Articles Posted in FCC Enforcement

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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.

Continue reading →

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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.

Published on:

June 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:

  • Educational FM Licensee Receives $8,000 Fine for Unauthorized Operation
  • FCC Cancels $6,000 Fine for Late Filings due to Licensee’s Inability to Pay
  • Blaming Prior Legal Counsel, Telecommunications Provider Pays $2,000,000 Civil Penalty

Continued Unauthorized Operation Leads to $8,000 Fine

A New York noncommercial educational radio station received an $8,000 fine after repeatedly failing to operate its station in accordance with its authorization. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications or signals by radio, except in accordance with the Act and with a license granted by the FCC. In addition, Section 73.1350(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires a licensee to maintain and operate its broadcast station in accordance with the terms of the station authorization.

In response to a complaint, an FCC agent discovered in October of 2012 that the licensee was operating the station from a transmitter site in Buffalo, New York, a location about 36 miles from the authorized site. The FCC made repeated attempts to contact the licensee. Ultimately, the president of the licensee confirmed the unauthorized operation and agreed to cease operating from Buffalo. The FCC then issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation to the licensee, warning it that future unauthorized operations could result in monetary penalties.

After receiving another complaint, the FCC determined that the licensee had resumed unauthorized operation in November of 2012. In response, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) proposing an $8,000 fine. The FCC explained in the NAL that although the base fine for operating at an unauthorized location is $4,000, the egregiousness of the licensee’s violation warranted an upward adjustment of an additional $4,000. The FCC based this decision on the fact that the licensee had moved the location of its transmitter to a significantly more populous area more than 30 miles from its authorized location in an effort to increase the station’s audience while potentially causing economic or competitive harm to radio stations licensed to that community.

Following the NAL, the licensee sought a reduction or cancellation of the fine, claiming that it made good faith efforts to remedy the violation, had a history of compliance with the FCC’s Rules, and was unable to pay the fine. The FCC concluded that the licensee took no remedial actions until after it was notified of the violation, and found that the licensee’s continued operation from the unauthorized location after receiving a Notice of Unlicensed Operation demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the FCC’s Rules. Finally, the licensee failed to provide any documentation supporting its inability to pay claim. Accordingly, the FCC rejected the licensee’s arguments and declined to cancel or reduce the $8,000 fine.

In Rare Decision, FCC Cancels Fine Based on Station’s Operating Losses

In October of 2014, the FCC’s Video Division proposed a $16,000 fine against the licensee of a Class A TV station for violating (i) Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules by failing to timely file its license renewal application, (ii) Section 73.3526(11)(iii) for failing to timely file its Children’s Television Programming Reports for eight quarters, (iii) Section 73.3514(a) for failing to report those late filings in its license renewal application, and (iv) Section 73.3615(a) for failing to timely file its 2011 biennial ownership report. The FCC also noted a violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act because the station continued operating after its authorization expired. Continue reading →

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May 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:

  • 404 Not Found: Missing Online Public File Documents Lead to $9,000 Fine
  • Wireless Providers Pay $158 Million to Settle Mobile Cramming Violations
  • Failure to Timely File License Renewal Application Results in $1,500 Fine

FCC Ramps up Enforcement of Online Public File Rule with $9,000 Fine and Multiple Admonishments

This month, the FCC proposed a $9,000 fine against one TV station licensee and admonished two others for violating the online public file rule. TV stations were required to upload new public file documents to the online public file on a going-forward basis beginning August 2, 2012, and should have finished uploading existing public file documents (with certain exceptions) by February 4, 2013. Until now, the FCC had taken relatively few enforcement actions against licensees for public file documents that exist but haven’t been uploaded to the station’s online public file, making three cases in one month stand out.

Section 73.3526(e)(11)(i) of the FCC’s Rules requires that every commercial TV licensee place in its 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. Section 73.3526(b)(2), which the FCC modified in 2012, requires TV station licensees to upload these and most other public file documents to the FCC-hosted online public file website.

On October 1, 2014, an Oregon TV licensee filed its license renewal application. An FCC staff inspection revealed that the licensee failed to upload to the online public file copies of its Issues/Programs Lists for its entire license term. The FCC concluded that the licensee missed both the August 2, 2012 and the February 4, 2013 deadlines by over two years, resulting in two separate violations. Additionally, the licensee did not disclose the online file violations in its license renewal application, creating an additional violation of the FCC’s Rules. Each violation cost the station $3,000, for a total proposed fine of $9,000.

Also this month, a Honolulu licensee and a different Oregon licensee caught the FCC’s attention for online public file violations. The FCC proposed fines of $9,000 and $3,000 respectively against the stations for failing to timely file all of their Children’s Television Programming Reports. In addition, the FCC admonished both licensees for failing to timely upload electronic copies of their quarterly Issues/Programs Lists by the February 4, 2013 deadline. The FCC determined that while the licensees uploaded the documents approximately 18-19 months late, they were at least uploaded prior to the filing of each station’s license renewal application. Because this preserved the public’s ability to undertake a full review of the stations’ public file documents in connection with potentially filing a petition to deny, the FCC concluded that admonitions rather than additional fines were an appropriate response.

FCC Continues Crack Down on Cramming Violations With Two Multi-Million Dollar Settlements

The FCC announced this month that, in coordination with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the attorneys general of all 50 states and D.C., it has reached settlements with two large wireless carriers to resolve allegations that the companies charged customers for unauthorized third-party products and services, a practice known as “cramming.” Investigations revealed that the companies had included charges ranging from $0.99 to $14.00 per month for unauthorized third-party Premium Short Message Services (“PSMS”) on their customers’ telephone bills, and that the companies retained approximately 30-35% of the revenues for each PSMS charge they billed. Continue reading →

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The FCC announced this afternoon that it has reached an agreement with iHeartCommunications resolving “an investigation into the misuse of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) tones….”  As we’ve noted before on numerous occasions, the federal government is very touchy about the use of an EAS alerting tone when there isn’t a test or actual emergency.

There are principally two reasons for this.  First, as the FCC noted (again) in today’s Public Notice, quoting Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the Enforcement Bureau, “[t]he public counts on EAS tones to alert them to real emergencies….  Misuse of the emergency alert system jeopardizes the nation’s public safety, falsely alarms the public, and undermines confidence in the emergency alert system.”

Second, the greatest advantage and disadvantage of the EAS system is that the tone contains digital data that automatically triggers EAS alerts by other stations monitoring the originating station.  This creates a highly efficient daisy chain that can distribute emergency information rapidly without the need for human intervention.

Unfortunately, that creates certain problems, one of which is that there is no human to intercede when an EAS warning of a zombie apocalypse occurs and there are no actual brain-eating creatures in the area (don’t laugh, this has actually happened already).  It is the electronic equivalent of Winston Churchill’s statement that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Compounding the harm is that while the originating station knows that the alert is false, and can so inform public safety personnel and the public itself when contacted about it, stations further down the automated distribution chain know only that they received and redistributed an EAS alert.  They have no knowledge of the facts surrounding the alert itself, potentially leading to a longer period of public panic before the EAS system locates its pants.

For reasons that are hard to discern, other than perhaps that the public has become more aware of EAS (resulting in more attention from advertisers and programmers seeking to leverage that familiarity), there has been a significant uptick in false EAS alerts in the past five years.  The result has been a growing number of FCC fines in amounts that previously only appeared in indecency cases.  Today’s Public Notice indicates that the FCC has “taken five enforcement actions totaling nearly $2.5 million for misuse of EAS tones by broadcasters and cable networks” in the past six months.

In today’s case (the Order for which has now been released), the FCC stated that “WSIX-FM, in Nashville, Tennessee, aired a false emergency alert during the broadcast of the nationally-syndicated The Bobby Bones Show.”  Delving into the details, the FCC noted that:

While commenting on an EAS test that aired during the 2014 World Series, Bobby Bones, the show’s host, broadcast an EAS tone from a recording of an earlier nationwide EAS test.  This false emergency alert was sent to more than 70 affiliated stations airing “The Bobby Bones Show” and resulted in some of these stations retransmitting the tones, setting off a multi-state cascade of false EAS alerts on radios and televisions in multiple states.

The FCC indicated that the station has formally admitted to a violation of the FCC’s EAS rules, and has agreed to (1) pay a $1,000,000 civil penalty, (2) implement a three-year compliance plan, and (3) “remove or delete all simulated or actual EAS tones from the company’s audio production libraries.”

While the size of the financial penalty is certainly noteworthy, the real first in this particular proceeding is the FCC’s effort to eradicate copies of EAS tones before they can be used by future production staffs.  Given the easy access to numerous recordings of EAS tones on the Internet, the FCC might be a bit optimistic that deleting the tone from a station’s production library will prevent a recurrence.  However, it is perhaps an acknowledgement that most false EAS tone violations are the result of employees unaware of the FCC’s prohibition rather than a producer bent on violating the rule.  It is also an acknowledgement that even a multi-year compliance program may not solve the problem if an EAS tone is lurking in the station library, seductively tempting and teasing that ambitious new staffer who just got a great idea for a funny radio bit….

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April 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 Scuttles New York Pirate Radio Operator and Proposes $20,000 Fine
  • Failure to Properly Identify Children’s Programming Results in $3,000 Fine
  • Telecommunications Carrier Consents to Pay $16 Million To Resolve 911 Outage Investigation

Fire in the Hole: FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine Against Pirate Radio Operator

This month, the FCC proposed a fine of $20,000 against an individual in Queens, NY for operating a pirate FM radio station. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the unlicensed use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications or signals by radio. Pirate radio operations can interfere with and pose illegal competitive harm to licensed broadcasters, and impede the FCC’s ability to manage radio spectrum.

The FCC sent several warning shots across the bow of the operator, noting that pirate radio broadcasts are illegal. None, however, deterred the individual from continuing to operate his unlicensed station. On May 29, 2014, agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s New York Office responded to complaints of unauthorized operations and traced the source of radio transmissions to an apartment building in Queens. The agents spoke with the landlord, who identified the man that set the equipment up in the building’s basement. According to FCC records, no authorization had been issued to the man, or anyone else, to operate an FM broadcast station at or near the building. After the man admitted that he owned and installed the equipment, the agents issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and verbally warned him to cease operations or face significant fines. The man did not respond to the notice.

Not long after, on January 13, 2015, New York agents responded to additional complaints of unlicensed operations on the same frequency and traced the source of the transmissions to another multi-family dwelling in Queens. The agents heard the station playing advertisements and identifying itself with the same name the man had used during his previous unlicensed operations. Again, the agents issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and ordered the man to cease operations, and again he did not respond.

The FCC therefore concluded it had sufficient evidence that the man willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Communications Act, and that his unauthorized operation of a pirate FM station warranted a significant fine. The FCC’s Rules establish a base fine of $10,000 for unlicensed operation of a radio station, but because the man had ignored multiple warnings, the FCC doubled the base amount, resulting in a proposed fine of $20,000.

FCC Rejects Licensee’s Improper “E/I” Waiver Request and Issues $3,000 Fine

A California TV licensee received a $3,000 fine this month for failing to properly identify children’s programming with an “E/I” symbol on the screen. The Children’s Television Act (“CTA”) requires TV licensees to offer programming that meets the educational and informational needs of children, known as “Core Programming.” Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to satisfy certain criteria to demonstrate compliance with the CTA; for example, broadcasters are required to provide specific information to the public about the children’s programming they air, such as displaying the “E/I” symbol to identify Core Programing. Continue reading →

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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.