Children & Media Category

Certification of Children's Commercial Time Limitations Required

Posted April 10, 2014

Commercial full-power and Class A television stations must place in their public inspection files by this date records "sufficient to verify compliance" with the FCC's commercial time limitations in children's programming broadcast during the period January 1, 2014 through March 31, 2014.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted January 24, 2014

By Scott R. Flick and Carly A. Deckelboim

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.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted December 19, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

December 2013

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 Cancels $20,000 Children's Television Fine
  • Fine and Reporting Requirements Imposed for EEO Violations
  • Individual Fined $15,000 for Unauthorized Operation of a Radio Transmitter

$20,000 Kidvid Fine Rescinded Due to Timely Filing

The FCC has continued to impose fines on numerous licensees for failing to timely file their Children's Television Programming Reports on FCC Form 398. The FCC's rules require that full power and Class A television stations file a Children's Television Programming Report each quarter listing the station's programming that is educational and informational for children, and regularly notify the public as to where to find those reports. The base fine for failing to file a required form with the FCC is $3,000.

In July of this year, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against a Louisiana licensee for failing to timely file its Children's Television Programing Reports 18 times. After examining the facts and circumstances, including the licensee's failure to disclose the late filings in its license renewal application, the FCC proposed a $20,000 fine.

In response to the NAL, the licensee asserted that the reports in question had been timely filed, and that the "late" dates the FCC was seeing in its filing database were merely amendments to the timely filed reports. Unfortunately, as those who have dealt with the FCC's filing systems are aware, when an amendment to an existing report is filed, the FCC's filing system changes the filing date shown from the original filing date to the filing date of the amendment. That is why it is important to print out evidence of the original filing when it is made, allowing the licensee to demonstrate that a timely filing was made if it is later questioned.

Based on the licensee's ability to produce Submission Confirmation printouts showing that the reports were timely filed, the FCC agreed to rescind the NAL and cancel the $20,000 fine.

License Assessed $20,000 Fine and Reporting Obligations for Failing to Notify Job Referral Sources and Self-Assess Its EEO Performance

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $20,000 fine and detailed reporting requirements on an Illinois radio licensee. Under Section 73.2080(c)(1)(ii) of the FCC's Rules, a licensee must provide notices of job openings to any organization that "distributes information about employment opportunities to job seekers upon request by such organization," and under Section 73.2080(c)(3), must "analyze the recruitment program for its employment unit on an ongoing basis."

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


FCC Detective Work Leads to Renewal Fines

Richard R. Zaragoza

Posted December 5, 2013

By Richard R. Zaragoza

If there had been any doubt that the Video Division of the FCC's Media Bureau would check a television station's online public inspection file to confirm the truthfulness of certifications made by the licensee in a pending license renewal application, that doubt has been eliminated.

In a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture released December 3, the Video Division has proposed a $9,000 fine against the licensee of two Michigan televisions stations on the grounds that (i) each station had filed their Children's Television Programming Reports ("Kidvid Reports") late, and (ii) the stations failed to report those violations in responding to one of the certifications contained in their license renewal applications.

According to the FCC, the licensee had filed each station's Kidvid Report late for three quarters during the license term in violation of Section 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) of the Commission's Rules.

The problem was compounded when the licensee failed to disclose those violations in responding to Section IV, Question 3 of the Form 303-S, which requires licensees to certify "that the documentation, required by 47 C.F.R. Section 73.3526...has been placed in the station's public inspection file at the appropriate times." That same certification requires the applicant to submit an exhibit explaining any violations.

The Video Division of the FCC proposed that each station be assessed a fine of $3,000, the base forfeiture amount for failing to timely file Kidvid Reports, plus a fine of $1,500 for omitting from its renewal applications information regarding those violations. The Division suggested that it could have fined each station $3,000, rather than $1,500, for the reporting failure, but reduced the amount because each licensee "made a good faith effort to identify other deficiencies."

Fortunately for the licensee in this case, it had checked the certification box with a "no," and disclosed that its quarterly issues/programs lists had not been timely uploaded to the FCC's online public file for the station. While the licensee did not mention anything about the late-filed Kidvid Reports, apparently the Video Division believed that the licensee's failure to disclose was intentional enough to warrant a fine, but not deliberate enough to warrant a charge of misrepresentation or lack of candor that could have resulted in a much larger fine or worse.

The lessons learned from the Video Division's action include: before signing off and filing a station license renewal application, (i) check the FCC's online database to make sure that it has a record of all documents that were required to be timely filed, (ii) check the station's paper (in the case of radio) and online (in the case of television) public inspection file to confirm (or not) that the file is complete and that the documents required to be in the file were placed there on a timely basis, and (iii) discuss with counsel what may need to be disclosed (or not disclosed) in response to certifications contained in a station's application for renewal of license.

Of future concern is whether the Media Bureau will now be more inclined to impose even higher fines, claiming misrepresentation/lack of candor, where a license renewal applicant makes an unqualified affirmative certification that is not correct, or where the applicant states that it is unable to make an affirmative certification and provides an explanation, but does not fully disclose all material facts in its explanation. Recently the Media Bureau imposed a $17,000 fine against a station for violating Section 1.17 (misrepresentation/lack of candor) after having concluded that had the station "exercised even minimal due diligence, it would not have submitted incorrect and misleading material factual information to the Commission." The Bureau made a point of the fact that the base statutory fine for misrepresentation or lack of candor is $37,500. Affirmative due diligence and caution are your best insurance policies in avoiding such a new and unbudgeted line item expense on your company's next P&L.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted November 26, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

November 2013

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:

  • Multiple Indecency Complaints Result in $110,000 Payment
  • $42,000 in Fines for Excessive Power, Wrong Directional Patterns and Incomplete Public Inspection Files
  • Cable Operator Fined $25,000 for Children's Programming Reports

Broadcaster Enters Into $110,000 Consent Decree Involving Allegations of Indecent Material

The FCC recently approved a consent decree involving a broadcaster with TV stations in California, Utah and Texas accused of airing indecent and profane content.

Section 73.3999 of the FCC's Rules prohibits radio and television stations from broadcasting obscene material at all times and prohibits indecent material aired between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

The FCC received multiple complaints about the television show in question and sent Letters of Inquiry to the broadcaster asking it to provide a copy of the program and to answer questions about possible violations of the FCC's indecency rule. The licensee complied with the requests but maintained that the program did not contain indecent content.

Earlier this month, the FCC entered into a consent decree with the broadcaster and agreed to terminate its investigation and dismiss the pending indecency complaints. Under the terms of the consent decree, the broadcaster is required to (a) designate a Compliance Officer within 30 days, and (b) create and implement a company-wide Compliance Plan within 60 days, which must include: (i) creating operating procedures to ensure compliance with the FCC's restrictions on indecency, (ii) drafting a Compliance Manual, (iii) training employees about what constitutes indecent content, and (iv) reporting noncompliance to the FCC within 30 days of discovering any violations. The consent decree also requires the filing of a compliance report with the FCC in 90 days and annually thereafter for a period of 3 years. The requirements imposed under the consent decree expire after three years.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted October 25, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

October 2013

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:

  • Online Public File Violations and Failure to Respond Result in $14,400 Fine
  • Unlicensed Broadcast Operation Draws $7,000 Fine
  • Fines Continue for Class A Children's Television Violations

Licensee Fined for Public Inspection File Violations and Failure to Respond to FCC Inquiries
The FCC issued a Forfeiture Order in the amount of $14,400 to a California television licensee for failing to keep its online public inspection file up to date and for not responding to the FCC's letters of inquiry.

Earlier this year, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against the licensee, asserting that the station had failed to place required documentation in its online public inspection file and failed to respond to FCC letters of inquiry. The NAL concluded that the licensee should be assessed a $16,000 forfeiture for these violations, which was comprised of $10,000 for the public file violation and $6,000 for failure to respond to the FCC's correspondence. Although the usual penalty for failure to respond is $4,000, the FCC imposed the higher penalty of $6,000 on this licensee because its "misconduct was egregious and repeated."

The licensee timely responded to the NAL and argued against the imposition of a $16,000 fine. The FCC rejected all but the last of the station's arguments. First, the FCC disagreed with the licensee's argument that uploading documents into its online inspection file was unnecessary because of their availability at the station's main studio, noting that "the online public file is a crucial source of information for the public." Second, the FCC noted that providing the FCC with updated contact information is the responsibility of the licensee, and therefore rejected the licensee's argument that the station's failure to reply to FCC letters sent to an outdated address was unintentional. Third, the FCC ignored the licensee's argument that paying a fine would impose a financial hardship, as the station declined to provide the required documentation of its financial status. Ultimately, however, the FCC agreed to reduce the fine from $16,000 to $14,400 in light of the station's history of compliance with the FCC's Rules.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted September 30, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

September 2013

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 Assesses Substantial Fine for Antenna Lighting Outage
  • Big Fines for Children's Television Violations

Failure to Monitor Antenna Lighting Costly

The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) in the amount of $20,000 to an Alaskan telecommunications company for tower lighting violations.

The height of the antenna structure placed it within the jurisdiction of both the FAA and the FCC. FAA rules required the structure to have dual lighting: red lights at night and medium intensity flashing white lights during the daytime and at twilight.

The company's troubles began when an agent from the FCC's Anchorage Enforcement Bureau office observed that the tower was unlit during the daytime. The FCC agent contacted the FAA, which confirmed that no Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) had been issued for the lighting outage. Tower operators are required to notify the FAA immediately of any lighting outage lasting more than 30 minutes. The FCC agent also alerted the tower owner of the situation. According to the FCC, the owner did not appear to have a functioning monitoring system for the tower lighting.

The NAL cited the owner's failure to visually monitor obstruction lighting on a daily basis or to maintain a functioning alarm system. In response, the owner acknowledged the violation and stated it had identified the source of the problem to be a failing capacitor on the system's control board. It then replaced the failing component and installed a remote monitoring and alarm system for the antenna structure.

The base fine for failing to comply with tower lighting and monitoring requirements and for failing to provide notification of extinguished lights is $10,000. The NAL stated that the fine was increased to $20,000 as part of the FCC's policy of fining "large" companies larger dollar amounts to ensure that the fine "is a deterrent and not simply a cost of doing business."

FCC Actively Pursuing Kidvid Violations

This month, the FCC has once again been bringing enforcement actions against a number of Class A stations for failure to timely file Children's Television Programming Reports on FCC Form 398. The Commission has issued at least ten NALs for Kidvid violations since the beginning of this month.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor "


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted June 30, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

June 2013

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

  • FCC Issues Heavy Fines for Late-Filed Children's Television Programming Reports
  • Motel with Multichannel Video Programming Distribution System Is Cited for Excessive Cable Signal Leakage

FCC Fines Multiple Licensees for Failure to Timely File Children's Television Programming Reports

As broadcasters have learned, the FCC takes licensees' public inspection file and reporting obligations very seriously. This month, the FCC issued multiple Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against licensees for failing to file Children's Television Programming Reports on Form 398 in a timely manner. On June 18 and 21, the FCC issued a total of seven decisions proposing to fine stations between $3,000 and $18,000 for not filing their Form 398s on time.

Under the FCC's rules, commercial television stations must report their children's educational and informational broadcast programming efforts each quarter by electronically filing FCC Form 398, the Children's Television Programming Report. Historically, the FCC has fined stations for failing to file their reports, and there would be nothing new about the FCC issuing an NAL for "failure to file".

In these seven cases, however, the stations were not fined for a failure to file their reports, but for failing to file their reports on time. In the decisions, the FCC issued the following fines:

  • For a station that missed the filing deadline twenty-three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $18,000.
  • For a licensee that missed the filing deadline eleven times on one station and thirteen times on another, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $15,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline fourteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline ten times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000 (eight reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000 (three reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the deadline sixteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline eleven times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $3,000.

The cases were all relatively similar. As an example, in the $15,000 NAL, the licensee filed license renewal applications for its two Class A TV stations. At the time of the applications, the licensee did not disclose that it had filed some of its Children's Television Programming Reports late, and in fact, certified in its renewal applications that it had timely filed all relevant programming reports with the FCC. However, the Commission subsequently reviewed its records and found that the licensee failed to file programming reports on time for 11 quarters for one station and 13 quarters for another.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


First Quarter FCC KidVid Reports Confirm Accuracy of Mayan Calendar

Scott R. Flick Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted March 26, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Lauren Lynch Flick

At the end of every quarter, TV stations across the land must electronically file with the FCC a Form 398--The Children's Television Programming Report. However, stations attempting to do that filing for the first quarter of 2013 are discovering that the FCC's online filing system for those forms ends with the fourth quarter of 2012. As a result, it is preventing many TV stations from preparing their electronic report for the first quarter of 2013, rejecting all efforts to select "First Quarter 2013" as the report to be filed.

At first, it appeared that the FCC had bought into the "Mayan Prophecy" that the world was ending in December 2012, marking the end of the Mayan (and perhaps the FCC's) calendar. And, had the world actually ended in 2012, filing a Form 398 covering the first quarter of 2013 would have indeed ranked low on most broadcasters' "to do" lists. However, with 2013 well under way, TV stations are now flummoxed as to how to get the FCC's electronic filing system to allow the preparation and filing of a first quarter 2013 kidvid report.

Fortunately, there is an answer, but it requires a little background. We reported in a 2010 KidVid Advisory that the FCC had suddenly begun requiring stations to enter their FCC Registration Number and password as the final step before permitting a Form 398 to be filed. As it turned out, this was apparently the first step in creating a new FCC Form 398 filing system.

In July 2012, the FCC released what it termed an "alternate" link for accessing the Form 398 filing system and updated its user manual to indicate that the web address for filing the form is the alternate link. However, the FCC's main Children's Television Programming page on the Internet continues to show that the original link is the one to use for filing a Form 398, and until this quarter, that original link has continued to work correctly. Of course, most TV stations just have the original link bookmarked, and have no reason to visit the FCC's website/user manual to see if the filing procedures have been changed. Adding to the confusion is the fact that following the original link does not generate a warning or error message, but takes you to the same filing page stations have been using for years. It is only when a station tries to create a report for first quarter 2013 that a problem arises.

As a result, the "alternate" link is not just an alternate any more, and must be used to file all post-2012 kidvid reports. So, from here on out, use this link for filing your kidvid reports: http://licensing.fcc.gov/KidVidNew/public/filing/submit_login.faces

Note also that, at the new link, you will have to provide your call sign, Facility ID, FCC Registration Number and Password to even be able to log into the system. This is all information you previously needed to file a Form 398, but you supplied it at the end of the filing process. Now, you can't even get started without it. For TV stations that have been banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out why they can't prepare, much less file, their Form 398, using the alternate link should solve that problem. It may be a small problem compared to the end of the world, but then the Mayans never had to deal with online filing.


2012 Fourth Quarter Children's Television Programming Documentation

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted December 1, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick

The next Children's Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations' public inspection files by January 10, 2013, reflecting programming aired during the months of October, November, and December 2012.

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 younger, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and younger.

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) complete FCC Form 398, which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and younger. 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 this has occurred to ensure that its online public inspection file is complete. The base forfeiture for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC's Children's Television Programming Rule is $10,000.

Noncommercial Educational Television Stations
Because noncommercial educational television stations are precluded from airing commercials, the commercial limitation rules do not apply to such stations. Accordingly, noncommercial television stations have no obligation to place commercial limits documentation in their public inspection files. Similarly, though noncommercial stations are required to air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and younger, they do not need to complete FCC Form 398. They must, however, maintain records of their own in the event their performance is challenged at license renewal time. In the face of such a challenge, a noncommercial station will be required to have documentation readily available that demonstrates its efforts to meet the needs of children.

A PDF version of this entire article can be found at 2012 Fourth Quarter Children's Television Programming Documentation.


Randall Terry Pushes the FCC's Political Envelope

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 31, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2012 First Quarter Children's Television Programming Documentation

Lauren Lynch Flick Christine A. Reilly

Posted March 1, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Christine A. Reilly

March 2012

The next Children's Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations' local public inspection files by April 10, 2012, reflecting programming aired during the months of January, February, and March 2012.

On Statutory and Regulatory Requirements

As a result of the Children's Television Act of 1990 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 younger, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and younger.

These two obligations, in turn, require broadcasters to comply with two paperwork requirements Specifically, stations must: (1) place in their public inspection file one of four prescribed types of documentation demonstrating compliance with the commercial limits in children's television, and (2) complete 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 and placed in the public inspection file. The base forfeiture for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC's Children's Television Programming Rule is $10,000.

Article continues . . .


Oral Arguments Bring Supreme Court's Indecency Case into Focus

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 10, 2012

By Paul A. Cicelski

Having just returned from watching oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the highly anticipated case Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, I can tell you that the case is living up to its billing as one of the more interesting matters before the Court. In it, the Court will finally have the opportunity to address the constitutionality of the FCC's current interpretation of its indecency restrictions on television and radio stations. Specifically, the Court is considering whether the Second Circuit was correct in deciding that the FCC's indecency ban is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment by being so vague and amorphous as to deprive broadcasters of clear notice as to what is and isn't permissible.

The underpinnings of the FCC's indecency regulation come from the now-famous George Carlin (RIP) "Seven Dirty Words" monologue. During the monologue, Carlin used, among other words, the "F-word" and the "S-word" repeatedly, and verbally presented a number of sexual and excretory images. The monologue was aired by a radio station, a complaint was filed, and the FCC ultimately determined that the broadcast was prohibited indecency. The case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court as the 1978 Pacifica case where, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, the FCC's indecency finding survived a First Amendment challenge. The Court stated that the FCC's decision was constitutional largely because "broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children."

For 25 or so years following the Pacifica case, the FCC exercised a light touch in enforcing its indecency ban, as evidenced by its statement that "speech that is indecent must involve more than an isolated use of an offensive word." However, in 2004, the FCC changed its longstanding policy on the use of isolated expletives, finding that a broadcast could be indecent even when the use of an expletive was not repeated or a literal description of sexual activities was not included.

As previously discussed by Scott Flick here and here, the FCC's effort to expand the definition of actionable indecency is at the heart of the case now before the Supreme Court. That case involves three separate incidents that were broadcast on TV between 2002 and 2003, each of which were found to be indecent by the FCC. The first two, the "fleeting expletives" incidents, occurred on Fox during the Billboard Music Awards when Cher used the "F-word", and then Nicole Richie used the "S-word" and "F-word" a year later on the same program.

The third broadcast at the center of the case involved a 2003 ABC broadcast of an episode of NYPD Blue that included the display of a woman's buttocks. In both the Fox and ABC cases, the Second Circuit concluded that the FCC's current indecency enforcement policy is "unconstitutional because it is impermissibly vague" since broadcasters do not have fair notice of "what is prohibited so that [they] may act accordingly."

During today's oral arguments, there was a great deal of lively banter between the Justices and the attorneys on both sides of the debate. The U.S. Solicitor General, on behalf of the government, argued that broadcast stations must comply with the FCC's indecency regulations as the price of holding a broadcast license and the privilege of "free and exclusive use of public spectrum." Justice Kagan noted, however, that the government's "contract theory" can only go so far when it comes to the First Amendment.

In response to the Solicitor General's claim that television today is as pervasive as it has ever been, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that the major complaint the broadcasters have is that the "censor" here, the FCC, can act arbitrarily by saying it is okay to broadcast otherwise indecent language or scenes during Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan, but that it is not OK to air such material during an episode of NYPD Blue. Later, Justice Kagan joked that it seems like nobody "can use dirty words except for Steven Spielberg." While intended as a joke, the Justice would likely not be surprised that communications lawyers do indeed refer to the "Spielberg exception" in reviewing content before it airs.

In challenging the FCC's regulations, counsel for the broadcasters noted that the FCC's indecency policies had been working fine until the FCC "wildly changed their approach" in 2004 and that the current context-based approach is impermissibly vague. Of particular interest given that the pending cases all involve television broadcasts, when Justice Alito asked whether the broadcasters would accept the Supreme Court overruling Pacifica for purposes of television only and not for radio, the response in the courtroom appeared to be "yes". Both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia appeared skeptical of the broadcasters' arguments, with Chief Justice Roberts stating that "we, the government" only want to regulate "a few channels" and Justice Scalia remarking that the "government can require a modicum of values".

While you can only read so much into oral arguments, the huge crowd and the media circus I saw when leaving the Supreme Court underscore the interest in, and the importance of, the Court's ultimate decision in this case. Aside from the fact that Justice Sotamayor is recused from the case, and two Justices that voted against the FCC at an earlier stage of the case have since left the Court, the drama in this case has been dramatically increased given the strange bedfellows it could create among liberal and conservative Justices on the Court. Given that Justice Thomas is on record as criticizing the "deep intrusion in the First Amendment right of broadcasters" created by the FCC's indecency policies, it is not out of the realm of possibility to see Justice Thomas siding with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan (and maybe even Justice Kennedy) in finding that the FCC's indecency policy is unconstitutional.

However, that result is hardly a given. We have no idea how Justice Kagan will rule given her short time on the Court, nor do we know yet whether Chief Justice Robert's antipathy towards governmental paternalism -- evidenced in the Court's decision this past summer overturning a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors -- might find voice in this case as well. While many issues polarize people based upon their political perspective, fans of the First Amendment tend to be found all along the political spectrum. How the case is framed is therefore critically important. Is this a case about protecting children from ostensibly harmful content, or is this a case about making broadcast television fit only for children during the hours when most adults watch it? On a less philosophical and more pragmatic level, what are the First Amendment implications of making broadcasters have to guess what content the government will conclude is inappropriate for their audiences? Broadcasters are hoping the the Court's decision in this case will bring an end to those guessing games.


Broadcasters Hustling to Meet Numerous October Deadlines

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted September 23, 2011

By Lauren Lynch Flick

This October has more than its share of filing deadlines for broadcasters to worry about. Of course, it is the end of the quarter, so broadcasters should be prepared for their routine quarterly filings. Additionally, certain states will have EEO and noncommercial ownership filing obligations. This year is also a radio license renewal year and a triennial must-carry/retransmission consent election year for television stations. All in all, there are a number of deadlines to keep track of, so read on.

October 1 (weekend)

  • Must-Carry/Retransmission Consent Elections: Deadline for commercial full power television stations to notify by certified mail all cable and satellite providers in their markets of their election between must-carry and retransmission consent for the next three-year period. More information on this election can be found here. Noncommercial stations must make requests for carriage, as they do not have retransmission consent rights.
  • EEO Public File Reports: Deadline for radio and television station employment units with five or more employees in the following states to prepare and place in their public inspection file, and on their website if they have one, their annual EEO Public File Report: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington, as well as American Samoa, Guam, Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.
  • FCC Form 323-E: Deadline for the following noncommercial stations to electronically file their biennial ownership report on FCC Form 323-E: Radio stations licensed to communities in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington, as well as American Samoa, Guam, Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands, and television stations licensed to communities in Iowa and Missouri.
  • Pre-filing Renewal Announcements: Date on which radio stations licensed to communities in Alabama and Georgia must begin airing their pre-filing license renewal announcements. The remaining announcements must air on October 16, November 1 and November 16.
  • License Renewal Filing: Deadline for radio stations licensed to communities in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands to electronically file their license renewal applications. These stations must also commence their post-filing renewal announcements to air on October 1 and 16, November 1 and 16, and December 1 and 16.

October 10 (holiday)

  • Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists: Deadline for all radio, full power television and Class A television stations to place their Quarterly Issues/Programs List in their public inspection file.
  • Children's Television: Deadline for all commercial full power and Class A television stations to electronically file FCC Form 398, the Children's Television Programming Report, with the FCC and place a copy in their public inspection file. These stations must also prepare and place in their public inspection files their documentation of compliance with the commercial limits in programming for children 12 and under.

October 23 (weekend)

  • License Renewal Documentation: Date on which radio stations licensed to communities in North and South Carolina must place in their public inspection file documentation of having given the required public notice of their August 1st license renewal filing.

The FCC Makes Its Indecency Case at the Supreme Court, But Has the Court Already Shown Its Cards?

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 7, 2011

By Scott R. Flick

The FCC today filed its Brief at the U.S. Supreme Court defending its actions against Fox and ABC programming it found to be indecent. In the case of Fox, the alleged indecency was celebrity expletives uttered during the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, while ABC was fined for rear nudity shown during an episode of NYPD Blue. As I wrote earlier, the fact that the Court is reviewing such disparate forms of indecency (fleeting expletives during live programming versus nudity during scripted programming) increases the likelihood of a broader ruling by the court regarding indecency policy, as opposed to a decision limited to the very specific facts of these two cases.

When the Supreme Court was contemplating whether to hear the FCC's appeal of the lower court decisions, some broadcasters urged the Court to look beyond these particular cases and rule on the continued viability of Red Lion. The Red Lion case is a 1969 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to limit broadcasters' First Amendment rights based upon the scarcity of broadcast spectrum. The logic behind Red Lion was that since there isn't enough spectrum available for everyone to have their own broadcast station, those fortunate enough to get a broadcast license must accept government restrictions on its use. Red Lion is the basis for many of the FCC regulations imposed on broadcasters, but the FCC's indecency policy is Red Lion's most obvious offspring.

While Red Lion is the elephant in the room in any case involving broadcasters' First Amendment rights, its emergence in the Fox/ABC case was particularly unsurprising. In an earlier stage of the Fox proceeding, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that the FCC's indecency enforcement was an arbitrary and capricious violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The Court's decision was not, however, a show of unanimity. The 5-4 decision included a main opinion from Justice Scalia, but also two concurrences and three dissents. The most interesting aspect of the fractured decision came from Justice Thomas, who joined the majority in finding that the FCC had not violated the Administrative Procedure Act, but who also noted the "deep intrusion into the First Amendment rights of broadcasters" and questioned whether Red Lion was still viable in the Internet age.

It is certainly true that much of the logic supporting Red Lion has been undercut by a changing world. There are now far more broadcast stations than newspapers, but no one argues that the scarcity of newspapers justifies limiting their First Amendment rights. Similarly, the Internet has given those seeking not just a local audience, but a national or even international audience a very low cost alternative for reaching those audiences. While broadcast stations may still be the best way of reaching large local audiences, they are no longer the only way.

These are just a few of the many changes occurring since 1969 that weaken the foundation of Red Lion. If you put two communications lawyers in a room and give them five minutes, they will be able to generate at least a dozen other reasons why Red Lion's day has passed. Try this at your next cocktail party. It's far better than charades and communications lawyers need to get out more anyway.

It is therefore not surprising that broadcasters accepted Justice Thomas's invitation and urged the Court to reconsider Red Lion in evaluating the constitutionality of indecency regulation. What is interesting, however, is that when the Court agreed to review the lower court decisions, it explicitly limited its review to the constitutionality of the FCC's indecency policy, and declined to consider the broader questions raised by Justice Thomas with regard to Red Lion.

While some saw that as a defeat for broadcasters, I am inclined to think it was something else entirely. Although the composition of the Court has changed a bit since 2009, it is worth noting that four justices questioned the FCC's indecency policy then, and a fifth justice explicitly questioned Red Lion, the very foundation of that policy. Given that it only takes the votes of four justices for the Court to agree to hear an appeal, the exclusion of Red Lion from that review is curious, and it is certainly possible that Justice Thomas is alone in his concern about the continued viability of Red Lion.

More likely, however, is that the Court is adhering to its long-held doctrine of keeping decisions as narrow as possible when addressing the constitutionality of a particular law or regulation. If that is the case, then the justices may well have concluded that the FCC's indecency policy, at least in its current form, cannot survive constitutional review, and that there is no need to consider the broader issue of whether the government has any viable basis for regulating broadcasters and broadcast content. Stated differently, If the Court was inclined to uphold the constitutionality of the FCC's indecency policy, an assessment of the continued viability of Red Lion would be critical to that decision, since a constitutional policy for which the government lacks a constitutional basis to impose on broadcasters is still unconstitutional.

While it is always a risky endeavor to attempt to "read" the Court, the entire basis of indecency policy is to protect children from content the government finds unsuitable for them. It is therefore telling that on the very day the Court agreed to hear the FCC's appeal, it also released a decision overturning a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, finding in a 7-2 decision that the law infringed upon the First Amendment, regardless of its intent to protect children. That decision makes clear that the Court will not merely accept "protecting children" as a valid basis for limiting First Amendment activities.

Of course, the California ban on sales of violent video games to minors affected only minors, whereas the FCC's restriction on indecency limits the broadcast content that everyone--adults and minors alike--can access from 6am-10pm every day (the hours during which indecent broadcast content is prohibited). That fact, combined with the reality that there is far more "First Amendment" speech (political and otherwise) on radio and television than in most video games, means that the FCC may have a tough job convincing the Court that the FCC's indecency policy can coexist with the First Amendment.