Articles Posted in Television

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The FCC’s Media Bureau issued a Public Notice today announcing that it would immediately suspend the September 1, 2015 digital transition date for LPTV and TV translator stations. The FCC’s Second Report and Order had established the September 1 deadline for LPTV, TV translator, and Class A TV stations to terminate analog operations and transition to digital. However, in its Third Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC recognized that the upcoming spectrum auction and repacking process would likely displace a substantial number of LPTV and TV translator stations, and that 795 LPTV and 779 TV translator stations had not yet completed their digital conversion. Seeking to avoid requiring those stations to incur the costs of the digital transition prior to completion of the auction and repacking, the FCC proposed suspending the transition deadline. In today’s Public Notice, the FCC concluded that suspending the digital transition deadline would be appropriate to permit analog LPTV and TV translators to postpone construction of digital facilities that could be impacted by the spectrum auction and repacking.

The FCC’s decision, however, does not affect Class A TV stations, which are still required to complete the digital transition by the September 1 deadline. Class A stations that do not complete construction of their digital facilities by 11:59 pm, local time, on September 1, 2015 will be required to go dark until they complete construction of their digital facilities.

Additionally, although Class A stations are not required to cease analog transmissions until September 1, their digital facilities must be licensed or have an application for a license on file by May 29, 2015 for those digital facilities to be fully protected by the FCC in the repacking process. Any Class A station that fails to meet the May 29 Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline will be afforded protection based solely on the coverage area and population served by its analog facilities, as set forth in the Incentive Auction Report and Order.

The FCC has not announced when the new transition date will be, other than to say the deadline will come after final action in its LPTV DTV proceeding. According to the Third NPRM, the FCC is weighing the benefit of waiting until the close of the auction to establish a new deadline—which would allow the FCC to take into account the overall impact of the repacking process—against announcing a deadline sooner than the end of the auction, which could provide more certainty to LPTV and translator stations about when the digital transition will end and expedite the completion of that transition.

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It sounds like the setup for a joke: a broadcaster, a broker, a banker, a broadcast lawyer, and a backer all walk into a bar. There is no punch line, however, as that will happen innumerable times over the next week, and that just means it’s time for this year’s NAB Show!

What started as a simple gathering of broadcasters and broadcast equipment vendors has grown to mammoth proportions, now encompassing not just broadcasting, but every aspect of content and content delivery, as well as mountains of technology for creating and distributing that content. Billed as “the world’s largest media and entertainment event” with around 100,000 attendees, it is also one of the largest conventions in Las Vegas each year, nearly doubling the attendance (I kid you not) of February’s “World of Concrete” convention.

As it has grown, the NAB Show has become a magnet for those of us that work in and around the industry, as you can accomplish in an afternoon what would otherwise take dozens of plane trips. As a result, lots of transactions are launched or sealed in the confines of the hotels surrounding the Convention Center. While that may not be different from any other week in Vegas, these deals will often involve broadcast stations and program content.

The Great Recession battered all conventions, including the NAB Show, but pre-Show levels of activity seem to indicate that this year’s Show will be a return to form, bringing back people that may have skipped the past few years. Perhaps more important is an accompanying shift in attitude. It seems attendees are back to looking for ways to expand their businesses rather than just survive until economic conditions improve.

I will be there along with the rest of the Pillsbury contingent going this year—Lew Paper, Miles Mason, Lauren Lynch Flick, John Hane, and our newest addition, David Burns. There will be much to see, and I know the other lawyers on Pillsbury’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems team are jealous, as the number of drones on display in the Convention Center will likely exceed that of both the CIA and the Air Force (minus the Hellfire missiles).

So we look forward to seeing you there, and if it isn’t everything you are hoping for, don’t worry; there’s another World of Concrete expo coming in 2016!

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March 2015

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

  • Deceptive Practices Yield Multi-Million Dollar Fines for Telephone Interexchange Carriers
  • LPFM Ads Cost $16,000
  • Multiple TV Station Licensees Face $6,000 Fines for Failing to File Children’s TV Programming Reports

Interexchange Carriers’ “Slamming” and “Cramming” Violations Yield Over $16 Million in Fines

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $7.62 million fine against one interexchange carrier and proposed a $9 million fine against another for changing the carriers of consumers without their authorization, commonly known as “slamming,” and placing unauthorized charges for service on consumers’ telephone bills, a practice known as “cramming.” Both companies also fabricated audio recordings and submitted the recordings to the FCC, consumers, and state regulatory officials as “proof” that consumers had authorized the companies to switch their long distance carrier and charge them for service when in fact the consumers had never spoken to the companies or agreed to the service.

Section 258 of the Communications Act and Section 64.1120 of the FCC’s Rules make it unlawful for any telecommunications service carrier to submit or execute a change in a subscriber’s selection of telephone exchange service or telecommunications service provider except with prior authorization from the consumer and in accordance with the FCC’s verification procedures. Additionally, Section 201(b) of the Communications Act requires that “all charges, practices, classifications, and regulations for and in connection with [interstate or foreign] communications service [by wire or radio], shall be just and reasonable.” The FCC has found that any assessment of unauthorized charges on a telephone bill for a telecommunications service is an “unjust and unreasonable” practice under Section 201(b), regardless of whether the “crammed” charge is placed on consumers’ local telephone bills by a third party or by the customer’s carrier.

Further, the submission of false and misleading evidence to the FCC violates Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules, which states that no person shall “provide material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information . . . without a reasonable basis for believing that any such material factual statement is correct and not misleading.” The FCC has also held that a company’s fabrication of audio recordings associated with its “customers” to make it appear as if the consumers had authorized the company to be their preferred carrier, and thus charge it for service, is a deceptive and fraudulent practice that violates Section 201(b)’s “just and reasonable” mandate.

In the cases at issue, the companies failed to obtain authorization from consumers to switch their carriers and subsequently placed unauthorized charges on consumers’ bills. The FCC found that instead of obtaining the appropriate authorization or even attempting to follow the required verification procedures, the companies created false audio recordings to mislead consumers and regulatory officials into believing that they had received the appropriate authorizations. One consumer who called to investigate suspect charges on her bill was told that her husband authorized them–but her husband had been dead for seven years. Another person was told that her father–who lives on another continent–requested the change in service provider. Other consumers’ “verifications” were given in Spanish even though they did not speak Spanish on the phone and therefore would not have completed any such verification in Spanish. With respect to one of the companies, the FCC remarked that “there was no evidence in the record to show that [the company] had completed a single authentic verification recording for any of the complainants.”

The FCC’s forfeiture guidelines permit the FCC to impose a base fine of $40,000 for “slamming” violations and FCC case law has established a base fine of $40,000 for “cramming” violations as well. Finding that each unlawful request to change service providers and each unauthorized charge constituted a separate and distinct violation, the FCC calculated a base fine of $3.24 million for one company and $4 million for the other. Taking into account the repeated and egregious nature of the violations, the FCC found that significant upward adjustments were warranted–resulting in a $7.62 million fine for the first company and a proposed $9 million fine for the second.

Investigation Into Commercials Aired on LPFM Station Ends With $16,000 Civil Penalty

Late last month, the FCC entered into a consent decree with the licensee of a West Virginia low power FM radio station to terminate an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s underwriting laws by broadcasting announcements promoting the products, services, or businesses of its financial contributors.

LPFM stations, as noncommercial broadcasters, are allowed to broadcast announcements that identify and thank their sponsors, but Section 399b(b)(2) of the Communications Act and Sections 73.801 and 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting advertisements. The FCC has explained that the rules are intended to protect the public’s use and enjoyment of commercial-free broadcasts in spectrum that is reserved for noncommercial broadcasters that benefit from reduced regulatory fees.

The FCC had received multiple complaints alleging that from August 2010 to October 2010, the licensee’s station broadcast advertisements in violation of the FCC’s noncommercial underwriting rules. Accordingly, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to the licensee. In its response, the licensee admitted that the broadcasts violated the FCC’s underwriting rules. The licensee subsequently agreed to pay a civil penalty of $16,000, an amount the FCC indicated reflected the licensee’s successful showing of financial hardship. In addition, the licensee agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan, including annual reporting requirements, to ensure no future violations of the FCC’s underwriting rules by the station will occur.

Failure to “Think of the Children” Leads to $6,000 Fines

Three TV licensees are facing $6,000 fines for failing to timely file with the FCC their Form 398 Children’s Television Programming Reports. Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) requires a commercial licensee to prepare and place in its public inspection file a Children’s Television Programming Report on FCC Form 398 for each calendar quarter. The report sets forth the efforts the station made during that quarter and has planned for the next quarter to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Licensees are required to file the reports with the FCC and place them in their public files by the tenth day of the month following the quarter, and to publicize the existence and location of those reports.

This month, the FCC took enforcement action against two TV licensees in California and one TV licensee in Ohio for Form 398 filing violations. The first California licensee failed to timely file its reports for two quarters, the second California licensee failed to file its reports for five quarters, and the Ohio licensee failed to file its reports for eight quarters. Each licensee also failed to report these violations in its license renewal application, as required under Section 73.3514(a) of the Rules. Additionally, the Ohio licensee failed to timely file its license renewal application (in violation of Section 73.3539(a) of the Rules), engaged in unauthorized operation of its station after its authorization expired (in violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act), and failed to timely file its biennial ownership reports (in violation of Section 73.3615(a) of the Rules).

Despite the variation in the scope of the violations, each licensee now faces an identical $6,000 fine. The FCC originally contemplated a $16,000 fine against the Ohio licensee, as its guidelines specify a base forfeiture of $10,000 for unauthorized operation alone. However, after assessing the licensee’s gross revenue over the past three years, the FCC determined that a reduction of $10,000 was appropriate, resulting in the third $6,000 fine.

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

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By Lauren Lynch Flick and Scott R. Flick

March 2015
The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Texas and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by April 1, 2015. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their stations’ public inspection files. Television stations must assure that a copy of the form is posted to their online public inspection file at https://stations.fcc.gov.

In 2009, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on whether the Commission should adopt a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC has established for all commercial radio and television stations. In January 2013, the FCC renewed that inquiry. Until a decision is reached, noncommercial radio and television stations continue to be required to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF version of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by April 1, 2015 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Texas and Noncommercial Television Stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

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March 2015
This Broadcast Station Advisory is directed to radio and television stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, and highlights the upcoming deadlines for compliance with the FCC’s EEO Rule.

April 1, 2015 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas to place their Annual EEO Public File Report in their public inspection file and post the report on their station website.

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.
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March 2015
The next Quarterly Issues/Programs List (“Quarterly List”) must be placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2015, reflecting information for the months of January, February and March 2015.

Content of the Quarterly List

The FCC requires each broadcast station to air a reasonable amount of programming responsive to significant community needs, issues, and problems as determined by the station. The FCC gives each station the discretion to determine which issues facing the community served by the station are the most significant and how best to respond to them in the station’s overall programming.

To demonstrate a station’s compliance with this public interest obligation, the FCC requires the station to maintain and place in the public inspection file a Quarterly List reflecting the “station’s most significant programming treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” By its use of the term “most significant,” the FCC has noted that stations are not required to list all responsive programming, but only that programming which provided the most significant treatment of the issues identified.
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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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As Pillsbury’s 2015 Broadcasters’ Calendar indicates, new rules relating to closed captioning go into effect on March 16, 2015. The FCC adopted these rules in its February 24, 2014 Closed Captioning Quality Order . They generally concern a station’s “quality control” over its program captioning.

As a quick refresher, the Order adopted closed caption quality standards and technical compliance rules to ensure video programming is fully accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. In April 2014, the FCC announced a series of effective dates for the requirements in the Order, and in December 2014, it extended a January 15, 2015 deadline for compliance with certain rules to March 16, 2015. The requirements that will go into effect on March 16, 2015 include:
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For a company that could always punch well above its weight in drawing press coverage, Aereo’s sale of its assets in bankruptcy last week drew surprisingly little coverage.

Less than a month before last year’s Supreme Court decision finding that Aereo’s retransmission of broadcast TV signals over the Internet constituted copyright infringement, a Forbes article discussing Aereo’s prospects in court noted the company had “a putative valuation of $800 million or so (that could vault up if Aereo wins).” The article went on to note that “It’s a tidy business, too, bringing in an estimated $40 million while reaping 77% gross margins ….”

Aereo made its case before a variety of judges and in the court of public opinion that it was an innovative tech company, with a growing patent portfolio and cutting edge technology. When broadcasters argued that Aereo was merely retransmitting broadcast programming to subscribers for a fee without paying copyright holders, Aereo doubled down, arguing before the Supreme Court that it was at the vanguard of cloud computing, and that a decision adverse to Aereo would devastate the world of cloud computing. In a blog post published the day Aereo filed its response brief at the Court, Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia wrote:

If the broadcasters succeed, the consequences to American consumers and the cloud industry are chilling.

The long-standing landmark Second Circuit decision in Cablevision has served as a crucial underpinning to the cloud computing and cloud storage industry. The broadcasters have made clear they are using Aereo as a proxy to attack Cablevision itself. A decision against Aereo would upend and cripple the entire cloud industry.

So Aereo’s narrative heading into the Supreme Court was clear: Aereo is a cutting edge technology company that is not in the content business, and a prototypical representative of the cloud computing industry in that industry’s first encounter with the Supreme Court.

As CommLawCenter readers know, the Supreme Court rejected that narrative, finding that a principal feature of Aereo’s business model was copyright infringement, and the Court saw little difficultly in separating Aereo’s activities from that of members of the public storing their own content in the cloud.

The results of Aereo’s asset sale reveal much about the accuracy of the Supreme Court’s conclusions, and about the true nature of Aereo itself. The value of Aereo’s cutting edge technology, patent portfolio, trademark rights, and equipment when sold at auction fell a bit short of last year’s $800 million valuation. How much was Aereo worth without broadcast content? As it turns out, a little over $1.5 million. But even that number apparently overstates the value of Aereo’s technology as represented by its patent portfolio.

Tivo bought the Aereo trademark, domain names, and customer lists for $1 million, apparently as part of its return to selling broadcast DVRs. Another buyer paid approximately $300,000 for 8,200 slightly-used hard drives.

And the value of the Aereo patent portfolio? $225,000.

To add insult to injury, the patent portfolio was not purchased by a technology company looking to utilize the patents for any Internet video venture. The buyer was RPX, a “patent risk solutions” company. The World Intellectual Property Review quoted an RPX spokesman regarding the purchase, who stated that “RPX is constantly evaluating ways to clear risk on behalf of its more than 200 members. The Aereo bankruptcy afforded RPX a unique opportunity to quickly and decisively remove risk in the media and technology sectors, thus providing another example of the clearinghouse approach at work.”

In other words, the Aereo patent portfolio was purchased for its nuisance value, which, having lost the ability to resell broadcast programming, turned out to be all the value Aereo had.

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It is an unusual occasion indeed when the FCC offers to revise its rules to provide regulatory relief to both television and radio stations. Yet that is precisely what the FCC proposed in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to update its station-conducted contest rule to allow broadcasters to post contest rules online rather than broadcast them. As the proposal now stands, stations would no longer need to broadcast the contest rules if they instead announce the full website address where the rules can be found each time they discuss the contest on-air.

The FCC’s current contest rule was adopted back in 1976 when broadcasters could only provide contest information via printed copies of the rules available at the station or by announcing the rules over the air. The FCC’s existing rule states that broadcasters sponsoring a contest must “fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest” on-air, and subsequently conduct the contest substantially as announced. (For a refresher on the contest rule, you can take a look at the Pillsbury Advisory drafted by Scott Flick covering a number of on-air rules, including the contest rule, here). A note to the rule explains that “[t]he material terms should be disclosed periodically by announcements broadcast on the station conducting the contest, but need not be enumerated each time an announcement promoting the contest is broadcast. Disclosure of material terms in a reasonable number of announcements is sufficient.” The challenge for broadcasters has been airing the material terms of each station contest on-air a “reasonable number” of times without driving audiences away.

In the NPRM, the FCC acknowledged that things have changed since 1976, and that the Internet is now “an effective tool for distributing information to broadcast audiences.” More than three years ago, Entercom Communications filed a Petition for Rulemaking advancing the notion, among others, that the FCC should let broadcasters use their websites to post contest rules instead of having to announce them over the air. Not surprisingly, the Entercom proposal received a great deal of support and it remains unclear why the FCC waited so long to act on it.

The proposed rule would allow stations to satisfy their disclosure obligations by posting contest terms on the station’s Internet website, the licensee’s website, or if neither the individual station nor the licensee has its own website, any Internet website that is publicly accessible. Material contest terms disclosed online would have to conform with any mentioned on-air, and any changes to the material terms during the course of the contest would have to be fully disclosed on-air and in the rules as posted on the website.

Comments on the FCC’s proposals were due this week and it seems most parties are on the same page as the the FCC; namely, that it is the 21st century and the contest rule should be modernized to keep up with the times. In fact, Entercom in its comments asks the Commission to permit stations to announce contest website information an average of three times per day during a contest as an effective way to announce contest information to to public.

While this is generally good news for broadcasters, there is a catch or two. Under the new rule, stations that choose to disclose their contest rules online would be required to announce on-air that the rules are accessible online, and would also be required to announce the “complete, direct website address where the terms are posted … each time the station mentions or advertises the contest.” For stations that promote (or even mention) their contests frequently, this could become a pain really quickly, for both the station and their audience. Listening to a complete and lengthy URL “each time” anything regarding the contest is uttered on the air will grow old fast. There is a reason you rarely hear an ad that contains more than just the advertiser’s domain name, as opposed to the full address for a particular link from that domain. Advertisers know that people will remember a home page domain name much better than a full URL address, and that the full URL address will only cause the audience to tune out, both literally and figuratively.

In light of these concerns, Pillsbury submitted comments this week on behalf of all fifty State Broadcasters Associations urging the Commission to simplify matters by exempting passing on-air references to a contest from any requirement to announce the contest rules’ web address. Additionally, rather than require the broadcast of a “complete and direct website address,” which is typically a lengthy and easily forgettable string of letters and punctuation, the State Broadcasters Associations’ comments urged that the rule only require stations to announce the address of the website’s home page, where a link to the contest rules can be found. Those on the Internet understand quite well how to navigate a website, and will have little difficulty locating contest rules, either through a direct link or by using a site’s search function.

As Lauren Lynch Flick, the head of Pillsbury’s Contests & Sweepstakes practice, noted in a November 2014 post, station contests also must abide by applicable state law requirements. In that vein, the State Broadcasters Associations reminded the Commission that any FCC micro-management of the manner or format of a station’s online contest rule disclosures could subject stations to dueling federal and state requirements with no countervailing benefit. As pointed out in her post, an improperly conducted contest can subject a station to far greater liability under consumer protection laws and state and federal gambling laws than the typical $4,000 fine issued by the FCC for a contest violation. As a result, broadcasters need no further incentives to make sure their contests are fairly run and their rules fully disclosed to potential entrants.

In short, the FCC has an opportunity to ease the burden on both broadcasters and their audiences by allowing stations the flexibility to elect to make their contest rule disclosures online. The FCC shouldn’t diminish the benefit to be gained by reflexively imposing unnecessary restrictions on that flexibility.