Articles Posted in FCC Enforcement

Published on:

January 2016

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:

  • TV Licensee Agrees to Pay $18,000 for Public Inspection File Violations
  • FM Translator Licensee Faces $9,000 Fine for False Certification and Unauthorized Operation Violations
  • AM Station Licensee Pays $10,000 to End Investigation into Alleged Ownership Violations

Mistakes Over Off-Air Time in Public Inspection File Cost TV Licensee $18,000

The FCC’s Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Las Vegas Class A television licensee to resolve an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s Rules by improperly indicating  on four Children’s Television Programming Reports and TV Issues/Programs Lists that it was off-air, and failing to prepare mandatory certifications of Class A eligibility for over five years.

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 TV licensees to prepare and place in their public files a Children’s Television Programming Report for each calendar quarter showing, among other things, the efforts made during that three-month period to serve the educational and informational needs of children.  In addition, Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(i) requires TV licensees to place in their public file, on a quarterly basis, an Issues/Programs List that details programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding quarter.  Also, Subsection 73.3526(e)(17) requires each Class A television station to include in its public file documentation sufficient to demonstrate that it continues to meet the Class A eligibility requirements as set forth in Section 73.6001.

On May 28, 2014, the licensee filed its station’s license renewal application. In the process of evaluating the application, FCC staff found that the licensee indicated the station was off-air in its Children’s Television Reports and Issues/Programs Lists for two quarters during which it was on the air for a portion of the quarter, and for two quarters during which the station did not have Special Temporary Authorization (“STA”) to go off-air.  In addition, the station failed to prepare any Class A certifications during its license term, which began in the third quarter of 2009.

The licensee explained that it had mistakenly indicated that the station was off-air in the Children’s Television Reports and Issues/Programs Lists filed for the last three quarters of 2010 because its compliance official mistook the station’s engineering STA for an STA to go off-air. With regard to the first quarter 2012 reports, the licensee explained that the compliance official mistook another station’s STA to go off-air for this station’s STA.

To resolve the investigation, the licensee admitted to the violations and agreed to pay an $18,000 fine. The licensee also agreed to a two-year compliance plan, which directs the licensee to institute management checks, training, and other measures designed to prevent a re-occurrence of the violations.   Despite the imposition of a fine and compliance plan, the FCC renewed the station’s license, finding that the licensee met the minimum qualifications to hold an FCC license, and that grant of the license renewal application was in the public interest.

FCC Proposes $9,000 Fine for FM Translator Licensee Based on False Certification and Unauthorized Operation Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau proposed to fine a Texas FM translator licensee $9,000 for falsely certifying in a license application that its translator was constructed as specified in its construction permit, and for operating the translator at variance from its license. The FCC also admonished the licensee for including incorrect information in a related application.

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Published on:

December 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:

  • FM Licensee and Prospective Buyer Agree to Jointly Pay $8,000 for Unauthorized Transfer of Control
  • TV Licensee Faces $13,000 Fine for Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Violations
  • Late License Renewal Applicant Escapes With $1,500 Fine

Licensee Admits Time Brokerage Agreement Improperly Ceded Control of Station

The FCC’s Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Colorado FM broadcast licensee and a company seeking to acquire the station. The decree resolved an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s Rules by ceding control of key station responsibilities to a company through a Time Brokerage Agreement (“TBA”).

Section 310(d) of the Communications Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit voluntary assignments or transfers of control of broadcast licenses without the consent of the FCC. The Consent Decree noted that TBAs are not precluded by any FCC rule or policy, provided that licensees remain in compliance with the ownership rules and maintain ultimate control over their facilities. The Consent Decree explained that a licensee maintains such control when it holds ultimate responsibility for essential station matters such as programming, personnel, and finances.

The licensee and company entered into a TBA in 1992, and in 2006 the company assigned its rights under the agreement to an affiliated corporate entity. On April 23, 2015, the licensee and company jointly filed an application to assign the station’s license to the company, initiating the FCC’s investigation into the TBA.

The FCC concluded that the TBA effected an unauthorized transfer of control of the station license. Specifically, the TBA improperly delegated core licensee financial responsibilities by allowing an affiliated corporate entity of the broker to directly pay for certain station obligations and expenses, including a debt owed to a third party, site rent, and the bill for the station’s telephone service.

To resolve the investigation, the licensee and the company stipulated that they had each violated Section 310(d) of the Communications Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules, and agreed to collectively pay an $8,000 fine. In exchange, the FCC indicated it would grant the assignment application subject to full and timely payment of the fine and the absence of any other violations that would preclude such a grant.

FCC Proposes $13,000 Fine for Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau proposed a $13,000 fine for a Texas TV station for failing to properly identify children’s programming with an “E/I” symbol onscreen, and for several public inspection file violations. Additionally, the FCC admonished the licensee for its failure to upload required documents to the online public inspection file.

The Children’s Television Act requires TV stations to offer programming that meets the educational and informational needs of children, which the FCC calls “Core Programming.” Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to, among other things, display an “E/I” symbol to identify such content. Continue reading →

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November 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 Admonishes TV Licensee for Prior Station Owner’s Failure to Timely File Children’s Television Programming Reports
  • Inadequate Antenna Fencing and Signage Result in Proposed Fines of $60,000 and $25,000 for Two Broadband-PCS Licensees
  • Cable Company Settles Data Breach Investigation for $595,000

You Can’t Leave Your Troubles Behind: FCC Clarifies That Prior Violations Transfer Along with TV Station

The FCC’s Video Division admonished a New York TV licensee whose station failed to file Children’s Television Programming Reports in a timely manner for thirteen quarters between 2006 and 2010. The licensee acquired control of the station through a long-form transfer of control consummated in September 2010.

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 TV licensees to prepare and place in their public inspection files a Children’s Television Programming Report for each calendar quarter showing, among other things, the efforts made during that three-month period to serve the educational and informational needs of children.

In 2011, the FCC sent a letter to the licensee requesting that the licensee provide information concerning missing Children’s Television Programming Reports between 2006 and 2010. In response, the licensee explained that some of the missing reports had actually been filed under a “–FM” call sign, instead of the licensee’s “–CA” call sign, and admitted that the others had not been filed. The FCC later notified the licensee’s counsel that it had concluded its investigation into the Children’s Television Reports at issue in its 2011 letter, and did not impose a fine or other penalty for the violations at that time.

The violations resurfaced, however, after the station’s license renewal application filing in 2015 triggered an FCC review of the station’s online public inspection file. The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture to the licensee, proposing a $15,000 fine for its failure to timely file the 2006-2010 Children’s Television Programming Reports. The licensee argued that (i) the FCC had previously investigated the station’s public file and deemed it in compliance, and (ii) the licensee was not responsible for untimely report violations of the station’s prior owner, noting “existing regulations and a consistent line of published decisions and notices” to that effect. In particular, the licensee cited Section 73.3526(d) of the FCC’s Rules, which provides that “[i]f the assignment is consented to by the FCC and consummated, the assignee shall maintain the file commencing with the date on which notice of the consummation of the assignment is filed with the FCC.”

As even the licensee acknowledged, however, “assignments and transfers are dealt with in separate sub-sections of the rule, and the language about the limited responsibility of a new owner appears only in the assignment subsection.” On that basis, the FCC rejected the licensee’s argument, explaining that “[b]ecause the Licensee remains the same after a transfer of control, as a legal matter, liability remains with the licensee.”

Nevertheless, the FCC concluded that the licensee “had reason to believe it was in compliance at the time it submitted its license renewal application because it had filed previously missing reports in 2011 and 2013.” It therefore exercised its discretion to cancel the proposed fine and instead issue an admonishment. The FCC warned, however, that it would not rule out more severe sanctions for similar violations in the future, noting that the FCC takes the timely filing of Children’s Television Programming Reports “very seriously.”

Broadband-PCS Licensees Face Fines for Exposing the Public to Excessive Radiofrequency Levels

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed $60,000 and $25,000 fines against two broadband-PCS licensees for inadequate warning signs and fencing surrounding certain antennas in Phoenix, resulting in unprotected areas that exceeded what is permissible radiofrequency (“RF”) exposure for the general public. The violations were discovered on the same day as a result of a complaint from the owner of a nearby office building. Continue reading →

Published on:

October 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:

  • Time Brokerage Agreement Costs Station and Broker/Buyer $10,000
  • Telecom Provider Agrees to Pay $620,500 to Resolve Investigation of Cell Tower Registration and Lighting Violations
  • FCC Admonishes TV Station Licensee for Failing to Upload Past Issues/Programs Lists to Online Public Inspection File

Brokering Bad: Non-Compliant Time Brokerage Agreement Ends With $10,000 Consent Decree

The FCC’s Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a North Carolina noncommercial educational FM broadcast licensee and a company seeking to acquire the station’s license. The decree resolved an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s Rules by receiving improper payments from, and ceding control of key station responsibilities to, the proposed buyer.

Under Section 73.503(c) of the FCC’s Rules, a noncommercial educational FM broadcast station may broadcast programs produced by, or whose creation was paid for by, other parties. However, the station can receive compensation from the other party only in the form of the radio program itself and costs incidental to the program’s production and broadcast.

In addition, the FCC requires a station licensee to staff its main studio with at least two employees, one of whom must be a manager (the “main studio rule”). The FCC has clarified that, while a licensee may delegate some functions to an agent or employee on a day-to-day basis, “ultimate responsibility for essential station matters, such as personnel, programming and finances, is nondelegable.”

In March 2013, the station licensee and the company jointly filed an application to assign the station’s license to the company, which had been brokering time on the station for a number of years. The application included a copy of the Time Brokerage Agreement (“TBA”) the parties executed in 2003. In return for airing the broker’s programming, the TBA provided for a series of escalating payments to the station, including initial monthly payments of $6,750 for the first year of the TBA, increasing to $8,614 per month in 2008, and then increasing five percent per year thereafter.

Upon investigating the TBA, the FCC found that the payments were unrelated to “costs incidental to the program’s production and broadcast.” Additionally, the FCC concluded that the TBA violated the main studio rule and resulted in an improper transfer of control of the station license by improperly delegating staffing responsibilities to the broker.

To resolve the investigation into these violations, the licensee and the broker/buyer agreed to jointly pay a $10,000 fine. In exchange, the FCC agreed to grant their assignment application provided that the following conditions are met: (1) full and timely payment of the fine; and (2) “there are no issues other than the Violations that would preclude grant of the Application.”

Telecommunications Provider Settles FCC Investigation of Unregistered and Unlit Cell Towers for $620,500

An Alaskan telecommunications provider entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to resolve an investigation into whether the provider failed to properly register and light its cell towers in violation of the FCC’s Rules. With few exceptions, Section 17.4(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires cell tower owners to register their towers in the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (“ASR”) system. In addition, Section 17.21(a) requires that cell towers be lit where their height may pose an obstruction to air traffic, such as towers taller than 200 feet and towers in the flight path of an airport. The FCC’s antenna structure registration and lighting rules operate in conjunction with Federal Aviation Administration regulations to ensure cell towers do not pose hazards to air traffic.

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Published on:

September 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 Admonishes TV Station Licensees for Violating Commercial Limits in Children’s Programming
  • Telecommunications Provider Agrees to $1.175 Million Payment to Resolve Investigation of 911 Call Failures
  • Pirate Radio Operator’s Repeated Disregard for the Rules Results in $15,000 Proposed Fine

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[UPDATE:  The FCC just released its Report and Order defining the requirements for stations wishing to meet their contest disclosure obligations by posting their contest rules online.  The revised FCC rule requires a licensee to (i) broadcast the relevant website address periodically with information making it easy for a consumer to find the material contest terms online; (ii) establish a link or tab to material contest terms on the website’s home page; (iii) maintain contest terms online for a minimum of thirty days after the contest ends; and (iv) where applicable, within 24 hours of a material change in contest rules (and periodically thereafter), announce that the material terms have changed and direct participants to the website to see the changes. 

The FCC also noted that the “relevant website” for posting rules should be the station’s or licensee’s website or, if there is no station or licensee website, then any other website that is “designed to be accessible to the public 24/7, for free, and without any registration requirement.”

In the Report and Order, the FCC agreed with commenters that a literal interpretation of the “complete and direct” website announcement requirement would be unduly burdensome for broadcasters and confusing to the public.  It therefore concluded that broadcasters could satisfy the requirement by identifying the relevant address “through simple instructions or natural language (e.g., ‘for contest rules go to kxyz.com and then click on the contest tab’).”

The Report and Order did not, however, shine any light on how frequently a broadcaster must announce the web address.  Instead, the FCC decided that “the public interest would be better served by providing licensees with flexibility to determine the frequency with which they broadcast the website address where contest terms are made available to the public.”  The FCC cautioned, however, that if it finds “that licensees are failing to broadcast the website address with adequate frequency,” the Commission will revisit the issue in the future.]

[EARLIER POST BELOW]

As we wrote last month, the agenda for the FCC’s September open meeting included consideration of its proposal to modernize the 40-year-old broadcast contest rule. Today, after more than three and a half years of (unopposed) anticipation, the FCC adopted rules that “allow broadcasters to disclose contest rules online as an alternative to broadcasting them over the air.”

As the FCC has not released the text of its decision yet, the precise form of disclosure that will be required is not fully known.  However, it appears the FCC did hear the suggestions made by numerous commenters regarding how often a station must air the web address for contest rules. The FCC’s original proposal would have required that the online location of the full contest rules be mentioned every time the contest itself is mentioned.  Numerous parties complained that such an approach would clutter the airwaves with repetitive mentions of the website address where the rules could be found, and would be of little use to a public well-attuned to finding information on the Internet.

Today’s Public Notice hints that less frequent website mentions will be adequate, stating that broadcasters will be required only to “periodically announce over the air the website address where their contest rules can be found.”  Once the text of the rules is released, broadcasters will learn if the FCC has provided any guidance as to how often a “periodic” announcement must run.

Also left open until the text of today’s decision arrives is the issue of whether the FCC will stick with its original proposal that “the complete and direct” website address (e.g., “http://www.WXYZ.com/contest123/rules”) be aired, or if broadcasters will instead be allowed to use a shorter web address, such as the station’s main website, where a link to the contest rules can be found.  In either case, we would expect the FCC will require that a link to the contest rules be featured prominently on a station’s website.

While today’s action still permits broadcast stations to comply with the rules by airing the material terms of a contest on-air, it opens up an additional option that many stations will prefer to use, if for no other reason than to put an end to debates at the FCC about whether what a station aired constituted the “material terms” of a contest’s rules.  That has been a major subject of FCC enforcement decisions related to station-conducted contests, and one that should go away if the station has posted the full contest rules online.  As a result, the main focus of any FCC investigation involving a station contest will likely be limited to whether the station followed its published rules in conducting its contest.  That is a far more objective question, and should eliminate some of the risk that has been inherent in running a station contest for the past 40 years.

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As we wrote last month, the agenda for the FCC’s September open meeting included consideration of its proposal to modernize the 40-year-old broadcast contest rule. Today, after more than three and a half years of (unopposed) anticipation, the FCC adopted rules that “allow broadcasters to disclose contest rules online as an alternative to broadcasting them over the air.”

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Published on:

August 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 Again Cracks Down on Wi-Fi Blocking at Conference Centers
  • Licensee Faces $27,000 Fine for Repeatedly Failing to File Kidvid Reports
  • Too Little Too Late: FCC Dismisses as Late (and Meritless) Antenna Structure Owner’s Petition for Reconsideration

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Published on:

July 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:

  • Repetitive Children’s Programming Costs TV Licensee $90,000
  • It’s Nice to Be Asked: FCC Faults Red-Lighted Licensee’s Failure to Request STA
  • FCC Proposes $25,000 Fine for Hogging Shared Frequencies

“Repeat” Offender: Children’s Programming Reports Violations Cost Licensee $90,000

A licensee of several full power and Class A TV stations in Florida and South Carolina paid $90,000 to resolve an FCC investigation into violations of the Children’s Television Act (CTA) threatening to hold up its stations’ license renewal grants.

The CTA, as implemented by Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules, requires full power TV licensees to provide sufficient programming designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children, known as “Core programming”, and Section 73.6026 extends this requirement to Class A licensees. The FCC’s license renewal application processing guideline directs Media Bureau staff to approve the CTA portion of any license renewal application where the licensee shows that it has aired an average of 3 hours per week of Core programming. Staff can also approve the CTA portion of a license renewal application where the licensee demonstrates that it has aired a package of different types of educational and informational programming, that, even if less than 3 hours of Core programming per week, shows a level of commitment to educating and informing children equivalent to airing 3 hours per week of Core programming. Applications that do not satisfy the processing guidelines are referred to the full Commission, where the licensee will have a chance to prove its compliance with the CTA.

Among the seven criteria the FCC has established for evaluating whether a program qualifies as Core programming is the requirement that the program be a regularly scheduled program. The FCC has explained that regularly scheduled programming reinforces lessons from episode to episode and “can develop a theme which enhances the impact of the educational and informational message.” With this goal in mind, the FCC has stressed that the CTA intends for regularly scheduled programming to be comprised of different episodes of the same program, not repeats of a single-episode special.

Applying this criteria to each of the licensee’s 2012 and 2013 license renewal applications, the FCC staff questioned whether certain programming listed in the Children’s Television Programming Reports for the stations complied with the episodic program requirement. In particular, the staff looked at single-episode specials that the licensee counted repeatedly for the purpose of demonstrating the number of Core programs aired during each quarter—for example, the licensee listed one single-episode special as being aired 39 times in one quarter. After determining that it could not clear the renewal applications under the FCC’s processing guidelines, the staff referred the matter to the full Commission for review.

The FCC and the licensee subsequently negotiated the terms of a consent decree to resolve the CTA issues raised by the Media Bureau. Under the terms of the consent decree, the licensee agreed to make a $90,000 voluntary contribution to the U.S. Treasury. The licensee also agreed to enact a plan to ensure future compliance with the CTA, to be reflected in each station’s Quarterly Children’s Television Programming Reports. In light of the consent decree and after reviewing the record, the FCC concluded that the licensee had the basic qualifications to be an FCC licensee and ultimately granted each station’s license renewal application.

FCC Clarifies “Red Light” Policy Is a Barrier to Grants, Not a Road Block to Filing Requests

An Indiana radio licensee faces a $15,000 fine for failing to retain all required documentation in its station’s public inspection file and for suspending operation of the station without receiving special temporary authority (STA) to do so.

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We’ve all heard the warning: once you put something on the Internet, it will be there forever.  But an Oregon TV station learned the hard way that records in the FCC’s online public inspection file are easier to delete than you might like—and backdating restored files is not an option.

As detailed in our May Enforcement Monitor, the FCC hit the licensee with a proposed $9,000 fine for failing to timely upload Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to the station’s online public inspection file—$3,000 for failing to post newly-created documents to the online file after the online file rule went into effect on August 2, 2012, $3,000 for failing to meet the February 4, 2013 deadline to populate the online public file with documents created before August 2012, and yet another $3,000 for failing to disclose these apparent violations in the station’s license renewal application.

But in its response to the FCC’s Notice of Apparent Violation (NAL), the licensee asserted that it had in fact timely posted its issues/programs lists to the online public file.  The licensee claimed that when it was notified that the license renewal of a co-owned LPTV station was granted, a station employee deleted all issues/programs lists for the preceding license term from the online public file of the licensee’s full power TV station, apparently confused about which station’s license renewal had been granted (both stations had the same four-letter call sign).  Recognizing the error, station employees promptly re-uploaded the lists to the public file less than 24 hours later.  The February 13, 2015 upload date, however, created the appearance that the licensee had missed the original due dates by more than two years.

As proof of the mishap, the licensee provided (i) a signed declaration under penalty of perjury from a station employee, and (ii) internal correspondence showing that the lists were inadvertently deleted following the LPTV station’s license renewal grant.  Satisfied with this evidence, the FCC rescinded the NAL and canceled the $9,000 fine.

So let this be a teachable moment—particularly as the FCC ponders expanding its online public file requirement to radio stations.

First, when intentionally deleting documents as no longer relevant, make sure you are in the right public file.  Second, where a public file document is accidentally deleted, repost it as soon as the error is spotted.  Third, when you do repost it, attach a brief explanation alerting the FCC (and any potential license renewal petitioners) of the original filing date and the reason for the subsequent “late” filing.  Finally, maintain contemporaneous records to document the mistake, providing evidence that will back up the station’s explanation when the FCC comes knocking.

Oh, and one last thing the FCC didn’t mention in its decision: don’t delete those public file documents until grant of the station’s license renewal becomes a final, unappealable order.  If the FCC rescinds a station’s license renewal as having been granted in error, the station will need to have those documents in its public file, and the FCC isn’t going to bother looking for them in the Google cache.