Posted May 31, 2012
By Scott R. Flick and Lauren A. Birzon
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 Noncommercial Educational Station $12,500 for Ads
- Public Inspection File Violations Lead to Three Short Term License Renewals
- Main Studio Violations and Unauthorized Operations Garner $21,500 Fine
Noncommercial Educational Station Airs Expensive Ads
A recent fine against a noncommercial educational station serves as a warning to noncommercial licensees to be mindful of on-air acknowledgements and advertisements. In concluding a preceding that began in 2006, the FCC issued a $12,500 fine against a California noncommercial FM licensee for airing commercial advertisements in violation of the FCC's rules and underwriting laws.
In August 2006, agents from the Enforcement Bureau inspected the station and recorded a segment of the station's programming. During the inspection, the agent determined that the recorded programming included commercial advertisements on behalf of for-profit entities. In January 2007, the Bureau issued an initial Letter of Inquiry ("LOI") regarding the station's commercial advertisements and additional technical violations. At the same time, the Bureau referred the matter to the Investigations and Hearings Division for additional investigation. The Division issued additional LOIs in 2008 and 2009, to which the licensee responded three times. In its responses, the licensee admitted to airing four commercial announcements over 2,000 times in total throughout an eight-month period in 2006. It also acknowledged that it had executed contracts with for-profit entities to broadcast the announcements in exchange for monetary payment.
According to Section 399(b) of the Communications Act and the FCC's Rules, noncommercial educational stations are not permitted to broadcast advertisements, which are defined as program material that is intended to promote a service, facility, or product of a for-profit entity in exchange for remuneration. Noncommercial stations may air acknowledgments for entities that contribute funds to the station, but the acknowledgments must be made for identification purposes only. Specifically, such acknowledgments should not promote a contributor's products or services and may not contain comparative or qualitative statements, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy or sell. In addition to these rules, the FCC requires that licensees exercise "good faith" judgment in airing material that serves only to identify a station contributor, rather than to promote that contributor.
In this case, the FCC determined that the materials aired were prohibited advertisements because they favorably distinguished the contributors from their competitors, described the contributors with comparative or qualitative references, and included statements intended to entice customers to visit the contributors' businesses. As a result, the FCC proposed a $12,500 fine in June 2010.
In response, the licensee argued that the FCC should reduce or cancel the fine because (1) the announcements complied with the FCC's Rules and "good faith" precedent, (2) the announcements did not contain a "call to action," and (3) the FCC had not previously prohibited the language used in the announcements. The licensee also claimed that the investigation of the station was improper because the FCC had previously indicated it would not monitor stations for underwriting violations, but would respond solely to complaints.
The FCC refused to cancel or reduce the fine, finding that both the fine and the investigation were warranted given the licensee's violations. In its Order, the FCC defended its determination that the materials aired by the station were promotional advertisements because they contained comparative phrasing, qualitative statements, and aimed to encourage the audience to purchase the goods or services of the for-profit entities. In addition, the FCC rejected the notion that the investigation was in any way improper, noting that the FCC has broad authority to investigate the entities it regulates, including through field inspections.
Here, as in other underwriting cases, the FCC's decision to issue a fine came down to a necessarily subjective interpretation of language--is a given statement promotional in nature or does it merely identify a source of funding? The FCC has acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, hence the requirement that licensees exercise "good faith" judgment in airing underwriting announcements. Noncommercial educational stations must therefore carefully review the content of their on-air announcements to ensure the language is not unduly promotional in order to avoid a fate similar to the licensee in this case.
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