Articles Posted in Political Advertising

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Television broadcasters have had to comply with an online Public Inspection File requirement since 2012.  This past January, the FCC announced that it would expand the online Public File requirement to certain broadcast radio, satellite radio, cable system, and DBS operators.  Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing the effective date of that new obligation.  It also announced that it has established a new filing system, the Online Public Inspection File (“OPIF”), for use by these newly-covered entities, as well as by television broadcasters who until now have been using the existing online Broadcast Public Inspection File (“BPIF”).

The entities that are newly covered by the online Public File requirement will begin use of the new system in two “waves,” with larger entities going first and having a phase-in period, and smaller entities going later, but having no phase-in period.  There are lots of dates to keep track of, which include:

  • To Be Announced:  FCC Webinar Demonstrating Use of OPIF
  • June 24, 2016:  Public Inspection File documents (including Political File documents) created on or after this date must be uploaded to OPIF by the “first wave” of newly-covered entities:
    • Commercial radio stations that have five or more full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • DBS providers
    • SDARS licensees
    • Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers (except with respect to the Political File, for systems with fewer than 5,000 subscribers)
  • June 24, 2016:  OPIF use by full-power and Class A television stations becomes mandatory and BPIF use is disabled
    • The FCC says it will transition television stations’ existing documents from the BPIF to the OPIF automatically by this date
  • December 24, 2016:  Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents created prior to June 24, 2016 must be uploaded to the OPIF by the “first wave” entities listed above
  • March 1, 2018:  A “second wave” of newly-covered entities must begin use of OPIF for all newly created Public Inspection and Political File documents and upload all existing Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents.  The “second wave” consists of:
    • All NCE radio stations
    • Commercial radio stations that have fewer than five full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • Commercial radio stations located outside of the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets, regardless of staff size
    • Cable systems with between 1,000 and 5,000 subscribers, with respect to newly-created Political File documents only

Commercial broadcast licensees must continue to retain letters and emails from the public at their main studios; the FCC will not let them be posted in the online public file.  However, as we noted last week, the FCC is circulating a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes eliminating such letters and emails from the public file entirely.

The Public Notice announces that the OPIF will include a number of technical improvements not found in the BPIF system currently used by television licensees.  According to the FCC, these improvements are meant to allow stations to better manage their online files, including implementing APIs to enable the upload of multiple documents from a third-party website and permitting a document to be placed into multiple folders.  OPIF will also feature improved .pdf conversion software to speed uploads, and allow more flexibility to delete empty folders.

While radio stations have been nervously gearing up to face the new frontier of online public files, TV stations may be a bit surprised that the online file is changing for them as well.  Particularly surprised will be those TV stations who haven’t been following these developments and who try to log into the old public file system on July 10 to file their quarterly reports.  Whether you are a TV or radio broadcaster, or a cable, DBS, or SDARS provider, now is the time to start learning how OPIF will work; it’s not a BPIF world anymore.

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Despite a three-hour delayed opening of the federal government courtesy of the aftermath of Winter Storm Jonas, the FCC, in today’s Open Meeting, adopted rules requiring that radio broadcast stations, as well as satellite radio (i.e., Sirius/XM), direct broadcast satellite providers (i.e., DirecTV and DISH), and most cable television systems, migrate their public inspection files to an FCC-hosted online database.

The FCC has only published a brief Public Notice describing its action, but there will be more details available when the full Report and Order is released, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.  The Public Notice does however clarify that important exemptions that appeared to have gone missing when the Chairman wrote about the proposed requirement in a blog post a few weeks ago (which we discussed here) have since been added, due in  large part to the efforts of the NAB and state broadcasters associations pushing for such exemptions.  Importantly:

  • Only commercial broadcast radio stations that are in Top 50 radio markets and that have at least five full-time employees will need to comply with the new rules when they first become effective.
  • All other radio stations will have two years to commence complying with the new rules, although they are permitted to move online earlier if they wish to do so voluntarily.

The biggest news in the FCC’s Public Notice appeared to be the statement that the FCC would “permit entities that have fully transitioned to the online public file to cease maintaining a local public file, as long as they provide online access to back-up political file material via the entity’s own website if the FCC’s online file database becomes temporarily unavailable.”  For radio stations that have had to remain on constant alert to escort random station visitors inside their facilities to review the “paper” public file (with all the attendant security risks that represents for a media outlet), this regulatory relief was welcome, and had been championed in the proceeding by all 50 state broadcasters associations.

However, the celebration turned out to be potentially premature, as later in the day, the FCC released the commissioners’ individual statements, and Commissioner O’Rielly’s separate statement lamented that:

Unlike cable and satellite operators, commercial broadcast licensees will not have the immediate option of transitioning to an online-only public file, due to the Commission’s rule pertaining to the correspondence file that arguably cannot be made available online for privacy reasons. I very much appreciate the Chairman’s attention to this important issue and commitment to move forward on a proposal to eliminate correspondence file requirements so that broadcasters, too, can have an online-only option for public file requirements.

So it will take a bit longer before radio stations can say goodbye to their paper public files, but it looks those local files’ days may be numbered.

Another spot of relief is that political file material will need to be uploaded only on a going forward basis.  Historical political information can be retained in paper format until the expiration of the two-year retention period applicable to such documents.  However, stations must have a back-up political file, either in paper or on their websites, in case the FCC’s public file database goes down and the information becomes unavailable from the FCC.

As is the case for television stations, which began moving their public inspection files online in 2012, those covered by today’s order will only need to upload items that are not already electronically filed and available on the FCC’s website.  As a result, documents like ownership reports and most facility modification applications should be automatically loaded into a station’s online public file by the FCC.

The order will apparently include some accommodations for small cable systems as well.  Systems with fewer than 1,000 subscribers will be completely exempt from the online public file requirement, and systems with 1,000-5,000 subscribers will have a two-year phase-in period for their political file material.

Unfortunately, the Public Notice does not indicate exactly when the rules will take effect—an important detail for licensees operating commercial radio stations in the Top 50 markets with five or more full-time employees.  When TV station public files went online, the FCC set the deadline at 30 days following publication of a notice in the Federal Register that the Office of Management and Budget had approved the information collection aspects of the rule.  If this order follows a similar timeline, the new rules wouldn’t likely become effective until sometime in the second quarter of this year.

Over the years, many have criticized the public file as being of little interest to the viewers and listeners it was originally meant to inform, noting that it has instead become merely a source of federal revenue due to the stiff fines imposed by the FCC for violations of the public file rule.  The FCC’s view, however, is that more members of the public will review the file if it can be accessed online, following the motto “upload it, and they will come.”  Whether that is true, the FCC commissioners clearly see the online public file requirement as an effort to move the FCC’s rules into the 21st century.  Broadcasters in particular are hoping that it is the beginning of a much broader effort to bring the FCC’s rules into the 21st century, and many would like to suggest that the FCC next move on to its multiple ownership rules.

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Broadcasters let out a small sigh of relief today when the FCC made clear there is no requirement that TV stations have private investigators on staff.

With TV stations’ political files now available online, three political activist organizations have been jointly filing complaints against TV stations alleging various errors and omissions in online public file paperwork relating to political ad buys by third-party advertisers. These three organizations, the Campaign Legal Center, Sunlight Foundation, and Common Cause, expanded their campaign (no pun intended) substantially in mid-July, when they filed complaints against a Washington, DC and a Portland, Oregon TV station. Rather than paperwork problems, however, these complaints claimed that the stations had failed to accurately disclose on-air the true identity of the sponsor behind certain “Super PAC” political ads. In both cases, the complainants asserted that their own research indicated the PACs were mostly or entirely funded by a single individual, and that the stations should have therefore identified that individual rather than the PAC as the sponsor of the political spot.

While there is ample precedent for requiring broadcasters to be comfortable that the sponsorship information in a political spot is accurate, the most recent complaints concerned broadcasters for two reasons. First, there apparently was no question that the PACs had indeed been the ones to write the check for the ads and were valid legal entities, so a TV station altering the sponsorship identification text to specify the station’s opinion as to who the “real” sponsor is raises numerous legal issues, not the least of which is that the station could well get it wrong. For example, it would be a pretty brazen station that would change the sponsorship identification on Microsoft ads to “paid for by Bill Gates” on the theory that Bill Gates was the main “person” behind the organization that wrote the check. Of course, in this example the station would be doubly wrong, as Bill Gates ceased being the largest shareholder of Microsoft in May of this year, demonstrating the risk a station takes in attempting to be the arbiter of who is “behind” an advertiser.

This example also demonstrates the second issue that concerned broadcasters about the complaints. If, in the absence of an obvious sham advertiser, broadcasters had an obligation to ignore the “name on the check” and attempt to discern the actual source of the check writer’s income, they would need a full-time staff of researchers doing nothing but verifying the structure of advertisers. In addition, the airing of political ads would be perpetually delayed while stations seek adequate certainty that they have discerned the true source of all ad funds.

The result would be a no-win situation for broadcasters, who would have to expend enormous resources trying to determine where an advertiser’s money comes from, and having done that, expose themselves to both private liability (from the advertiser who wasn’t credited as the sole sponsor of the spot, as well as from the individual who was) and regulatory liability (if the government disagrees with the licensee’s sponsorship conclusions).

Today, the FCC wisely avoided placing broadcasters in that conundrum, ruling in a letter decision that:

We conclude that the complaints do not provide a sufficient showing that the stations had credible evidence casting into doubt that the identified sponsors of the advertisement were the true sponsors. As the Commission has stated previously, “unless furnished with credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party, the broadcaster may rely on the plausible assurances of the person(s) paying for the time that they are the true sponsor.” While the complaint against [the station] presented some evidence that station employees may have come across facts in the course of news reporting on political issues that could have raised questions in their minds concerning the relationship of NextGen Climate Action Committee and Tom Steyer, we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance, given the need to balance the “reasonable diligence” obligations of broadcasters in identifying the sponsor of an advertisement with the sensitive First Amendment interests present here.

While it is reassuring that the FCC moved quickly to reject the complaints, today’s action leaves the political sponsorship identification waters somewhat murky. In addition to the less than comforting “we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance” language, the FCC proceeded to state that “[o]ur approach might have been different if the complainants had approached the stations directly to furnish them with evidence calling into question that the identified sponsors were the true sponsors.” In using this language, the FCC suggests that the only problem with the complaints “might have been” that the complainants didn’t present their evidence to the stations while the spots were still airing so that the stations could have assessed the evidence at the time and decided whether to modify the sponsorship identification.

While that ruling is generally consistent with past FCC rulings, in that a broadcaster must be presented with “credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party,” the FCC sidestepped the equally important issue of when a PAC’s sponsorship identification may be deemed adequate, or if PAC contributors must be listed instead. As a result, broadcasters are left wondering if a sponsorship identification will be second-guessed when 80%, 90%, 95%, 99%, or some other percentage of the sponsor’s income comes from one source. Similarly, what if only 50% comes from one individual, but the other 50% comes from another individual, and the two are say, brothers? Once again, broadcasters are being asked, on pain of liability, to make disclosure decisions for PACs that are more correctly the province of the Federal Election Commission.

Of course, the sponsorship identification requirement is not limited to political ads, and the flaws in the approach suggested by the complainants seem jarringly obvious when applied in the context of a business advertiser. For example, should ads for every Mom and Pop business disclose that the real sponsor is not the business, but Mom and Pop, who gave up their vacation this year in order for the business to be able to afford broadcast advertising? Similarly, if it is not the entity writing the check for advertising that is relevant, but the principal source of its income, shouldn’t all ads placed by defense contractors need to disclose the U.S. government as the actual sponsor of their ads?

On the other hand, if, as the FCC has suggested in past sponsorship decisions, the real issue is the identity of the decision maker for that advertiser, how could a broadcaster ever know that information with adequate certainty to reject the assurances of the advertiser and take on the liability of unilaterally changing sponsorship identifications in ads?

To be clear, no one is suggesting that a sponsor should be able to avoid on-air attribution by creating a phony front organization whose faux nature is obvious to all, including the broadcaster. However, a Political Action Committee is an entity legally recognized under the law, which is also regulated by law. If more information about its contributors is deemed a public good, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have the authority and the responsibility to take action to accomplish that result. In the absence of such action, the task should not fall to broadcasters by default.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 2014

This Advisory provides a review of the FCC’s political broadcasting regulations.

More than ten years after adoption of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”) of 2002, popularly known as “McCain-Feingold,” Congress’ and the FCC’s interest in political broadcasting and political advertising practices remains undiminished. Broadcast stations must ensure that a broad range of federal mandates are met, providing “equal opportunities” to all candidates using the stations’ facilities, affording federal candidates for public office “reasonable access” and treating all candidates for public office no less favorably than the station treats its most favored advertisers. Accordingly, it is imperative that broadcasters be very familiar with what is expected of them in this regulatory area, that they have adequate policies and practices in place to ensure full compliance, and that they remain vigilant in monitoring legislative, FCC, and FEC changes in the law.

In this environment, it is critical that all stations adopt and meticulously apply political broadcasting policies that are consistent with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including the all-important requirement that stations fully and accurately disclose in writing their rates, classes of advertising, and sales practices to candidates. That information should be routinely provided to candidates and their committees in each station’s carefully prepared Political Advertising Disclosure Statement.

Many of the political broadcasting regulations are grounded in the “reasonable access,” “equal opportunities,” and “lowest unit charge” (“LUC”) provisions of the Communications Act. These elements of the law ensure that broadcast facilities are available to candidates for federal offices, that broadcasters treat competing candidates equally, and that stations provide candidates with the rates they offer to their most-favored commercial advertisers during specified periods prior to an election. As a general rule, stations may not discriminate between candidates as to station use, the amount of time given or sold, or in any other meaningful way.

It is also important to note that television stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX located in the top 50 markets must keep their political records in their online public inspection file located on the FCC’s website. Beginning July 1, 2014, all other television stations must commence placing new political file documents in the political file section of their online public inspection file as well. This requirement does not apply to radio stations at this time.

While this Advisory outlines some of the general aspects of the political broadcasting rules, there are dozens of possible variations on any one issue. Accordingly, stations should contact legal counsel with any specific questions or problems they may encounter.—Article continues.

A pdf version of this entire article can be found at Political Broadcasting Advisory.

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After Monday’s FCC meeting left television broadcasters facing higher expenses and lower revenues by restricting the use of Joint Sales Agreements and joint retransmission negotiations, broadcasters were due for some good news. Where the FCC is the bearer of bad news, it has often fallen to the courts to be the bearer of good news, generally by overruling the adverse FCC decision. Unfortunately, that process can take years, meaning that in Washington you have to take a very long term view of “the good outweighs the bad.”

This week, however, the FCC’s bad news was followed very quickly by the Supreme Court’s decision today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. In McCutcheon, the Court ruled that while limits on political contributions to individual candidates continue to be permissible, overall limits on contributions to candidates and party committees are unconstitutional. In other words, the government can limit how much you donate to an individual candidate or party committee, but cannot limit the number of candidates or party committees you support with your donations.

While campaign finance reform will continue to be a hot-button issue, a direct effect of today’s decision will be to increase the war chests of candidates and parties through greater political donations. Much of those increased funds will ultimately be used for political advertising, redounding to the benefit of media in general, but particularly to local broadcasters.

The Court’s 5-4 decision was not particularly a surprise, as many saw McCutcheon as the sequel to 2010’s Citizens United decision, in which the Court found restrictions on political expenditures by corporations and unions to be unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court released its decision in Citizens United, we all understood the immediate financial implications for media, but no one was quite sure just how great that impact would be. It turned out to be very substantial, completing the multi-decade transition of political advertising from being a “not worth the regulatory headaches” obligation of broadcasters to now being a highly sought after segment of the overall advertising market. Indeed, there is no stronger validation of this than the fact that cash flow multiples used in station acquisitions are based on two-year averages, balancing political year revenue with revenue from a non-political year.

As in 2010, the question is not whether today’s decision will result in more ad revenue for media outlets, but how much more. Given that in recent years the number of donors bumping up against the now-unconstitutional cap measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the economic impact of today’s decision is unlikely to match that of Citizens United. However, it may have a more interesting effect. The limit on overall donations effectively forced a political contributor to pick and choose a small number of candidates to support with the maximum ($2600 at the moment) donation, and to turn away others because of the cap. The practical result was that donors tended to focus their contributions on candidates in hotly contested races where the contribution could have the most impact.

With today’s elimination of the overall cap, a donor can make the maximum individual donation to every federal political candidate it wishes to support. The likely result is an increased flow of political contributions to candidates in races previously deemed to be lost causes, creating tighter races through the influx of political ad dollars.

From a political standpoint, this means the number of hotly contested races around the country will increase. From an economic standpoint, it means political ad dollars will flow on a more geographically diverse basis, ensuring that a larger number of local stations benefit, rather than just those in swing states and swing districts. This will be welcome news for stations that previously found themselves missing out on political ad dollars while candidates and parties flung large sums at stations in nearby swing districts. By itself, it may not entirely remove the sting of Monday’s FCC actions, but given enough time, the courts may eventually produce some good news in that regard as well.

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While most presidential candidates were concentrating yesterday on last minute campaign events aimed at swaying undecided voters, independent presidential candidate Randall Terry was instead focused on winning votes at the FCC, filing multiple election day political advertising complaints against broadcast stations.

I wrote last week of an FCC decision holding that a DC-area station had failed to provide Terry reasonable access to airtime as required by Section 312 of the Communications Act. According to the FCC, Terry, an independent presidential candidate known for seeking to air visually disturbing political ads prominently featuring aborted fetuses, was entitled as a federal candidate to purchase airtime because he was on the ballot in West Virginia. While Terry was apparently not on the ballot in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, the area primarily served by the station, the FCC concluded that the station’s Noise Limited Service Contour covered nearly 3% of the population of West Virginia, making Terry a legally qualified candidate for purposes of demanding airtime on the DC-area station.

Apparently buoyed by that success, Terry yesterday filed complaints against five Florida television stations arguing that he has once again been denied reasonable access rights. What makes these filings odd is that, although dated November 5th, they were not filed with the FCC until November 6th, election day. Even if Terry actually intended to file them on November 5th, that would still be too late for the FCC to take any meaningful action before the election was over. That means Terry has already begun the process of positioning himself for the next election, and is perhaps looking to establish friendly FCC precedent now that can be used against stations then.

What also makes Terry’s Florida filings notable is that he is not seeking reasonable access as a candidate for president (presumably because he was not on the presidential ballot in Florida). Instead, his reasonable access complaints are based upon being on the ballot as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, representing South Florida’s 20th Congressional District. Terry alleges in his complaints that all five stations cited Section 99.012(2) of the Florida Statues as a reason for not accepting his ads. That Section provides that “No person may qualify as a candidate for more than one public office, whether federal, state, district, county, or municipal, if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other.” Since Terry was on the ballot in a number of states running for president, the stations argued that the Florida Statute prevented him from also appearing on a ballot in Florida as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. The stations’ argument is that Terry was therefore not a legally qualified candidate for federal office in Florida, and thus not entitled to reasonable access.

Terry’s response to that argument cites no caselaw, FCC or otherwise, but argues by analogy that stations did air Romney/Ryan ads in Florida despite Ryan also being on the ballot in Wisconsin to keep his House seat. That is not a particularly strong argument, however, as I suspect that stations in Florida were actually airing Romney ads, and Romney was unquestionably a legally qualified candidate on the ballot. If Ryan also appeared in those ads, that would not alter a station’s obligation to provide reasonable access to Romney for his ads, and the “no censorship” provision of the Communications Act means that Romney is free to present anyone else he wants in his ads without interference.

Since the FCC is not generally in the business of interpreting state election laws, the central question in these complaints is whether the FCC will defer to a licensee’s reasonable judgment as to who is a legally qualified candidate in the licensee’s own state. If not, broadcasters will find that once simple reasonable access analysis is growing steadily more complex and dangerous. As foreshadowed by last week’s post, reasonable access issues seem destined to become a growing part of future elections. Yesterday’s Terry complaints appear to be an effort to turn up the heat on stations, even where there is no useful remedy available to a candidate whose multiple campaigns have already concluded.

Copies of the Terry complaints can be found here.

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The FCC today released a political advertising decision that, while perhaps not surprising, will still alarm many broadcasters. Back in February, I wrote a pair of posts (here and here) about Randall Terry, who was then seeking airtime during the Superbowl to air ads featuring graphic footage of aborted fetuses, ostensibly in support of his effort to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. It appears that the Democratic Party didn’t want him, as the Democratic National Committee sent stations a letter asserting that Terry was not a candidate for the Democratic nomination and was not entitled to the broadcast airtime benefits legally qualified federal candidates receive.

In my first post in February, I noted that Section 312 of the Communications Act, which requires broadcast stations to grant “reasonable access” to airtime for federal candidates, was growing increasingly susceptible to a First Amendment challenge, and that the situation presented by the Terry ads — broadcasters being forced to air visually repugnant material that they would otherwise never subject their audience to, regardless of their own political bent — represents just the kind of scenario that might motivate broadcasters to challenge this statutory requirement. It certainly gives a judge or Congress an appealing set of facts to consider overturning or reforming the current law.

It is also worth noting that broadcasters are not allowed to channel such ads into parts of the day when children are less likely to be in the audience. This inability to channel such ads away from children has always been curious, as a candidate can hardly complain about being unable to reach an audience that is too young to vote anyway (and the candidate is of course free to reach out to them with more age-appropriate ads in any event). Indeed, the FCC, which has done a respectable job over the years of applying the Communications Act’s political ad requirements in the real world, once held that broadcasters could choose to shift such ads away from kid-friendly hours. The FCC was rebuffed in court, however, in a decision that focused entirely on how such channeling could infringe upon a candidate’s freedom of expression, seemingly oblivious to the freedom of expression of stations unwilling to subject their child viewers to such content.

As I wrote in my second post, the FCC was able to avoid a confrontation over recent Terry ads for a bit longer when it ruled in February that Terry was not a legally qualified presidential candidate on the Illinois ballot (where the station being challenged was located). It also ruled that even had that not been the case, the station was reasonable in turning down a request for Superbowl ad time since it is a uniquely popular event in which the station might well find it impossible to accommodate ads from competing candidates demanding “equal opportunities” under the Communications Act to air their ads in the Superbowl as well.

Knowing how attractive the plum of guaranteed ad time at a station’s lowest unit charge is to anyone wishing to get their message out there, it came as no surprise when the Terry campaign, now running Terry as an independent candidate, filed another complaint, this time against Washington, DC station WUSA(TV). Terry sought access on the basis of being a legally qualified candidate in West Virginia, a small portion of which, he asserted, falls within WUSA(TV)’s signal.

The station rejected Terry’s ads, noting that Terry was not a legally qualified candidate in its DC/Maryland/Virginia service area. When challenged at the FCC, it submitted a Longley-Rice signal contour map, which takes blocking terrain (e.g., mountains) into account, and which indicated that the station’s actual coverage of West Virginia was slim to none (“de minimis” in FCC parlance).

In determining where reasonable access must be granted, the FCC looks at a station’s “normal service area”, and for TV, it has generally considered a station’s Grade B contour to be the “normal service area”. The transition to digital TV, however, has eliminated the analog concept of a Grade B contour. In reaching today’s decision, the FCC concluded that since the FCC considers a digital station’s Noise Limited Service Contour (NLSC) to be the equivalent of an analog Grade B contour in other FCC contexts, it is appropriate to use the NLSC as the appropriate “normal service area” for purposes of reasonable access complaints. While engineers readily acknowledge that Longley-Rice contour analysis is a more accurate predictor of actual signal reception than the NLSC, Longley-Rice analysis can be complex, and it appears the FCC opted for the simplicity and bright line certainty of using the NLSC. While the NLSC represents a somewhat hypothetical coverage area, NLSC coverage maps are widely available, including on the FCC’s own website, making it an easier tool for candidates to utilize in planning their media buys.

Since, according to the FCC, WUSA(TV)’s NLSC covers nearly 3% of West Virginia’s population, the FCC concluded in today’s decision that the station was unreasonable in rejecting Terry’s ads. While the FCC’s decision is a pragmatic one, it adds more kindling to the reasonable access fire, as stations are now forced to offend their audiences with content from candidates that are legally qualified in any area that is within their NLSC service area, whether or not actual TV reception exists. This not only increases the number of reasonable access requests stations may face, but will further antagonize their viewers, who might understand why a station has to air ads for a candidate that is on the ballot in their area, but will be particularly perplexed as to why a station is airing offensive content from a candidate they have never heard of and cannot vote for or against. When Congress drafted the reasonable access and “no censorship of political ads” provisions of the Communications Act, it probably assumed that extreme content would not be a problem since a candidate was unlikely to air such content if he or she wanted to be elected. However, that logic evaporates when the viewing audience doesn’t even have the opportunity to vote against such a candidate.

While the FCC appears to have been concerned that a more complex contour analysis could be gamed by a broadcaster, the result instead unfortunately encourages issue activists of every persuasion to game the system for their own gain. In the present case, it is pretty obvious that buying very expensive airtime in the nation’s capital is not a cost-effective way of reaching less than 3% of the voters in West Virginia, and that the real audience is the large DC-area population for which Terry was apparently unable to qualify to be on the ballot. That became even more obvious when WUSA(TV) provided the Longley-Rice contour map indicating that the station actually had little or no coverage in West Virginia, but the Terry campaign nonetheless continued to press for airtime on the station.

The obvious path for future issue activists is to declare their candidacy for federal office, but instead of doing the hard work of qualifying for the ballot in large population centers in order to be heard, taking the easier path of qualifying for the ballot in less populated surrounding areas that are just within the fringe coverage of a big market station’s predicted NLSC coverage. By following this formula, they get guaranteed access to airtime in front of a large market audience, and at much lower rates than commercial advertisers would pay, with the added benefit that the station cannot edit the ad or decline to air it no matter how offensive the content.

For those who make the not unreasonable argument that putting up with some questionable exploitation of the political ad rules is necessary to ensure that legitimate candidates can get their message out, consider the following: only federal candidates have a right of reasonable access. In this heated political season, particularly in the heavily contested large population centers, stations have been forced to preempt the spots of many of their normal commercial advertisers to make room for political spots for federal candidates (seen a car ad lately?), and local and state candidates have similarly suffered from having their ads pushed aside to make way for federal candidate ads. As a result, forcing broadcasters to air content that offends adult viewers, disturbs child viewers, and damages the relationship of trust between the broadcaster and its public harms more than just the broadcaster and its audience. It harms each and every local and state candidate that actually is on the ballot in a station’s market. They too would like to get their message out, but in their case, to people who can actually vote for them and that are affected by who is elected to represent them. To the extent that “all politics is local”, it make little sense to shunt aside these local and state candidates merely to guarantee access to those using the Communications Act’s “federal formula” to game the system for their own agendas.

While today’s decision is not one that will be welcomed by broadcasters, make no mistake, it is not the FCC’s fault that we have reached this point. The reasonable access requirements for federal candidates are encoded into the Communications Act, and there is only so much the FCC can do in applying the statute in a political landscape that is far more complex than those who drafted these provisions likely ever contemplated. With election season nearly over, and many stations sold out of airtime through the election, the immediate impact of today’s decision will be limited. It is a safe bet, however, that the underlying issue will continue to haunt future elections.

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In what seems to be the longest presidential campaign in history, tomorrow, September 7th, marks the beginning of the final stretch. That’s the first day of Lowest Unit Charge Season, the 60-day period before the November 6th, 2012 general election. During that time (which also occurs in the 45 days before a primary election), broadcast stations may charge no more than their lowest rate for each particular class of ad time purchased for a “use” by a legally qualified candidate.

Of course, while the concept sounds simple enough, its implementation at stations with dozens of different classes of ad time has proven to be a biennial headache for broadcasters. However, particularly for stations in political swing states, it can be a fairly profitable headache, and well worth the regulatory aspirin needed to get through it.

Contrary to a common misconception, Lowest Unit Charge applies to all legally qualified candidates during the LUC window, and not just to federal candidates. Also, keep in mind that the 60-day Lowest Unit Charge window is relevant only to the issue of rates. Other political broadcast rules, like the requirements for reasonable access for federal candidates and equal opportunities apply as soon as there are enough legally qualified candidates to trigger them (one in the case of reasonable access, and at least two in the case of equal opportunities, since there has to be a competing candidate to demand an equal opportunity in response to the first candidate’s airtime).

If the statements above have left you perplexed, confused, or questioning the very meaning of your existence, you should definitely take some time to look at the current edition of our Political Broadcasting Advisory. The Advisory fills in lots of detail on the matters discussed above, as well as myriad other issues created by the complexities of selling (or buying) political ad time in a regulated environment.

So, update the rate card attached to your Political Disclosure Statement, and get ready for the final stretch of a political season that has been excruciatingly long for viewers and listeners, but which will be over all too quickly for many broadcasters.

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By Lauren Lynch Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

As promised, yesterday morning the FCC conducted a public demonstration and webcast of the interface it has developed to host the online public inspection files for television broadcast stations. As we noted last week, the database is being developed in connection with the FCC’s recent Order requiring television broadcast stations to post their public inspection files online in a central, Commission-hosted database. These rules go into effect August 2, 2012. An archived version of the FCC’s webcast can be found here.

FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake opened the demonstration by emphasizing that the FCC is focused on making it easier for broadcasters to use the system and for the public to access it than has been the case with the FCC’s legacy databases and paper-based public files. Greg Elin, the FCC’s Chief Data Officer, echoed Lake’s comments and demonstrated how the new interface brings together in one place items that have historically been stored in different locations on the FCC’s website, such as having the station’s contour map from the engineering database and its current authorization accessible from the main page for the station. The new system also replaces FCC Form numbers and abbreviations with plain English and will permit stations to upload documents in most major formats to make it more “user-friendly.” Elin also said that the FCC plans to use dedicated hardware for broadcasters to use to upload items so that surges in interest on the public side will not prevent broadcasters from managing their online file pages.

The FCC has been working on such issues for some time in connection with a planned Consolidated Licensing System (CLS) which it has demonstrated on a number of occasions over the past few years. The CLS is intended to consolidate and replace the FCC’s legacy filing databases, providing uniformity in electronic filing across all of the different Bureaus and types of authorizations. Media Bureau licensees are slated to be the first to use the new system when it’s ready. It appears that the FCC has integrated the public file interface with that on-going work, providing a uniform “look and feel” between the public file interface and what might ultimately become the sole online filing location on the Commission’s website.

It remains to be seen after watching the presentation the extent to which the interface will be ready to go by the FCC’s August 2 deadline. Lake and Elin each indicated that they expected that the interface would “evolve” over time as experience with its use is gained. Moreover, Elin stated that, while most issues for the August 2 launch have been ironed out for Mozilla and Firefox users, a number of applications associated with the interface do not yet function properly with Internet Explorer. It also appears that, although the database will be connected real-time to the FCC’s current Consolidated Database System (CDBS) allowing applications that are filed to be instantaneously included in the new database, the ability to effectively “search” the new database is still a way off. Finally, it was not clear how stations will be able to both (i) allow multiple employees, engineers and counsel to access the station’s page to upload and police the contents of the public file and (ii) monitor those various agents that might act on its behalf, especially if online electronic filing of applications is integrated with this interface.

Regarding the political file, which network affiliates in the top-50 markets must begin populating with newly created political documents beginning August 2, Elgin said that the FCC intends to establish a series of files and sub-files for stations to use based on data imported from the Federal Election Commission’s website. Specifically, the FCC’s database will include separate files for federal, state, and local election ad buys. Under those, FCC proposes to include sub-folders, such as one for each Congressional district, then further sub-folders for each candidate as well as for non-candidate specific issue ads. Stations will be given tools that will allow them to retain some flexibility when designing their individual online political files, but how much customization the new database will allow remains to be seen. The FCC will support file-sharing programs that can allow multiple employees at a station to upload information about ad buys, but stations will still have to address the issues regarding user identification noted above.

Given the FCC’s efforts to make the interface useable in a variety of ways, TV stations would benefit from the opportunity to test the system, to see which file formats work best for them, to learn and implement file sharing programs, and to set up internal controls for employee access to the station’s page. Unfortunately, while Elgin did indicate that the system would be up and running by August 2, he was unable to provide a date specific regarding when the database will be available for such testing. Remembering the difficulties encountered with the roll out of the new commercial ownership report, early testing will likely be key to the success of the new database.

Historically, each time the FCC has introduced an electronic filing form to replace a paper-based form, it has allowed broadcasters a significant transition time period to acclimate to the new form. Clearly, such a timeframe has not been contemplated here so far. Therefore, at a minimum, it would be appropriate if the FCC withheld all public inspection file enforcement activity against television stations until such a time as it is certain that the new interface is functioning smoothly and broadcasters have had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the new system.

Of course, there is the issue of the NAB’s pending emergency request with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the August 2 effective date of the rules, which could have the same effect. Check back frequently for updates as there is sure to be plenty of additional news prior to August 2.