Articles Posted in Radio

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today issued a decision vacating the FCC rule effectively banning television Joint Sales Agreements (“JSAs”) and threatened to throw out all of the FCC’s remaining broadcast ownership rules if the FCC does not complete its required “quadrennial” review of those rules by the end of 2016.

The case returned broadcasters and advocacy groups to this court for its third major decision on the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules since 2004.  This time around, the case addressed three issues:  public interest groups’ request that the court require the FCC to adopt a new definition of “eligible entity” aimed at promoting female and minority broadcast ownership; broadcasters’ request that the court vacate all broadcast ownership rules due to the FCC’s failure to complete the statutorily mandated quadrennial reviews of those rules; and broadcasters’ request that the court vacate the FCC’s rule making television JSAs an attributable ownership interest.

The first two of these issues date back to the FCC’s 2002 biennial review of its ownership rules.  Congress mandated that the Commission conduct periodic reviews of its broadcast ownership rules, originally every two years, but later extended to every four years, in the 1996 Telecom Act.  The Commission undertook reviews in 2002 and 2006 that resulted in orders that were appealed to the Third Circuit.  Thereafter, the Commission consolidated each still-pending quadrennial review with the succeeding one, with the result that the FCC has not concluded a review or updated its ownership rules since 2006.

In its 2002 biennial review, the FCC modified certain of its broadcast ownership rules, including changing its definition of a radio market, with the result that its ownership rules for radio stations were actually more restrictive.  The FCC grandfathered existing radio station combinations that would have exceeded the new limits, but required those combinations be broken up and brought into compliance with the new standards if sold.  To encourage female and minority ownership, the Commission excluded “eligible entities” from the new rules, allowing those meeting the definition to acquire a combination that would otherwise have to be split up under the revised radio ownership rules.

Other similar FCC rules also rely on the definition of an “eligible entity”, making that definition central to the FCC’s efforts to increase female and minority ownership.  The FCC has been using a definition of “eligible entity” based on revenue that was developed by the Small Business Administration, arguing that the test will survive judicial scrutiny because it is not based on race or gender.  However, advocacy groups have countered that there is no evidence that the definition actually enhances female and minority ownership, as opposed to small business entity ownership.  The Third Circuit agreed in 2011, finding the Commission’s use of the definition to be arbitrary and capricious.  However, since the Commission has not completed its required quadrennial reviews, the definition has remained in place, contrary to the Third Circuit’s order that the FCC adopt another definition.

Five other ownership rules, the local television ownership rule, the local radio ownership rule, the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, the radio/television cross-ownership rule, and the dual network rule have similarly gone without an update since 2006.  The court lamented that this lack of review has left broadcasters subject to rules that are decades old, preventing parties from taking advantage of deregulatory options the FCC has considered, but not acted on.  It specifically highlighted the continued existence of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, which was created in the 1970s.  The FCC determined more than a decade ago that the rule is no longer necessary, but it remains on the books because the FCC has not successfully concluded the required quadrennial reviews to eliminate it.

The court dissected the rationales the Commission espoused to justify rolling each quadrennial review into the next one and found that they did not justify the years-long delay.  It stopped short, however, of granting the requested invalidation of all broadcast ownership rules, finding that the delays do not yet justify doing so.  Instead, the court mandated that the Commission go to mediation with the public interest groups to set a timetable for defining “eligible entity”, and based on a promise by the FCC that the Chairman would circulate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for revised ownership rules by June 30, gave the agency until the end of the year to take comments, reach a decision completing the 2010 and 2014 quadrennial reviews, and issue new broadcast ownership rules.

Against this backdrop, the court considered the third issue before it—broadcasters’ challenge to the Commission’s decision to attribute television JSA arrangements that had been routinely treated as non-attributable before.  The FCC adopted this rule of its own accord in 2014, arguing that JSAs involving more than 15% of another in-market station’s airtime gave one station influence approximating ownership over the other station, thereby enabling it to evade the limitations of the Commission’s local television ownership rule.  Broadcasters argued, however, and the court agreed, that the Commission could not “expand the reach” of the local television ownership rule without justifying the rule’s continued existence in the first instance in a quadrennial review.

The court’s decision sets in motion activity on a number of fronts.  First, the Commission, while in the midst of its first-ever broadcast incentive auction, will have to participate in mediation with public interest groups.  Second, the Commission will have to quickly finalize a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that it represents has been in the works for some time.  Third, it will have to collect comments and reply comments, perhaps complete new ownership studies, analyze the record these actions create, and in the next six months, conclude proceedings that have been underway for more than 10 years.

If this timeline is to be accommodated, comment periods will have to be short, extensions of comment deadlines may not be available, and resources the Commission might put toward other activities may need to be reallocated.  Despite having ten years since the 2006 quadrennial review, reasoned decision making may have to give way to rushed decision making.

As a result, broadcasters should start prepping now to participate in the proceeding.  By necessity, it will be fast-moving, and strange things can happen in fast-moving proceedings.  Getting the right result in this quadrennial review will require a lot of effort, and summer vacation just got a lot shorter.

 

 

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On a day when a major broadcast ownership decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit garnered most of the attention, the FCC worked on more prosaic matters, issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations maintain letters and e-mails from the public in their public file.  This requirement is one of the only vestiges of the physical public file that remained after the FCC’s decisions to move television and radio public files online.

The FCC based its proposal to eliminate the requirement in part upon the increase in communication between the public and broadcast stations on social media platforms, and the corresponding decrease in communication by letter and e-mail.  The NPRM also proposes to eliminate a requirement that cable television operators maintain the location of their cable system’s principal headend in their public file.

Initial comments on the FCC’s proposals will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 60 days after Federal Register publication.

As we wrote recently, eliminating the requirement to maintain correspondence from the public in a physical file would free stations from the need to provide free and unfettered access to their offices, and to maintain staff at all times during business hours ready to handle public file requests.

The NPRM enjoyed support from all five Commissioners, each of whom issued a separate statement in support of the proposal—a somewhat rare display of unanimity by the current Commission.  Of particular interest was Chairman Wheeler’s statement that today’s proposal, if adopted, would enable broadcasters to “lock their doors and redeploy resources once used to help the public access the file at the studio.”  Many in the TV and radio community may find themselves quietly nodding in agreement.

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June 1, 2016 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming to place their Annual EEO Public File Report in their public inspection file and post the report on their station website. In addition, certain of these stations, as detailed below, must electronically file their EEO Mid-term Report on FCC Form 397 by June 1, 2016.

Under the FCC’s EEO Rule, all radio and television station employment units (“SEUs”), regardless of staff size, must afford equal opportunity to all qualified persons and practice nondiscrimination in employment.

In addition, those SEUs with five or more full-time employees (“Nonexempt SEUs”) must also comply with the FCC’s three-prong outreach requirements. Specifically, Nonexempt SEUs must (i) broadly and inclusively disseminate information about every full-time job opening, except in exigent circumstances, (ii) send notifications of full-time job vacancies to referral organizations that have requested such notification, and (iii) earn a certain minimum number of EEO credits, based on participation in various non-vacancy-specific outreach initiatives (“Menu Options”) suggested by the FCC, during each of the two-year segments (four segments total) that comprise a station’s eight-year license term. These Menu Option initiatives include, for example, sponsoring job fairs, participating in job fairs, and having an internship program.

Nonexempt SEUs must prepare and place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files and on the websites of all stations comprising the SEU (if they have a website) by the anniversary date of the filing deadline for that station’s license renewal application. The Annual EEO Public File Report summarizes the SEU’s EEO activities during the previous 12 months, and the licensee must maintain adequate records to document those activities. Nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports with their license renewal applications.

In addition, all TV station SEUs with five or more full-time employees and all radio station SEUs with more than ten full-time employees must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports at the midpoint of their eight-year license term along with FCC Form 397 – the Broadcast Mid-Term EEO Report.

Exempt SEUs – those with fewer than five full-time employees – do not have to prepare or file Annual or Mid-Term EEO Reports.

For a detailed description of the EEO rule and practical assistance in preparing a compliance plan, broadcasters should consult The FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Rules and Policies – A Guide for Broadcasters published by Pillsbury’s Communications Practice Group. This publication is available at: http://www.pillsburylaw.com/publications/broadcasters-guide-to-fcc-equal-employment-opportunity-rules-policies.

Deadline for the Annual EEO Public File Report for Nonexempt Radio and Television SEUs

Consistent with the above, June 1, 2016 is the date by which Nonexempt SEUs of radio and television stations licensed to communities in the states identified above, including Class A television stations, must (i) place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files of all stations comprising the SEU, and (ii) post the Report on the websites, if any, of those stations. LPTV stations are also subject to the broadcast EEO rules, even though LPTV stations are not required to maintain a public inspection file. Instead, these stations must maintain a “station records” file containing the station’s authorization and other official documents and must make it available to an FCC inspector upon request. Therefore, if an LPTV station has five or more full-time employees, or is part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file.

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May 2016

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Michigan and Ohio and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by June 1, 2016. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file. Television stations must ensure that a copy of the form is posted to their online public inspection file at https://stations.fcc.gov.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC established for all commercial radio and television stations. The new deadline will not become effective until the revised rule is published in the Federal Register. Until then, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by June 1, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Michigan and Ohio and Noncommercial Television Stations in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

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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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The FCC released the tentative agenda for its May 25 Open Meeting today, and topping the agenda is an item that could lift a burden that has been on the shoulders of commercial broadcasters for half a century.  The FCC will vote on adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection files.

That simple description understates, however, the actual impact the proposed change could have.  Letters and emails from the public may have at one time simply been one category of documents among many that broadcasters were required to keep in the public file, but when the FCC started requiring that public files be moved online, it recognized that “including these documents in the online file could risk exposing personally identifiable information and . . . requiring stations to redact such information prior to uploading these documents would be overly burdensome.”  As a result, the FCC decided that while it would require broadcasters to upload all other public file documents to the online file, broadcasters would not be permitted to upload letters or emails from the public and instead would have to continue to maintain those documents in the local public file at the station’s main studio.

In the rulemaking proceeding that resulted in the online public file requirement being expanded to radio, we filed comments on behalf of all 50 State Broadcasters Associations questioning the utility of maintaining a physical public file at the station solely to hold letters from the public:

If every part of the file is moved online except Letters from the Public, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever visiting a station solely for the thrill of reading its mail.  Still, station personnel must remain eternally vigilant for that one person who might show up to look at what will be the last vestige of a station’s local public file.

Those comments encouraged the FCC to take steps to eliminate the requirement, explaining that “as long as this single requirement effectively forces stations to maintain a local public file regardless of whether they also have an online public file, the burden of maintaining both files will for many small stations be a bridge too far.”  Commissioner O’Rielly added his support in a blog post this past September.

The biggest benefit of this change, if adopted, would be to allow stations to cease having to maintain a local “paper” public file and ensure that it is continuously available to the public during regular business hours (including lunchtime).  This would not only benefit stations struggling to ensure that there is always a staffer standing by to provide immediate access to the file, but increasingly important, eliminate a major security risk for broadcast stations seeking to prevent dangerous individuals from entering the building, as happened last week in Baltimore.

If the FCC ultimately eliminates the requirement to maintain letters and emails from the public in a local public file, access to the other content in the file will still be available to the public (online), and stations will no longer have to grant access to an individual just because he knows the “open sesame” phrase of American broadcasting: “I’m here to see the public file.”

In a blog post today (All That’s Old is New Again), Chairman Wheeler hinted that this rulemaking is unlikely to see much resistance, stating that elimination of this “outdated public file requirement[]” would be consistent with the agency’s “process reform initiative to review all Commission regulations and update or repeal outdated and unnecessary rules.” Broadcasters couldn’t agree more.

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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:

  • Class A TV Licensee Hit With $89,200 Fine for Dodging FCC Inspectors
  • Student-Run FM Station Faces $12,000 Fine and Shortened License Term for Public Inspection File Violations
  • Wireless Synchronized Clock Company Agrees to Pay $12,000 for Violating License Terms

FCC Throws the ($89,200) Book at Class A Licensee for Evading Main Studio Inspections

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau imposed a fine of $89,200 against a Philadelphia Class A TV licensee for failing to (1) make its station available for inspection by FCC agents on multiple occasions, (2) maintain a fully staffed main studio, and (3) operate the station’s transmitter from its authorized location.

Section 73.1225(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires broadcast licensees to make a station “available for inspection by representatives of the FCC during the station’s business hours, or at any time it is in operation.” In addition, Section 73.1125(a) of the Rules has been interpreted by the FCC to require broadcast licensees to maintain a main studio with a “meaningful management and staff presence” during normal business hours. Finally, Section 73.1350(a) of the Rules requires a broadcast licensee to “maintain[] and operat[e] its broadcast station in a manner which complies with the technical rules . . . and in accordance with the terms of the station authorization.”

In August 2011, FCC agents attempted to inspect the station’s main studio. After observing that the main studio was inaccessible due to a locked gate, the agents called the station manager and requested access to inspect the main studio. Ten minutes later, the station manager emerged and informed the agents that he could not facilitate the inspection because he was leaving for a medical appointment, and requested that the agents return the next day. When asked about staffing, the station manager said that no one else was available to facilitate the inspection. One of the agents called the sole principal of the station and advised him that the station manager had failed to make the station available for inspection, and asked the principal to call the agent back. The principal did not return the phone call.

Over one month later, in September 2011, the agents returned to the station to inspect the main studio. The station manager appeared at the locked gate, and asked the agents to wait as he returned to the building. After waiting for ten minutes, the agents left. The agents returned that afternoon and found that the gate was still locked. An agent called the station manager, who said the gate was locked for security purposes and that the public must contact the station to obtain access. However, the agents noted that there was no contact information on the gate. An agent called the sole principal about the second failed attempt to inspect the studio, and again did not receive a return phone call.

In addition to the two failed inspection attempts, FCC agents found in March 2012 that the station’s antenna was actually 0.2 miles from the site listed in the station’s license. The agents determined that the station had operated from the unauthorized location for approximately eight years.

The FCC subsequently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), proposing an $89,200 fine against the station. The base fine for failing to make a station available for inspection is $7,000. However, due to the “unacceptable” conduct of the station, the FCC used its discretion under Section 503(b)(2)(A) of the Communications Act to adjust the proposed fine upward to the maximum amount allowed under the Act: $37,500 for each of the two failed inspections. The FCC also proposed an upward adjustment of the base fine for operating the station from an unauthorized location, from $4,000 to $7,200. In addition, the FCC proposed a $7,000 fine (the base fine amount) for the violation of the main studio rule, for a total fine of $89,200.

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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:

  • Noncommercial FM Broadcaster Fined $10,000 for Public Inspection File Violations
  • TV Licensee Faces $20,000 Fine for Untimely Filing of 16 Children’s TV Programming Reports
  • Man Agrees to $2,360 Fine for Using GPS Jamming Device at Newark Airport

FCC Refuses to Take Pity on “Mom and Pop” FM Public Broadcaster With Public Inspection File Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau denied a New York noncommercial FM licensee’s Petition for Reconsideration of a March 2015 Forfeiture Order, affirming a $10,000 fine against the licensee for failing to place 13 Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists in the station’s public inspection file.

Section 73.3527 of the FCC’s Rules requires noncommercial educational licensees to maintain a public inspection file containing specific types of information related to station operations. Among the materials required for inclusion in the file are the station’s Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, which must be retained until final Commission action on the station’s next license renewal application. Issues/Program Lists detail programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding quarter.

In February 2014, the licensee filed an application for renewal of the station’s license, which it had acquired from a university in 2010 after the university decided to defund the station. In the application, the licensee admitted that the station’s public inspection file was missing 13 Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, commencing with the licensee’s acquisition of the station in 2010.

In March 2015, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture in the amount of $10,000, the base fine for a public inspection file violation. The licensee filed a Petition for Reconsideration, urging the FCC to withdraw the fine. While the licensee did not dispute the violations, it explained that it had a history of compliance with the FCC’s rules, and that it was the public radio equivalent of a “mom-and-pop-operation.” It further explained that it only had several employees and volunteers, including an unpaid manager, and was under constant financial strain.

In response, the FCC contacted the station on three separate occasions in 2015 to request that the licensee provide documentation supporting its claim of financial hardship. After receiving no response to these requests, the FCC chose not to reduce the fine based on financial hardship when it issued the resulting Forfeiture Order. In addition, the FCC chose not to reduce the fine based on the station’s history of compliance with the rules because of the “extensive” nature of the violations. Ultimately, however, the FCC stated that it would grant the license renewal application upon the conclusion of the forfeiture proceeding if “there are no issues other than the violations discussed here that would preclude grant of the application.”

Sour Sixteen: Failing to Timely File 16 Children’s TV Programming Reports Nets Proposed $20,000 Fine

A Texas TV licensee is facing a $20,000 fine for failing to timely file sixteen Children’s Television Programming Reports.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) requires a commercial licensee to prepare and place in its public inspection file a Children’s Television Programming Report for each calendar quarter. The report sets forth the efforts the station made during that quarter and has planned for the next quarter to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Licensees are required to file the reports with the FCC and place them in their public files by the tenth day of the month following the quarter. Continue reading →

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Consumer protection is always in style at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC”). When 50 fashion “influencers” flooded Instagram, all wearing the same dress in photos tagged “@lordandtaylor”, and an article featuring the same dress appeared in the online fashion magazine Nylon, some at the FTC suspected an advertising campaign masquerading as a social media dialogue.  While this matter arose in a “new media” context, and therefore impacts all businesses’ online activities, broadcasters are doubly affected—online and on-air—by the FTC’s action.

As we describe in more detail in our Client Advisory Lord and Taylor Case Shows the Importance of Transparency in Advertising, the FTC’s investigation into a supposedly viral phenomenon unveiled an integrated advertising campaign. Among other things, Lord & Taylor formally contracted with fashion influencers, giving them the dress for free and compensating them to “product bomb” Instagram with photos of themselves wearing the dress on one particular weekend.  Lord & Taylor approved the influencers’ posts and required them to include the @lordandtaylor tag and #DesignLab hashtag.  Lord & Taylor also contracted with Nylon to run an article about its new Design Lab collection, featuring the dress in the article and on Nylon’s Instagram page as well.  Again, Lord & Taylor reviewed the content before it was published.  However, Lord & Taylor did not require the influencers or Nylon to disclose their connection to Lord & Taylor or that they had been compensated for posting the photos and comments.

In December 2015, the FTC released its Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements.  The Policy Statement provides an overview of how the FTC intends to apply its consumer protection principles to “native advertising”—online advertising material that resembles editorial content, product reviews, or other content which could mislead consumers into believing that the advertising isn’t really advertising.  It also notes some factors that have contributed to a rise in native advertising online, such as the increased ability of publishers to quickly and cheaply reformat and reuse content, evolving business models around monetization of content, and the ability of consumers to skip or block ads placing pressure on advertisers to capture consumers’ attention.  However, the Policy Statement concludes that “[a]lthough digital media has expanded and changed the way marketers reach consumers, all advertisers, including digital advertisers, must comply with the same legal principles regarding deceptive conduct the Commission has long enforced.”

In setting out what those legal principles are, the FTC referred back to many cases involving a wide variety of media, including television infomercials that blurred the line between advertising and editorial content.  The FTC brought numerous cases in the 1980s and 1990s against infomercials that looked like investigative news reports or consumer product review content and required the addition of conspicuous “PAID ADVERTISEMENT” disclosures at the beginning and throughout the program where product ordering information was presented.

The FTC’s approach to digital marketing is similar. In its Native Advertising: A Guide For Businesses released along with the December Policy Statement, the FTC noted “[t]he more a native ad is similar in format and topic to content on the publisher’s site, the more likely that a disclosure will be necessary to prevent deception.”  In the Lord & Taylor case, the Nylon article used language similar to traditional editorial content recommending certain fashion choices.  Specifically, it stated:  “[W]e’re taking out the guess work and introducing you to spring’s must-have line: Lord & Taylor’s Design Lab.”  The FTC faulted Lord & Taylor for not requiring a disclosure that the article was paid-for advertising.

In addition, the FTC’s updated Endorsement Guides published in 2009 require that when advertisers recruit endorsers and provide them with free merchandise or other compensation, they must require their endorsers to clearly and conspicuously disclose their connection to the advertiser and, further, to monitor those endorsements for accuracy and inclusion of the required disclosure language.  Here, while Lord & Taylor did review and even edit the endorsements, it did not require any disclosure of the endorser’s relationship with Lord & Taylor.  We have written extensively about the Endorsement Guides and how they apply to broadcasters, including common situations that arise in on-air “banter”, here and here.

As a result of its investigation into Lord & Taylor’s advertising of the Design Lab line, the FTC and Lord & Taylor agreed to a settlement which imposes a number of conditions beyond mere compliance on Lord & Taylor going forward.  These include filing various reports with the FTC, preserving documents for later FTC review should it be necessary, and providing copies of the settlement agreement to all those who have anything to do with creating similar advertising campaigns. The case is an important reminder to all advertisers that, as the FTC has said, “[r]egardless of the medium in which an advertising or promotional message is disseminated, deception occurs when consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances are misled about its nature or source, and such misleading impression is likely to affect their decisions or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertising.”

Do your online and on-air promotions meet this test?

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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:

  • FCC Fines Radio Licensee $10,500 Despite Claims of Public File Sabotage
  • Unlocked Gate Costs AM Licensee $7,000
  • Class A Licensee Faces Hobson’s Choice: Pay $12,000 Fine or Revert to Low Power Status

Whodunit, Who Cares? FCC Fines Radio Licensee $10,500 for Missing Issues/Program Lists

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau denied a licensee’s Petition for Reconsideration of a June 2015 Forfeiture Order, affirming the $10,500 fine against the licensee of two Michigan radio stations (one AM and one FM) for failing to place five Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists in the stations’ public inspection files, and for failing to immediately notify the FCC upon a change of tower ownership.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Under Subsection 73.3526(e)(12), 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 addition, Section 17.57 of the Rules requires tower owners to immediately notify the FCC of any change in ownership information.

In February 2010, the licensee acquired the stations and accompanying tower from another company. In December 2010, the licensee filed a notification of change in tower ownership. However, the FCC promptly rejected the application as deficient and directed the licensee to refile its ownership change notification.

During a September 2011 inspection, an FCC agent found that the licensee’s public inspection files were missing five quarters of Issues/Programs Lists. The agent also determined that the ownership change notification had never been refiled. The FCC subsequently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for these violations and proposed a $13,000 fine—$10,000 for the missing Issues/Programs Lists and $3,000 for the absent ownership change notification.

The licensee did not contest the violations, but asked for a cancellation or reduction of the fine, arguing that (1) it made good faith attempts to correct the violations, (2) the missing Issues/Programs Lists had been removed by a third party, (3) it was unable to pay the fine due to financial difficulties, and (4) it had a history of compliance with the FCC’s Rules. In its June 2015 Forfeiture Order, the FCC reduced the fine to $10,500 due to the licensee’s history of compliance. However, the FCC found no basis for any further reduction. It explained that, while it may reduce a proposed penalty when a violation arose “just prior” to an FCC inspection, the Issues/Programs Lists were allegedly removed more than two months before the inspection—leaving the licensee adequate time to identify and correct the deficiency. The FCC also stated that the licensee had not shown the “severe financial distress” necessary to warrant a reduction, and that good faith efforts to correct violations must be made prior to notification of the violation to be considered as a basis for a fine reduction.

The licensee subsequently filed a Petition for Reconsideration, arguing that the Issues/Program Lists were in the public inspection file until the general manager of its major competitor deliberately removed them. Because the Petition failed to demonstrate a material error in the Forfeiture Order or raise any new facts or arguments, the FCC chose not to address the merits of the licensee’s arguments. The FCC noted, however, that even had it considered the merits of the licensee’s Petition, it still would have found no basis for reconsideration, explaining that the alleged third-party removal of the lists did not diminish the licensee’s liability for failing to identify and correct the deficiency in the two months between the alleged removal and the inspection.

The Price of Convenience: AM Licensee Is Fined $7,000 for Leaving the Gate to Its Tower Unlocked for Contractors

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau upheld a Forfeiture Order against a New York AM licensee for leaving the gate to its tower unlocked for several days so that contractors could have access. Section 73.49 of the FCC’s Rules requires towers having radio frequency potential at the base to be enclosed within effective locked fences or other enclosures. Continue reading →