Articles Posted in Programming Regulations

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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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March 2015
The next Children’s Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2015, reflecting programming aired during the months of January, February and March 2015.

Statutory and Regulatory Requirements

As a result of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (“Act”) and the FCC rules adopted under the Act, full power and Class A television stations are required, among other things, to: (1) limit the amount of commercial matter aired during programs originally produced and broadcast for an audience of children 12 years of age and under, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under.

These two obligations, in turn, require broadcasters to comply with two paperwork requirements. Specifically, stations must: (1) place in their online public inspection file one of four prescribed types of documentation demonstrating compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television, and (2) submit FCC Form 398, which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and under. Form 398 must be filed electronically with the FCC. The FCC automatically places the electronically filed Form 398 filings into the respective station’s online public inspection file. However, each station should confirm that has occurred to ensure that its online public inspection file is complete. The base fine for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC’s Children’s Television Programming Rule is $10,000.
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I wrote in March of last year that the FCC had proposed fines of $1,120,000 against Viacom, $530,000 against NBCUniversal, and $280,000 against ESPN for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that promoted the movie with an EAS alert tone. Seven Viacom cable networks aired the spot a total of 108 times, seven NBCUniversal cable networks aired it a total of 38 times, and ESPN aired it a total of 13 times on three cable networks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The press has been abuzz in recent months regarding the launch of various Internet-based video services and the FCC’s decision to revisit its current definition of Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs). In December, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), seeking to “modernize” its rules to redefine what constitutes an MVPD. The FCC’s proposals would significantly expand the universe of what is considered an “MVPD” to include a wide-variety of Internet-based offerings. Today, the FCC released a Public Notice providing the dates by which parties can provide their own suggestions regarding how to modify the definition of “MVPD”. Comments are now due February 17, 2015, with reply comments due March 2, 2015.

The Communications Act currently defines an “MVPD” as an entity who “makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming.” Specific examples given of current MVPDs under the Act are “a cable operator, a multichannel multipoint distribution service, a direct broadcast satellite service, or a television receive-only satellite program distributor who makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming.” The Act states, however, that the definition of MVPD is “not limited” to these examples.

Historically, MVPDs have generally been defined as entities that own the distribution system, such as cable and DBS satellite operators, but now the FCC is asking for comments on two new possible interpretations of the term “MVPD.” The first would “includ[e] within its scope services that make available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple linear streams of video programming, regardless of the technology used to distribute the programming.” The second would hew closer to the traditional definition, and would “require an entity to control a transmission path to qualify as an MVPD”. The FCC’s is looking for input regarding the impact of adopting either of these proposed definitions.

What all this means is that the FCC is interested in making the definition of “MVPD” more flexible, potentially expanding it to include not just what we think of as traditional cable and satellite services, but also newer distribution technologies, including some types of Internet delivery.

Underscoring its interest in this subject, the FCC asks a wide array of questions in its NPRM regarding the impact of revising the MVPD definition. The result of this proceeding will have far-reaching impact on the video distribution ecosystem, and on almost every party involved in the delivery of at least linear video programming. Consequently, this is an NPRM that will continue to draw much attention and merits special consideration by those wondering where the world of video distribution is headed next.

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At its Open Meeting this morning, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to “modernize” its station-conducted contest rule, which was originally adopted in 1976. The proposal would allow broadcasters to post the rules of a contest on any publicly accessible website. Stations would no longer have to broadcast the contest rules if they instead announce the full website address where the rules can be found each time they promote or advertise the contest on-air.

Currently, the FCC’s rule requires that broadcasters sponsoring a contest must “fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest” and subsequently conduct the contest substantially as announced. 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.”

Of course what terms are “material” and what number of announcements is “reasonable” have been open to interpretation. A review of many past issues of Pillsbury’s Enforcement Monitor reveals numerous cases where a station was accused of having failed to disclose on-air a material term of a contest, or of deviating from the announced rules in conducting a contest. Even where a station’s efforts are ultimately deemed sufficient, the licensee has been put in the delicate position of defending its disclosure practices as “reasonable,” which has the effect of accusing a disappointed listener or viewer of being “unreasonable” in having not understood the disclosures made.

Adopting the rule change proposed by the FCC today would simplify a broadcaster’s defense of its actions because a written record of what was posted online will be available for the FCC to review. Accordingly, questions about whether the station aired the rules, or aired them enough times for the listener/viewer to understand all the material terms of the contest would be less important from an FCC standpoint. Instead, the listener/viewer will be expected to access the web version of the rules and benefit from the opportunity to review those rules at a more leisurely pace, no longer subjected to a fast-talker recitation of the rules on radio, or squinting at a mouseprint crawl at the bottom of a television screen. While the FCC’s willingness to accept online disclosures is certainly welcome, the question of what disclosures must be made in the first instance remains. In fact, the FCC asks in the NPRM whether its rules should dictate a set of “material” terms to be disclosed online.

In our Advertising and Sweepstakes practice, we frequently advise sponsors of contests and sweepstakes on how to conduct legal contests, including the drafting of contest rules and the sufficiency of the sponsor’s disclosure of those rules in advertisements. In addition to the FCC’s rule requiring disclosure of “material” terms, the consumer protection laws of nearly every state prohibit advertising the availability of a prize in a false or misleading manner. What terms will be “material” and essential to making a disclosure not false or misleading is a very fact-specific issue, and will vary significantly depending on the exact nature of the contest involved. As a result, regardless of whether the FCC dictates a prescribed set of “material” terms to be disclosed, the terms will still have to satisfy state disclosure requirements.

The FCC (with regard to station-conducted contests) and state Attorney Generals (with regard to all contests and sweepstakes) investigate whether contests and sweepstakes have been conducted fairly and in accordance with the advertised rules. These investigations usually arise in response to a consumer complaint that the contest was not conducted in the manner the consumer expected. Many of these investigations can be avoided by: (1) having well-drafted contest rules that anticipate common issues which often arise in administering a contest or sweepstakes, and (2) assuring that statements promoting the contest are consistent with those rules.

While, as Commissioner Pai noted, the public does not generally find contest disclosure statements to be “compelling” listening or viewing, and may well change channels to avoid them, the individual states are going to continue to require adequate public disclosure of contest rules, even if that means continued on-air disclosures. If the FCC’s on-air contest disclosure requirements do go away, stations will need to focus on how state law contest requirements affect them before deciding whether they can actually scale back their on-air disclosures.

In fact, while a violation of the FCC’s contest disclosure requirements often results in the imposition of a $4,000 fine, an improperly conducted contest can subject the sponsor, whether it be a station or an advertiser, to far more liability under consumer protection laws and state and federal gambling laws. In addition, state laws may impose record retention obligations, require registration and bonding before a contest can commence, or impose a number of other obligations. As promotional contests and sweepstakes continue to proliferate, knowing the ground rules for conducting them is critically important. If the FCC proceeds with its elimination of mandatory on-air contest disclosures for station-conducted contests, it will make broadcasters’ lives a little easier, but not by as much as some might anticipate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The licensee filed its license renewal application on August 1, 2014. The licensee certified in the application that it had not identified each Core program at the beginning of each program and had failed to properly display the “E/I” symbol during educational children’s programming aired on a Korean-language digital multicast channel. In September 2014, the licensee amended its license renewal application to specify the time period when the “E/I” symbol was not used and two days later amended the renewal application again to state that it had encountered similar issues with displaying the “E/I” symbol on the station’s Chinese-language digital multicast channel.
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In a post today on the FCC’s Blog, Diane Cornell, Special Counsel to Chairman Wheeler, described the FCC’s efforts to reduce backlogs of applications, complaints, and other proceedings pending at the FCC. The post announces that the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau has closed 760 docketed proceedings, and is on track to close another 750 by the end of the year. The post also indicates that the FCC’s Wireless Bureau resolved 2046 applications older than six months, reducing the backlog of applications by 26%.

Of particular interest to broadcasters, however, is the news that the “Enforcement Bureau has largely completed its review of pending complaints, clearing the way for the Media Bureau to grant almost 700 license renewals this week.” Many of these pending complaints were presumably based on indecency claims, which have in recent years created such a backlog of license renewal applications (particularly for TV stations) that it has not been unusual for a station to have multiple license renewal applications pending at the FCC, even though such applications are only filed every eight years.

For those unable to buy or sell a broadcast station, or to refinance its debt, because that station’s license renewal application was hung up at the FCC, this will be welcome news. Just two years ago, the number of indecency complaints pending at the FCC exceeded 1,500,000, dropping to around 500,000 in April of 2013, when the FCC proposed to “focus its indecency enforcement resources on egregious cases and to reduce the backlog of pending broadcast indecency complaints.”

While indecency and other complaints will certainly continue to arrive at the FCC in large numbers given the ease of filing them in the Internet age, today’s news brings hope that most of them will be addressed quickly, and that long-pending license renewal applications will become a rarity at the FCC. That would be welcome news for broadcasters, who frequently found that the application delays caused by such complaints were far worse than any fine the FCC might levy. Such delays were particularly galling in the many cases where the focus of the complaint was content wildly outside the FCC’s definition of indecency (“language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities“).

For a number of years, complaints that merely used the word “indecent” were put in the “indecency complaint” stack, resulting in multi-year holds on that station’s FCC applications. I once worked on a case where a politician who had been criticized in a TV’s newscast for his performance in office filed an FCC complaint stating that the station’s comments about him were “indecent”. You guessed it; this exercise of a station’s First Amendment right to criticize a public official resulted in a hold being placed on the station’s FCC applications for years while the complaint sat at the FCC.

The FCC’s efforts to eliminate these delays, and the inordinate leverage such delays gave to even the most frivolous complaints, are an excellent example of the FCC staff working to accomplish the Commission’s public interest mandate. While broadcasters may feel they have not have had many reasons to cheer the FCC in recent years, today’s announcement certainly merits some applause.

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There was quite a stir today when the FCC, despite being closed for a snow day, issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing very large fines against Viacom ($1,120,000), NBCUniversal ($530,000), and ESPN ($280,000) for transmitting false EAS alert tones. According to the FCC, all three aired an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that contained a false EAS alert tone, with Viacom airing it 108 times on seven of its cable networks, NBCUniversal airing it 38 times on seven of its cable networks, and ESPN airing it 13 times on three of its cable networks.

The size of the fines certainly drew some attention. Probably not helping the situation was the ad’s inclusion of the onscreen text “THIS IS NOT A TEST” and “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” while sounding the EAS tone. The FCC launched the investigation after receiving complaints from the public.

All three entities raised a variety of arguments that were uniformly rejected by the FCC, including that “they had inadequate notice of the requirements and applicability of the rules with respect to EAS violations.” What particularly caught my eye, however, was that all three indicated the ad had cleared an internal review before airing, and in each case, those handling the internal review were apparently unaware of Section 325 of the Communications Act (prohibiting transmission of a “false or fraudulent signal of distress”) and Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules, which states that “No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS.”

Back in 2010, I wrote a post titled EAS False Alerts in Radio Ads and Other Reasons to Panic that discussed the evolution of the FCC’s concerns about false emergency tones in media, which originally centered on sirens, then on Emergency Broadcast System tones, and now on the Emergency Alert System’s digital squeals. Two months later, I found myself writing about it again (The Phantom Menace: Return of the EAS False Alerts) when a TV ad for the movie Skyline was distributed for airing with a false EAS tone included in it.

That was the beginning of what has since become a clear trend. Those initial posts warned broadcasters and cable programmers to avoid airing specific ads with false EAS tones, but were not connected to any adverse action by the FCC. After three years of EAS tone tranquility, the issue reemerged in 2013 when hackers managed to commandeer via Internet the EAS equipment of some Michigan and Montana TV stations to send out false EAS alert warnings of a zombie attack. The result was a rapid public notice from the FCC instructing EAS participants to change their EAS passwords and ensure their firewalls are functioning (covered in my posts FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts and EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality), but no fines.

From there we moved in a strange direction when the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed a public service announcement seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System, but used an EAS tone to get that message across. Because it did not involve an actual emergency nor a test of the EAS system, the PSA violated the FCC’s rule against false EAS tones and broadcasters had no choice but to decline to air it. The matter was resolved when the FCC quickly rushed through a one-year waiver permitting the FEMA ad to be aired (Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay).

Late last year, however, the evolution of the FCC’s treatment of false EAS alerts turned dark (FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts) when the FCC issued the first financial penalties for false EAS alerts. The FCC proposed a $25,000 fine for Turner Broadcasting and entered into a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky radio station for airing false EAS alert tones. The FCC indicated at the time that other investigations were ongoing, and more fines might be on the way.

We didn’t have to wait long, as just two months later, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $200,000 against Turner Broadcasting for again airing false EAS alert tones, this time on its Adult Swim network. The size of the fine was startling, and according to the FCC, was based upon the nationwide reach of the false EAS tone ad, as well as the fact that Turner had indicated in connection with its earlier $25,000 fine that it had put in place mechanisms to prevent such an event from happening again. When it did happen again, the FCC didn’t hesitate to assess the $200,000 fine.

Today’s order, issued less than two months after the last Turner decision, ups the ante once again, proposing fines of such size that only some of the FCC’s larger indecency fines compare. The FCC is clearly sending a signal that it takes false EAS tones very seriously, and the fact that the ads containing the EAS tones were produced by an independent third party didn’t let the programmers off the hook. In other words, it doesn’t matter how or why the ads got on the air; the mere fact that they aired is sufficient to create liability.

So what lesson should broadcasters and cable networks take away from this? Well, the all too obvious one is to do whatever it takes to prevent false EAS tones from making it on air. However, an equally useful lesson is to make sure that your contracts with advertisers require the advertiser to warrant that the spots provided will comply with all laws and to indemnify the broadcaster or network if that turns out not to be the case. That won’t save you from a big FCC fine and a black mark on your FCC record, but it will at least require the advertiser to compensate you for the damages you suffered in airing the ad and defending yourself. Unfortunately, many advertising contracts are not particularly well drafted (and some are just a handshake), which can expose you to a variety of liabilities like this unnecessarily.

It is therefore wise to have both your ad contracts and your advertising guidelines carefully reviewed by counsel experienced in this area of the law. Vigilant review of ads submitted for airing is an excellent first line of defense, but as demonstrated in today’s decision, it won’t do much good if the individuals reviewing the ads don’t know what to look for.

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January 2014

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

  • FCC Admonishes Television Stations for “Host-Selling” to Children
  • $7,500 Fine Imposed for Documents Missing From Public Inspection File
  • $17,000 Fine for Unauthorized Operation of a Radio Transmitter

Admonishment Issued for Program Characters Promoting a Product

The FCC continues to enforce its restrictions on commercial content during children’s shows. Section 73.670 of the FCC’s Rules restricts the amount of commercial matter that can be aired during children’s programming to 10.5 minutes per clock hour on weekends and 12 minutes per clock hour on weekdays. The Commission most often examines compliance with these limitations when acting on a television station’s license renewal application.

Earlier this month, the FCC issued identical admonishments to two commonly-owned Wisconsin TV stations for failing to comply with the limits on commercial matter in children’s programming. The stations disclosed in their license renewal applications that they had aired a commercial for cereal during a children’s program seven years ago, and the commercial contained “glimpses of characters from the program on the screen.” The licensee noted that the appearance was “small, fleeting, and confined to a small area of the picture,” and that the software used by the CW Network to prevent such appearances failed to catch this particular incident. Where a program character appears during a commercial in that program, the FCC’s approach is to treat the entire program as a commercial, which by definition exceeds the FCC’s commercial time limits in children’s programming.

The licensee argued that the images did not appear “during the commercial part of the spot but during a portion of the material promoting a contest.” The FCC disagreed, but only issued an admonishment to each of the stations because the violation was an isolated incident. Nevertheless, the FCC warned that it would impose more serious sanctions if the licensee committed any similar violations in the future.

License Assessed $7,500 Fine for Failing to Provide Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for Seventeen Quarters

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $7,500 fine on a Pennsylvania station for willfully and repeatedly violating the Commission’s rule regarding the public inspection file. Under Section 73.3526(e)(12) of the FCC’s Rules, a licensee must create a list of significant issues affecting its viewing area in the past quarter and the programs it aired during that quarter to address those issues. The list must then be placed in the station’s public inspection file by the tenth day of the month following that quarter.

In April of 2010, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s Philadelphia office found during an inspection that the licensee was missing fifteen quarters of issues/programs lists. The licensee explained in response to a subsequent Letter of Inquiry that some of the lists had been stolen or removed from the public inspection file and promised to replace the missing lists. However, in February of 2011, a follow-up investigation revealed that the public inspection file contained only one issues/programs list, which meant that there was a total of seventeen quarters of missing lists. At the time of the follow-up, the licensee said that part of the roof of a neighboring building had collapsed and destroyed the records.

In June of 2011, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) for $15,000. In response, the licensee argued that the fine should be reduced because the missing records were outside his control and that he did not have the ability to pay such a fine. In January of 2014, the FCC determined that a reduction of the fine was warranted based on the licensee’s inability to pay, but noted that the failure to maintain issues/programs lists was not outside of the licensee’s control and that the licensee’s explanations as to the cause of the missing documents conflicted with each other. Although the FCC reduced the fine from $15,000 to $7,500, the Enforcement Bureau cautioned that it has previously rejected inability to pay claims for repeated or egregious violations and that in the event this licensee commits future violations, it may result in significantly higher fines that may not be reduced merely because of the licensee’s inability to pay.

Licensee Fined for Interfering with United States Coast Guard Operations

Last month, the FCC issued an NAL against a California licensee for operating a radio transmitter on a frequency not authorized by its license and failing to take precautionary measures to avoid causing interference. The base fine for operating on an unauthorized frequency is $4,000, and the base fine for interference is $7,000.

In January of last year, the United States Coast Guard complained to the FCC of interference with its operations in the 150 MHz VHF band. An agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s Los Angeles office used radio direction-finding methods to determine that the interference was coming from the licensee’s building. The agent located a transmitter at that location that was operating on a frequency different than that indicated on the transmitter’s label. After the Bureau contacted the licensee and informed it of the agent’s findings, the licensee turned off the transmitter, and the interference to the Coast Guard stopped.

Subsequently, the Enforcement Bureau’s Los Angeles office issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee for failing to operate in accordance with its authorization and not taking reasonable precautions to avoid interference to licensed services. The NOV noted that the licensee’s authorization specified operation on frequencies that included neither the transmitter’s labeled frequency nor the frequency on which the transmitter was actually operating. In response, the licensee argued that the transmitter was unstable and operating about .8 MHz on both sides of the designated frequency.

Under Section 1.903(a) of the FCC’s Rules, a licensee can only operate a station in compliance with a valid authorization granted by the Commission. The FCC rejected the licensee’s argument that the malfunctioning transmitter was operating on the licensee’s assigned frequency, finding that its agent’s investigation indicated otherwise. The FCC also noted that Section 90.403(e) of the FCC’s Rules requires that licensees take appropriate measures to avoid causing harmful interference, and that the licensee here failed to offer any evidence in response to the NOV that it had taken such precautions.

In determining the appropriate fine, the FCC considered the facts and circumstances and found that the violations warranted proposing a fine higher than the base amount for these violations. Because the licensee caused harmful interference to the Coast Guard’s operations and the licensee was not aware of its spurious signal until the FCC notified it, the FCC assessed a total fine of $17,000, increasing the fine by $6,000 over the base amount for such violations.

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

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Over the years, I’ve written numerous times about the FCC’s adverse reaction to advertisers seeking to make their ads more attention-getting through inclusion of an Emergency Alert System tone. The most recent was this past November, when the FCC proposed a $25,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for an EAS tone-laden Conan promo, and announced a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky TV station for a local sports apparel store ad containing an EAS alert tone.

I titled the post FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts, and noted at the end of it that

ominously, today’s FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that “[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted.” Given today’s actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.

Today, the FCC fulfilled that prophecy, proposing an additional $200,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for distributing another ad containing EAS tones. According to the FCC, Turner’s Adult Swim Network aired ads produced by Sony Music Group promoting an album by rap artist A$AP Rocky and the album’s availability at Best Buy stores. While the ad did not contain any digital data from an EAS tone, it did simulate the EAS audio tone itself. The ad aired seven times over the network’s East Coast feed, and then was repeated seven more times in the West Coast feed three hours later.

The FCC’s decision is “spirited” (at least by FCC standards), managing to convey a fair degree of exasperation, principally because of Turner’s prior violation and the fact that

In response to those [earlier] complaints, which also emphasized the potential impact on public safety of the transmission of such material, Turner represented to the Commission that it had changed certain of its internal review practices. Nevertheless, another Turner-owned channel, less than one year later, transmitted the A$AP Rocky/Best Buy advertisement 14 times over a six day period, which also contained simulations of the EAS codes. Thus, despite its experience with the problem of misusing EAS codes and Attention Signals, Turner continued to violate Section 11.45 of the Commission’s rules and Section 325(a) of the Act, indicating a higher degree of culpability in this instance. Therefore, based on the number of transmissions at issue, the amount of time over which the transmissions took place, the nationwide scope of Adult Swim Network’s audience reach, Turner’s degree of culpability, Turner’s ability to pay, and the serious public safety implications of the violations, as well as the other factors as outlined in the Commission’s Forfeiture Policy Statement, we find that a forfeiture of two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) is appropriate.

Beyond the unprecedented size of the fine for such a violation, today’s decision is also notable because, unlike the self-inflicted wound of putting an EAS tone in a program promo, this case involved a spot produced by a third party. While the FCC has appeared in the past to have had at least some sympathy where a problem in a third-party ad “slipped through”, the FCC’s sympathy seems to be exhausted at this point. Having said that, it is worth noting that the FCC went after the program network rather than the individual cable and satellite systems that actually transmitted the spots to the public. Cable and satellite providers can take at least some solace in that.

While the nationwide audience and prior violation may have made the size of this fine somewhat unique, it is safe to say that the FCC has reached the point that it is unlikely to find a false EAS tone, no matter the circumstances, to be an excusable “oops” on the part of a program distributor. While the FCC might once have been willing to just admonish a violator and save the fines for repeat offenders, it appears that there will no longer be any free bites at the false EAS tone apple, and that each bite will be appreciably more expensive than the last.

Of course, if the FCC is hoping that steadily escalating fines will cause violators to lose their taste for the forbidden fruit of false EAS tones in ads, the question is whether advertisers will also hear that message, or are broadcasters, cable operators and satellite TV providers forever doomed to play a game of whack-a-mole (whack-a-tone?) with third-party ads?