which the alleged violator agrees to make a payment to the government and institute a compliance program in return for the FCC agreeing to terminate its investigation. By pursuing this path, the FCC avoids having to defend its indecency rules in court, and the alleged violator can sidestep a costly and uncertain appeal process.

Sometimes, however, the FCC channels Justice Potter Stewart in his famous view of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Today was just such an occasion, where the FCC proposed the maximum statutory fine of $325,000 for a station that appears to have unintentionally crossed the FCC’s indecency line.

WDBJ(TV), Roanoke, Virginia, aired a story in its newscast about “a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad.” To illustrate the story, the photojournalist preparing the report included a video screen grab of an adult website showing the subject of the report (who was neither nude nor engaged in sexual activity).

In the analog small-screen world of a prior generation, that would have been the end of it. However, living in a big-screen, high definition world, viewers noticed something that the station had missed. According to the FCC, “[t]he website, which was partially displayed along with the video image, is bordered on the right side by boxes showing video clips from other films that do not appear to show the woman who is the subject of the news report.”

Unfortunately for the station, one of those boxes showed “a video image of a hand stroking an erect penis.” As an aside, the decision is worth reading purely to see the variety of ways the FCC finds to describe this content.

The licensee of the station noted that “the smaller boxes, including the image of the penis, were not visible on the monitors in the Station’s editing bay, and therefore, the Station’s News Director and other management personnel who had reviewed the story did not see the indecent material prior to the broadcast.” It also noted that the video appeared for less than three seconds of the three minute and twenty second story.

The FCC apparently had no trouble seeing it, however, finding that the video met the definition of “indecency” in that it was “material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Because the content aired in the newscast at approximately 6pm, the FCC found that it did not fall within the 10pm-6am safe harbor in which indecent material may normally be aired, and therefore merited enforcement action. While the base fine for indecency is $7,000, the FCC found that “the patently offensive depiction of graphic and explicit sexual material obtained by the Station from an adult film website–is extreme and grave enough to warrant a significant increase from the $7,000 base forfeiture amount.” Building up steam, the FCC proceeded to throw more adjectives at it, finding that the content was “extremely graphic, lewd and offensive, and this action heightens the gravity of the violation and justifies a higher forfeiture.”

In proposing, for the first time ever, the maximum statutory fine of $325,000, the FCC added insult to injury, accusing the station of having a small monitor:

We also consider WDBJ to be sufficiently culpable to support a forfeiture. As discussed above, WDBJ broadcast material obtained from an online video distributor of adult films but failed to take adequate precautions to prevent the broadcast of indecent material when it knew, or should have known, that its editing equipment at the time of the apparent violation did not permit full screen review of material intended for broadcast. In addition, the indecent material was plainly visible to the Station employee who downloaded it; he simply didn’t notice it and transmitted it to Station editors who reviewed the story before it was broadcast.

While it’s clear the FCC didn’t have any qualms in pursuing this particular case, it does raise practical questions for broadcasters in less unusual circumstances. For example, might the FCC find a station airing crowd shots at a live sporting event guilty of willful indecency because its monitoring equipment was not large enough to detect that a few members of the crowd were being over-enthusiastic in trying to draw the attention of the kiss-cam? Stations in an analog world could usually rely on the low resolution of the medium to solve “background problems” like adult magazines in the background of a bookstore interview. Similarly, small images in a panning shot of the bookstore would be off the screen so quickly that viewers wouldn’t notice them or couldn’t be sure of what they had seen. In a hi-def world where DVRs make it possible for viewers to replay and analyze video frame by frame, stations must be conscious of every corner of every frame. It’s admittedly not an intuitive response at a time when broadcast stations are increasingly focusing on reaching the mobile audience watching tiny screens rather than on big-screen home viewers.

So what should broadcasters take away from this? Well, as station engineers head to the NAB Show in Vegas in a few weeks, they have a great story to tell their General Managers as to why they need to buy newer and bigger 16:9 studio monitors. As for me, media lawyers are often called upon to assess broadcast content for indecency, so I’m polishing my “guess we need a bigger TV” pitch for my wife. She’s a communications lawyer; she’ll understand.

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February 2015

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 $3.36 Million Fine to Company and Its CEO for Selling Toll Free Numbers
  • Antenna Fencing and Public Inspection File Violations Result in $17,000 Fine
  • FCC Reiterates That “Willful Violation” Does Not Require “Intent to Violate the Law”

Hold the Phone: FCC Finds Company and CEO Jointly and Severally Liable for Brokering Toll Free Numbers

The FCC handed down a $3,360,000 fine to a custom connectivity solutions company (the “Company”) and its CEO for violations of the FCC’s rules regarding toll free number administration. Section 251(e)(1) of the Communications Act mandates that telephone numbers, including toll free numbers, be made “available on an equitable basis.” As a general rule, toll free numbers, including “vanity” numbers (e.g., 1-800-BUY-THIS), cannot be transferred, and must be returned to the numbering pool so that they can be made available to others interested in applying for them when the current holder no longer needs them. Section 52.107 of the FCC’s Rules specifically prohibits brokering, which is “the selling of a toll free number by a private entity for a fee.”

In 2007, the Enforcement Bureau issued a citation to the Company and CEO for warehousing, hoarding, and brokering toll free numbers. The Bureau warned that if the Company or CEO subsequently violated the Act or Rules in any manner described in the 2007 citation, the FCC would impose monetary forfeitures. A few years later, the Bureau received a complaint alleging that in June and July of 2011, the Company and CEO brokered 15 toll free numbers to a pharmaceutical company for fees ranging from $10,000 to $17,000 per number. In 2013, the FCC found the Company and CEO jointly and severally liable for those violations and issued a $240,000 fine.

Despite the 2007 citation and 2013 fine, the Bureau found evidence that the CEO continued to broker toll free numbers. In early 2013, the Bureau received tips that the CEO sold several toll free numbers to a law firm for substantial fees. An investigation revealed that the CEO, who was the law firm’s main point of contact with the Company, had sold 32 toll free numbers to the firm for fees ranging from $375 to $10,000 per number. On other occasions, the CEO solicited the firm to buy 178 toll free numbers for fees ranging from $575 to $60,000 per number. This, along with his correspondence with the firm–including requests that payments be made to his or his wife’s personal bank accounts–were cited in support of a 2014 Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) finding that the CEO, in his personal capacity and on behalf of the Company, had “yet again, apparently violated the prohibition against brokering.”

As neither the Company nor the CEO timely filed a response to the 2014 NAL, the FCC affirmed the proposed fines: $16,000 for each of the 32 toll free numbers that were sold, combined with a penalty of $16,000 for each of the 178 toll free numbers that the Company and CEO offered to sell, resulting in a total fine of $3.36 million.

FCC Rejects AM Licensee’s “Not My Tower, Not My Problem” Defense

The FCC imposed a penalty of $17,000 against a Michigan radio licensee for failing to make available its issues/program lists in the station’s public file and for failing to enclose the station’s antenna structure within an effective locked fence.
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It is an unusual occasion indeed when the FCC offers to revise its rules to provide regulatory relief to both television and radio stations. Yet that is precisely what the FCC proposed in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to update its station-conducted contest rule to allow broadcasters to post contest rules online rather than broadcast them. As the proposal now stands, stations would no longer need to broadcast the contest rules if they instead announce the full website address where the rules can be found each time they discuss the contest on-air.

The FCC’s current contest rule was adopted back in 1976 when broadcasters could only provide contest information via printed copies of the rules available at the station or by announcing the rules over the air. The FCC’s existing rule states that broadcasters sponsoring a contest must “fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest” on-air, and subsequently conduct the contest substantially as announced. (For a refresher on the contest rule, you can take a look at the Pillsbury Advisory drafted by Scott Flick covering a number of on-air rules, including the contest rule, here). A note to the rule explains that “[t]he material terms should be disclosed periodically by announcements broadcast on the station conducting the contest, but need not be enumerated each time an announcement promoting the contest is broadcast. Disclosure of material terms in a reasonable number of announcements is sufficient.” The challenge for broadcasters has been airing the material terms of each station contest on-air a “reasonable number” of times without driving audiences away.

In the NPRM, the FCC acknowledged that things have changed since 1976, and that the Internet is now “an effective tool for distributing information to broadcast audiences.” More than three years ago, Entercom Communications filed a Petition for Rulemaking advancing the notion, among others, that the FCC should let broadcasters use their websites to post contest rules instead of having to announce them over the air. Not surprisingly, the Entercom proposal received a great deal of support and it remains unclear why the FCC waited so long to act on it.

The proposed rule would allow stations to satisfy their disclosure obligations by posting contest terms on the station’s Internet website, the licensee’s website, or if neither the individual station nor the licensee has its own website, any Internet website that is publicly accessible. Material contest terms disclosed online would have to conform with any mentioned on-air, and any changes to the material terms during the course of the contest would have to be fully disclosed on-air and in the rules as posted on the website.

Comments on the FCC’s proposals were due this week and it seems most parties are on the same page as the the FCC; namely, that it is the 21st century and the contest rule should be modernized to keep up with the times. In fact, Entercom in its comments asks the Commission to permit stations to announce contest website information an average of three times per day during a contest as an effective way to announce contest information to to public.

While this is generally good news for broadcasters, there is a catch or two. Under the new rule, stations that choose to disclose their contest rules online would be required to announce on-air that the rules are accessible online, and would also be required to announce the “complete, direct website address where the terms are posted … each time the station mentions or advertises the contest.” For stations that promote (or even mention) their contests frequently, this could become a pain really quickly, for both the station and their audience. Listening to a complete and lengthy URL “each time” anything regarding the contest is uttered on the air will grow old fast. There is a reason you rarely hear an ad that contains more than just the advertiser’s domain name, as opposed to the full address for a particular link from that domain. Advertisers know that people will remember a home page domain name much better than a full URL address, and that the full URL address will only cause the audience to tune out, both literally and figuratively.

In light of these concerns, Pillsbury submitted comments this week on behalf of all fifty State Broadcasters Associations urging the Commission to simplify matters by exempting passing on-air references to a contest from any requirement to announce the contest rules’ web address. Additionally, rather than require the broadcast of a “complete and direct website address,” which is typically a lengthy and easily forgettable string of letters and punctuation, the State Broadcasters Associations’ comments urged that the rule only require stations to announce the address of the website’s home page, where a link to the contest rules can be found. Those on the Internet understand quite well how to navigate a website, and will have little difficulty locating contest rules, either through a direct link or by using a site’s search function.

As Lauren Lynch Flick, the head of Pillsbury’s Contests & Sweepstakes practice, noted in a November 2014 post, station contests also must abide by applicable state law requirements. In that vein, the State Broadcasters Associations reminded the Commission that any FCC micro-management of the manner or format of a station’s online contest rule disclosures could subject stations to dueling federal and state requirements with no countervailing benefit. As pointed out in her post, an improperly conducted contest can subject a station to far greater liability under consumer protection laws and state and federal gambling laws than the typical $4,000 fine issued by the FCC for a contest violation. As a result, broadcasters need no further incentives to make sure their contests are fairly run and their rules fully disclosed to potential entrants.

In short, the FCC has an opportunity to ease the burden on both broadcasters and their audiences by allowing stations the flexibility to elect to make their contest rule disclosures online. The FCC shouldn’t diminish the benefit to be gained by reflexively imposing unnecessary restrictions on that flexibility.

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Everyone with a cell phone has probably received an unsolicited telemarketing robocall or text made by a company using an automated dialing system at some point. As we have previously written, a federal statute, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), prohibits making any autodialed call or sending a text to mobile phones, except in the case of an emergency or where the called party has provided their consent. And, where the autodialed call is a telemarketing call, that consent must be in writing. Significant fines have been levied against companies that violate the TCPA and related regulations.

Recently, however, there has been considerable debate as to whether a consumer’s consent to receive such calls, once given, can be withdrawn, and if so, whether consumers can waive that right so that marketers can continue to contact them despite a request to opt out. Although the TCPA and its implementing regulations give consumers the right to opt in to receiving telemarketing robocalls and texts, they are actually silent as to consumers’ ability to later change their minds and revoke that consent or opt out.

The further issue of whether consumers can waive their right to revoke their consent after having given it is discussed in a recent Pillsbury Client Alert by Pillsbury attorneys Catherine D. Meyer, Andrew D. Bluth, Amy L. Pierce and Elaine Lee entitled Stop Calling Me: Can Consumers Waive the Right to Revoke Consent under the TCPA? As the Client Alert points out, while most authorities and courts imply a right under the TCPA to revoke previously given consent, some recent decisions have revolved around whether the consumer can contractually give up that right to revoke.

Because the TCPA’s restrictions apply not just to businesses that use autodialers, but to businesses that use telephones capable of autodialing (which, some are arguing at the FCC, include pretty much any smartphone), the answer to this question could affect a large number of businesses and not just telemarketers.

In short, while the permanence of a consumer’s consent to be called is now somewhat up in the air, businesses calling consumer cell phones using equipment capable of autodialing need to be knowledgeable about all of the requirements of the TCPA, including whether they have received, and continue to have, a consumer’s consent to make that call.

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January 2015

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:

  • Individual fined $25,000 for Unauthorized “Chanting and Heavy Breathing” on Public Safety Station
  • Failure to Timely Request STA Results in $5,000 Fine
  • FCC Imposes $11,500 Fine for Intentional Interference and Station ID Violation

FCC Fired up by a New Yorker’s Deliberate Disregard for Public Safety

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $25,000 fine against a New York man for operating a radio transmitter without a license and interfering with the licensed radio communications system of the local fire department. Section 301 of the Communications Act provides that “[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with [the Act] and with a license.” Section 333 of the Act prohibits a person from willfully or maliciously interfering with any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act or operated by the United States government.

On October 31, 2013, the local fire department complained to the FCC that unauthorized transmissions of chanting and heavy breathing were interfering with its radio communications system. When the transmissions occurred during fire emergencies, the firefighters were forced to switch to an alternate frequency to communicate with each other and with the dispatchers. FCC agents traced the source of the interfering transmissions to an individual’s residence–a location for which no authorization had been issued to operate a Private Land Mobile Station. County police officers interviewed the individual and confirmed that one of his portable radios transmitted with the unique identifying code that the fire department observed when the unauthorized transmissions interfered with its communications. The officers subsequently arrested the individual for obstruction of governmental administration.

The FCC found the individual’s conduct was particularly egregious because his unlicensed operations hampered firefighting operations and demonstrated a deliberate disregard for public safety and the Commission’s authority and rules. Thus, while the FCC’s base fines are $10,000 for operation without authorization and $7,000 for interference, the FCC found that an upward adjustment of $8,000 was warranted, leading to the $25,000 fine.
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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.

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

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

  • $7,000 Fine for Late Renewal Application and Unauthorized Operation
  • Missing Wood Planks Around Tower Lead to $5,600 Fine
  • $39,000 Fine Upheld for Hearing Aid Compatibility Violations

Reduced Fine Imposed for Unauthorized Operation and Tardy Renewal Application

Earlier this month, the Audio Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau (the “Bureau”) issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) against a Nevada licensee for failing to timely file its license renewal application and for continuing to operate its FM station after its license had expired. The Bureau imposed a fine for the violations and considered the licensee’s renewal application at the same time.

Section 301 of the Communications Act provides that “[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy of communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with this Act and with a license in that behalf granted under the provisions of the Act.” Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires that broadcast licensees file applications to renew their licenses “not later than the first day of the fourth full calendar month prior to the expiration date of the license sought to be renewed.”

In this case, the licensee’s license expired on October 1, 2013, which meant that the licensee was required to file its license renewal application by June 1, 2013. However, the licensee did not file its renewal application until October 18, 2013, almost three weeks after its license expired, even though the Bureau had attempted to contact the licensee in June of 2013 about the impending expiration. In addition to its license renewal application, the licensee also requested Special Temporary Authority on October 18, 2013 to continue operating while its license renewal application was processed.
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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • $86,400 Fine for Unlicensed and Unauthorized BAS Operations
  • Missing “E/I” Graphic for Children’s Television Programs Results in Fine
  • Multiple Rule Violations Lead to $16,000 in Fines

Increased Fine for Continuing Broadcast Auxiliary Services Operations After Being Warned of Violations

Earlier this month, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) against a Texas licensee for operating three broadcast auxiliary services (“BAS”) stations without authorizations and operating an additional six BAS stations at variance with their respective authorizations. The FCC noted that it was taking this enforcement action because it has a duty to prevent unlicensed radio operations from potentially interfering with authorized radio communications in the United States and to ensure the efficient administration and management of wireless radio frequencies.

Section 301 of the Communications Act provides that “[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy of communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with this Act and with a license in that behalf granted under the provisions of the Act.” In addition, Section 1.947(a) of the FCC’s Rules specifies that major modifications to BAS licenses require prior FCC approval, and Section 1.929(d)(1) provides that changes to BAS television coordinates, frequency, bandwidth, antenna height, and emission type (the types of changes the licensee made in this case) are major modifications. The base fine for operating a station without FCC authority is $10,000 and the base fine for unauthorized emissions, using an unauthorized frequency, and construction or operation at an unauthorized location, is $4,000.

In April 2013, the licensee submitted applications for three new “as built” BAS facilities and six modified facilities. The modifications pertained to updates to the licensed locations of some of the licensee’s transmit/receive sites to reflect the as-built locations, changes to authorized frequencies, and recharacterization of sites from analog to digital. The licensee disclosed the three unauthorized stations and six stations operating at variance from their authorizations in these April 2013 applications. As a result of the licensee’s disclosures, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau referred the matter to the Enforcement Bureau (the “Bureau”) for investigation. In November 2013, the Bureau’s Spectrum Enforcement Division instructed the licensee to submit a sworn written response to a series of questions about its apparent unauthorized operations. The licensee replied to the Bureau in January 2014 and admitted that it operated the nine BAS facilities either without authorization or at variance with their authorizations. The licensee also admitted that it learned of the violations in May 2012 while conducting an audit of its BAS facilities. Finally, the licensee noted that it could not identify the precise dates when the violations occurred but that they had likely been ongoing for years and possibly since some of the stations were acquired in 1991 and 2001.

The FCC concluded that the licensee had willfully and repeatedly violated the FCC’s rules and noted that the base fine amount was $54,000, comprised of $30,000 for the three unauthorized BAS stations and $24,000 for the six BAS stations not operating as authorized. The licensee had argued that a $4,000 base fine should apply to the three unauthorized BAS stations because the FCC had previously imposed a $4,000 fine for similar violations when the licensee had color of authority to operate the BAS stations pursuant to an existing license for its full-power station. The FCC rejected this argument and noted that its most recent enforcement actions applied a $10,000 base fine for unlicensed BAS operations even where the full-power station license was valid.

The FCC concluded that the extended duration of the violations, including the continuing nature of the violations after the licensee became aware of the unlicensed and unauthorized operations, merited an upward adjustment of the proposed fine by $32,400. The FCC indicated that the licensee’s voluntary disclosure of the violations before the FCC began its investigation did not absolve the licensee of liability because of the licensee’s earlier awareness of the violations and the extended duration of the violations. The FCC therefore proposed a total fine of $86,400.

Reliance on Foreign-Language Programmer Did Not Affect Licensee’s $3,000 Fine

The Chief of the Video Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau issued an NAL against a California licensee for failing to properly identify educational children’s programming through display on the television screen of the “E/I” symbol.

The Children’s Television Act of 1990 introduced an obligation for television broadcast licensees to offer programming that meets the educational and informational needs of children (“Core Programming”). Section 73.671(c)(5) of the FCC’s Rules expands on this obligation by requiring that broadcasters identify Core Programming by displaying the “E/I” symbol on the television screen throughout the program.

The licensee filed its license renewal application on August 1, 2014. The licensee certified in the application that it had not identified each Core program at the beginning of each program and had failed to properly display the “E/I” symbol during educational children’s programming aired on a Korean-language digital multicast channel. In September 2014, the licensee amended its license renewal application to specify the time period when the “E/I” symbol was not used and two days later amended the renewal application again to state that it had encountered similar issues with displaying the “E/I” symbol on the station’s Chinese-language digital multicast channel.
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