Ownership Law & Regulation Category

Biennial Ownership Reports are due by October 1, 2014 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in IA and MO and Noncommercial Television Stations in AK, Am. Samoa, FL, Guam, HI, Mariana Is., OR, PR, Saipan, VI and WA

Scott R. Flick Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted October 1, 2014

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Scott R. Flick

September 2014

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 Iowa and Missouri and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Alaska, American Samoa, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Saipan, the Virgin Islands, and Washington must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by October 1, 2014. 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 files 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 October 1, 2014 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Iowa & Missouri & Noncommercial Television Stations in Alaska, American Samoa, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Saipan, the Virgin Islands, and Washington.


Biennial Ownership Reports are due by August 1, 2014 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Illinois and Wisconsin and Noncommercial Television Stations in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina

Scott R. Flick Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted August 1, 2014

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Scott R. Flick

July 2014
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 Illinois and Wisconsin and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by August 1, 2014. 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 files 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 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 August 1, 2014 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Illinois and Wisconsin and Noncommercial Television Stations in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina.


FCC Form 323-E Biennial Ownership Report Due

Posted April 1, 2014

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or Tennessee and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Texas (other than sole proprietorships or partnerships composed entirely of natural persons) must electronically file by this date their biennial ownership reports on FCC Form 323-E, unless they have consolidated this filing date with that of other commonly owned stations licensed to communities in other states. FCC Form 323-E does not require a filing fee. The form as filed must be placed in stations' public inspection files.


FCC Form 323-E Biennial Ownership Report Due

Posted February 1, 2014

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York, and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma (other than sole proprietorships or partnerships composed entirely of natural persons) must electronically file by this date their biennial ownership reports on FCC Form 323-E, unless they have consolidated this filing date with that of other commonly owned stations licensed to communities in other states. FCC Form 323-E does not require a filing fee. The form as filed must be placed in stations' public inspection files. Note that since this filing deadline falls on a weekend, the submission of this item to the FCC may be made on February 3.


Another Year Over and a New One Just Begun

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 17, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Around this time every year, you typically see an abundance of articles in the trades making predictions about what the FCC will do in the coming year. It has become such a rite of the new year that I've even joked about it in past posts.

This year, however, I have noticed much less predictive commentary about the FCC, and it isn't hard to understand why. 2014 is so far looking like a "to be continued" year, forcing FCC soothsayers to concede that it's hard to say precisely how 2014 will differ markedly from 2013 at the FCC.

For example, 2014 was originally supposed to be the Year of the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction. However, after the confusion surrounding the federal Affordable Care Act website demonstrated that "set a deadline to launch and it will surely be figured out by then" might not be the optimal approach to complex government projects, Chairman Wheeler agreed with much of the broadcast industry that it will take more time to get such a complicated undertaking right. As a result, he announced last month that the auction is now likely a mid-2015 event. While buying health insurance is indeed complicated, it is ditch-digging compared to designing the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction (official motto: "The Broadcast Spectrum Auction--Making quantum mechanics look easy since 2010").

Similarly, Chairman Wheeler also last month took media ownership proposals being considered internally at the FCC under the prior Chairman off the table in order to give a "fresh look" at the FCC's media ownership rules. By statute, the FCC is required to review its media ownership rules every four years and eliminate any that are no longer in the public interest. The tabled proposals were part of the still-in-process 2010 quadrennial review, increasing the likelihood that the 2010 proceeding will now be rolled into the 2014 quadrennial review (official motto: "It's 2014 already?").

So does this mean 2014 will be boring for media watchers? Not at all. First, one reason for the dearth of breathless predictions is the relatively recent arrival of Chairman Wheeler. A new Chairman can bring many surprises, and as he has succeeded so far in holding many of his cards close to his vest, it's too early to tell just what all may be on his 2014 wish list. What he will do in 2014 therefore remains more a matter of speculation than prediction, leading many prognosticators to hold back for the moment.

Second, even if 2014 ends up being a quiet year of incremental change at the FCC, there is plenty to keep things interesting on the media front outside of the FCC. First and foremost, last week's announcement that the Supreme Court is jumping into the Aereo fray ensures that there will be some dramatic developments in 2014. Similarly, the 2014 elections promise to be a significant event for many media outlets, both in terms of bringing political ad dollars through the door while affecting the political balance of a Congress that has promised a rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934 in the next few years.

While such events will create an interesting 2014 regardless of what the FCC has on its menu, it's meeting the daily deadlines that keeps media businesses going, and meeting the legal deadlines that keep broadcasters in particular operating. For example, while the state by state radio license renewal application filing cycle concludes in 2014, the TV renewal cycle continues on throughout this year and into 2015.

One way, however, that 2014 will differ from 2013 is that October 1, 2014 marks the every-three-years deadline for TV stations to send their must-carry/retransmission consent elections to cable and satellite carriers. Given the growing importance of retrans dollars for broadcasters, and the fact that, at least with regard to cable, a failure to make an election results in a default election of must-carry, these elections are critically important (in contrast, note that failure to send an election to DirecTV or Dish leads to the opposite result, a default election of retransmission consent, just to make it as confusing as possible).

To help broadcasters navigate the less-exciting but still critically important deadlines that keep their licenses intact, at the end of 2013 we published the 2014 edition of our annual Broadcasters' Calendar. It can be found on the right side of the CommLawCenter main page, as well as at the Communications Publications section of Pillsburylaw.com.

Also, to stay up to date on industry events, keep an eye on our main page Interactive Calendar, as we upload numerous 2014 industry events, including NAB shows, state broadcasters associations conventions, and Pillsbury seminars and webinars on a variety of communications-related subjects. Predicting may be more fun, but knowing your regulatory deadlines keeps the lights on. Regardless, as 2014 reveals itself, I have little doubt that there will be a lot to talk about, and make predictions about, here at CommLawCenter.


Breaking News: FCC Moves Up Ownership Report Deadline (Slightly)

Scott R. Flick

Posted December 9, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

As our own Lauren Lynch Flick reported last month, the deadline for commercial broadcast stations to file their biennial ownership reports with the FCC, which the FCC in August moved from November 1st to December 2nd, and then in November moved from December 2nd to December 20th, has now been moved up, but just by a little.

In a Public Notice released today, the FCC announced that:

The Media Bureau previously issued an order granting requests to extend the 2013 biennial ownership report filing deadline to December 20, 2013. Subsequently, a power outage of the FCC headquarters building's electrical systems, as required by the District of Columbia Fire Code, was scheduled. The Commission's systems, including CDBS, will become unavailable after business hours on the evening of the filing deadline. The outage is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on December 20, 2013. Filers must complete electronic filing of their 2013 biennial Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations prior to that time to comply with the filing due date.

Because the FCC's website has been known to struggle on days where large numbers of filings are due, broadcasters should generally avoid filing documents on their due date unless there is good reason to do so. However, one benefit of electronic filing has been the ability to file after normal business hours, when traffic on the FCC's filing databases eases. That will not be possible this year, and for those on the West Coast, the 7 p.m. (Eastern) deadline means that they will need to get their ownership reports on file by 4 p.m. Pacific time, before their business day actually ends.

As a result, broadcasters will need to be extra vigilant this year to ensure that they don't find themselves trying to file their ownership reports late in the day on December 20th, only to realize that the FCC's filing system is moving at the speed of molasses from the high volume of filers. When the lights go out at the FCC on December 20th, so will your chance of a timely filing.


Breaking News: FCC Extends Ownership Reporting Deadline

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted November 15, 2013

By Lauren Lynch Flick

A few minutes ago, the FCC released an Order extending the December 2, 2013 deadline for commercial broadcast stations to file their biennial ownership reports to December 20, 2013. The extension is meant to respond to the fact that the FCC took its website (including the Consolidated Database System used for preparing and filing reports and applications) offline during the October government shutdown. Because of this, broadcasters were prevented from preparing their voluminous ownership reports until the FCC reopened and the website was reactivated.

Since the biennial ownership report requires filers to provide their ownership information as it existed on October 1, 2013, broadcasters normally have sixty days after the October 1 reporting date to prepare and submit their reports. By extending the deadline to December 20, the FCC is seeking to maintain that sixty day preparation period.

Noncommercial broadcasters whose biennial ownership reports are due on December 2, 2013 (radio stations licensed to communities in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota) should be aware that this extension does not apply to noncommercial ownership reports. Barring further action by the FCC, noncommercial stations in the listed states should continue to plan on filing their ownership reports by the current December 2, 2013 deadline.


Taking a Narrow View of the UHF Discount

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted November 14, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

This morning, the FCC's proposal to eliminate the UHF Discount was published in the Federal Register, establishing the comment and reply comment dates for that proceeding. Comments are due December 16, 2013, and reply comments are due January 13, 2014.

Under current law, no individual or entity is permitted to hold an interest in broadcast TV stations that, in the aggregate, reach more than 39 percent of U.S. television households. While this if often shorthanded as "no broadcast group can reach more than 39% of the population", the rule is actually more restrictive than that. Since it applies not just to broadcast groups but to individuals, the rule prohibits an investor from holding 5% of the voting stock of two different TV groups if those otherwise unconnected groups' stations together reach more than 39% of the population. Similarly, the rule would be violated if an individual served as a director for both companies.

Fortunately, the rule's impact on broadcast investment has been lessened by the FCC's UHF Discount, under which the FCC counts only half of the population in a station's market towards the 39% cap if the station operates on a UHF channel (14-51) rather than on a VHF channel (2-13). Because most digital television stations operate on UHF channels, the practical effect has been to permit a group or individual to hold interests in TV stations located in markets representing more than 39% of the population (note, however, that the rule still counts every TV household in the market against the 39% cap, even where the station does not actually serve those households with an over-the-air signal).

The FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposes to eliminate the UHF Discount on the theory that while UHF stations had weaker coverage than VHF stations in an analog world, VHF frequencies are not well suited to digital transmissions, and it is now VHF stations that are suffering from poor coverage. That is accurate, but it would seem to be an argument for also creating a VHF Discount rather than eliminating the UHF Discount. While it is true that the FCC provided UHF stations with an opportunity to increase their operating power in transitioning to digital television if they could do so without creating interference to other stations, the guiding principal of making channel allotments in the DTV transition was replicating analog service areas, meaning that UHF analog stations were given digital allotments replicating their flawed analog coverage.

Oddly, however, the NPRM looks past that history, focusing instead on the fact that UHF stations and VHF stations are now much more equivalent because of VHF's digital woes. While the 39% ownership cap, and how it is calculated, may well merit revisiting, the NPRM explicitly makes the decision to forego an examination of the 39% cap and how compliance with that cap should be calculated, and instead limits the FCC's review to whether the UHF Discount should be eliminated.

In his dissent to the NPRM, FCC Commissioner Pai noted this fact, chiding the FCC for putting on its regulatory blinders while plunging ahead on the UHF Discount:

[B]ecause we are proposing to end the UHF discount, we should ask whether it is time to raise the 39 percent cap. Indeed, this step is long overdue notwithstanding any change to the UHF discount. The Commission has not formally addressed the appropriate level of the national audience cap since its 2002 Biennial Review Order, and it has been nearly a decade since the 39 percent cap was established. The media landscape has changed dramatically in the many years since. I've spoken a lot about the importance of reviewing our rules to keep pace with changes in technology and the marketplace, and I wish today's item had done so with respect to this issue in a comprehensive manner.

Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, the FCC's NPRM thrusts out its hand, touching only one aspect of the FCC's ownership rules, and risks discovering later that there is much more to the elephant than its tail.


FCC Grants More Time for 2013 Commercial Station Ownership Reports

Scott R. Flick

Posted August 6, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

A few moments ago, on its own motion, the FCC released an Order extending the 2013 deadline for commercial radio and television stations (including Class A and LPTV stations) to file their biennial ownership reports with the FCC. The reports, which are normally due on November 1 of odd-numbered years, must include ownership information that is accurate as of October 1 of that year.

Because of today's Order, however, the 2013 commercial ownership reports will be due on December 2, 2013 (December 1 is a Sunday). Despite the delayed filing date, the FCC indicates that the reports should still contain information that was accurate as of October 1, 2013.

Today's move by the FCC is hardly unprecedented. When the FCC first implemented a uniform biennial ownership report filing deadline for commercial stations in 2009, it ended up extending the deadline a number of times because of issues related to the new reporting form, etc. Ultimately, the deadline for 2009 reports fell on July 8, 2010, creating a fair amount of confusion for station owners who had bought their stations between November 2009 and July 2010, and therefore found themselves filing ownership reports certifying as to the ownership structure of the prior station owner.

In 2011, the FCC delayed the ownership report filing deadline by just thirty days. The short delay, along with growing familiarity with the revised reporting form, resulted in a much smoother reporting process in 2011.

Now, explaining the need for an extension in 2013, the FCC states that "we are aware that some licensees and parent entities of multiple stations may be required to file numerous forms and the extra time is intended to permit adequate time to prepare such filings. We believe it is in the public interest to provide additional time to ensure that all filers provide the Commission with accurate and reliable data on which the Commission may rely for research and other purposes." Despite the extension, the FCC is still encouraging licensees to file their ownership reports as early as possible.

While it is starting to look like these biennial extensions are becoming the norm given the complexity of reporting various ownership structures on the current form, it is risky for stations to start assuming that the deadline will always be extended. It would therefore be helpful if the FCC would permanently change the deadline so that licensees know they will always have sixty days to create and file the various biennial ownership reports required. Alternatively, the reporting form and process could be simplified so that completing the filing within 30 days would not be so difficult. Given the challenge that would present to the FCC, however, we may be seeing more of these ownership reporting extensions in the future.


Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch

John K. Hane

Posted April 16, 2013

By John Hane

Recently, TVNewsCheck.com ran a short item noting that a large broadcast group (not a network owned and operated group) and a large multichannel video distributor (MVPD) successfully concluded carriage negotiations. There was no interruption of service. Given the successful outcome, I was surprised to see that someone posted a comment regarding the piece saying the deal illustrates why the FCC should tighten its broadcast ownership rules. No matter how many times I read comments of this sort, I am perplexed that people actually believe it's a good thing for the government to mandate that broadcasters be the underdogs in all major negotiations that impact the quality and availability of broadcasters' programming. If anything, government policy should encourage broadcasters to grow to a scale that is meaningful in today's complex television marketplace. Not one of the other major distributors makes its programming available for free.

If independent (non-O&O) broadcasters aren't permitted to achieve a scale large enough to negotiate effectively with upstream programmers and downstream distributors, you won't have to wait long see high cost, high quality, high value programming available for free to those who choose to opt out of the pay TV ecosystem. It's much better to have two, three or four strong competitors in each market, owned by companies that can compete for rational economics in the upstream and downstream markets, than to have eight or more weak competitors, few of which can afford to invest in truly local service or negotiate at arms-length with program suppliers and distributors.

For those who have not been paying attention, the television market has changed profoundly in the past 20 years. The big programmers and the big MVPDs have gotten a whole lot bigger. The largest non-O&O broadcast groups have grown too, but not nearly as much. Fox, Disney/ABC, NBCU and the other programmers are vastly bigger companies with incomparable market power vis-a-vis even the largest broadcast groups. The same is true of the large MVPDs, which together serve the great majority of television households.

There's nothing inherently bad about big content aggregators and big MVPD distributors. And anyway, they are a fact of life. Despite their size, each is trying to deliver a competitive service and deliver good returns for shareholders. That's what they are supposed to do, and in general (with a few exceptions) they serve the country well. But again, they are much, much larger than even the largest broadcast groups. If you believe that having a viable and competitive free television option is a good thing, that's a problem.

So in response to the suggestion that the FCC further limit the scale of broadcasters, I reply: why does the government make it so damn hard for the only television service that is available for free to bargain and compete with vastly larger enterprises that are comparatively unregulated?

Continue reading "Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch"


FCC Mulls Over Raising Limits on Foreign Ownership of Broadcast Stations

Richard R. Zaragoza

Posted March 13, 2013

By Richard R. Zaragoza

In response to a request by the Coalition for Broadcast Investment ("Coalition"), the FCC, through its Media Bureau, has invited the filing of comments on the question of whether the Commission should now be open to allowing non-citizens and foreign companies to hold more than a 25% equity interest in U.S. radio and television stations. The deadline for filing comments is April 15, with reply comments due by April 30.

The Coalition is comprised of national broadcast networks, radio and television station licensees, as well as community and consumer organizations. It is urging the FCC to publicly commit, going forward, to considering on their individual merits transactions proposing significant foreign investment in broadcast stations, rather than reflexively rejecting foreign ownership above the 25% mark, as the FCC has traditionally done when reviewing broadcast transactions.

But for the Commission's decades-old refusal to be flexible, the Coalition's request would not have been necessary as Section 310(b)(4) of the Communications Act states that a broadcast license will not be granted to "any corporation directly or indirectly controlled by any other corporation of which more than one-fourth of the capital stock is owned of record or voted by aliens, their representatives, or by a foreign government or representative thereof, or by any corporation organized under the laws of a foreign country, if the Commission finds that the public interest will be served by the refusal or revocation of such license." The very language of the Act therefore indicates that alien ownership above the 25% mark will be permitted unless the FCC specifically finds that such foreign ownership would not, in the particular situation presented, serve the public interest.

Despite the language of the statute, the FCC has routinely declined to consider broadcast-related transactions proposing more than 25% foreign ownership of a broadcast parent company. The Coalition contends that, by considering the merits foreign ownership proposals in excess of the 25% mark, the FCC will encourage "access to additional and new sources of investment capital [which] will benefit the broadcast industry and American consumers by financing advanced infrastructure, innovative services and high quality programming; and by promoting the creation of highly skilled, well-paying jobs" as well as "provide new opportunities for minority businesses and entrepreneurs, whose access to the domestic capital markets has been limited...."

A clear statement by the FCC that it will now review, on the merits, radio and television transactions proposing significant foreign investment in U.S. broadcast stations should send a very constructive signal to the broadcast industry, to potential foreign investors and to U.S. investors looking to syndicate more of their capital needs offshore for U.S. broadcast investments. Such a new openness and flexibility on the part of the Commission will also serve to create a more equitable "access to capital" environment for broadcasters particularly in relation to other forms of media.

Future Commission actions publicly approving, disapproving and conditioning transactions proposing "plus 25%" foreign ownership will, over time, provide the necessary predictability that is so important for investment decision-making. Pillsbury has considerable experience in crafting FCC-friendly ownership/control structures for banks, companies and firms with foreign ownership that wish to invest in U.S. broadcast stations. Action by the Commission on the Coalition's letter will hopefully simplify and speed the heretofore painstaking process of balancing the return on investment objectives of foreign investors against the need to meet the letter and intent of the FCC's rules and policies with respect to foreign ownership of U.S. broadcast stations.


FCC Form 323-E Biennial Ownership Report Due

Posted February 1, 2013

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Kansas, Nebraska or Oklahoma, and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey or New York (other than sole proprietorships or partnerships composed entirely of natural persons) must electronically file by this date their biennial ownership reports on FCC Form 323-E, unless they have consolidated this filing date with that of other commonly owned stations licensed to communities in other states. FCC Form 323-E does not require a filing fee. The form as filed must be placed in stations' public inspection files.


Yes, the FCC Still Wants Your Social Security Number

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 3, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Earlier today, the FCC released a Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking relating to its biennial broadcast ownership report filing requirements, reigniting a controversy over privacy, broadcast investment, and indeed, the very purpose of the reports.

In 2009, the FCC revamped its Form 323, the Commercial Broadcast Station Ownership Report, somewhat to address data collection shortcomings identified by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, but mostly to try to make the information more standardized and transparent for academic researchers wishing to generate industry-wide ownership statistics, particularly with regard to minority and female ownership. Unfortunately, the FCC's initial effort to revise the form seemed to have focused on trying to create a form that researchers would applaud, rather than on the "user experience" of those required to fill it out. The result was an awkward effort at forcing complex ownership information into highly redundant machine-readable spreadsheet formats.

Causing particular consternation, however, was a new requirement that every officer, director and shareholder mentioned in those reports have a unique FCC-issued Federal Registration Number (FRN). Because the FCC wants researchers to be able to track the race, ethnicity and gender of each individual connected with a broadcast station, it requires that those registering to obtain an FRN provide either a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN), or a Social Security Number (SSN). This, according to the FCC, is necessary to allow it to differentiate between individuals that may have similar names and addresses.

Not surprisingly, this requirement met with fierce opposition from numerous groups, including: (1) those who have heard the admonition of government and others to never reveal your SSN to anyone or risk identity theft; (2) broadcasters, who found less than thrilling the experience of badgering their shareholders to either hand over their SSN or take the time to apply for and deliver the FRN themselves; (iii) broadcast lawyers, trying to get ownership reports on file by the deadline despite never hearing back from a significant percentage of those asked to cooperate to provide individual FRNs; and (iv) the investor community, which is not fond of the idea of having to hand over personal information because an individual chose to buy shares of a broadcast company rather than a movie studio.

After fierce opposition and various failed efforts to get the FCC to eliminate the requirement or at least create an alternate method of obtaining an FRN that didn't require an SSN or TIN, the FCC had a change of heart when required by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit to explain itself (you can read Paul Cicelski's discussion of that response here). The FCC defended the new ownership report filing requirements by telling the court that no one would be forced to hand over their SSN or TIN, as it was going to permit broadcasters to apply for a Special Use FRN (SUFRN, one of the most descriptive acronyms you will find) in cases where a party refuses to allow use of its SSN/TIN. In light of this representation, the court declined to intervene, and the FCC proceeded with implementation of the new ownership report form and requirements.

With the availability of SUFRNs and various other changes to the ownership report form and filing system, the FCC was finally able to make the oft-extended filing deadline stick, with commercial broadcasters filing their November 1, 2009 ownership reports by a July 8, 2010 deadline. However, the effort at making the data more accessible for researchers ended up making the form very burdensome for broadcasters required to complete and submit the reports. The biggest issue is structural--requiring the submission of the exact same information over and over in a filing system never lauded for its user-friendliness. During the numerous extensions of the filing deadline, the FCC did incorporate some features like copy and paste to lessen the burden of creating duplicative reports, but no tech feature can overcome the burden created by requiring the filing of the exact same ownership information over and over again for each station in a group rather than just reporting the ownership of that group (once) and the stations that are in it. Because of this, even a relatively small broadcast group can find itself filing well over a hundred ownership report forms.

The irony is that even media researchers--the very group for which this unwieldy reporting system was created--have begun to complain that the sheer volume of filings makes it difficult to sort through the mass of repetitive data. Many communications lawyers seem to agree, finding the "old" ownership reports far more useful in understanding a station's ownership than the current edition.

Still, broadcasters and the FCC seemed to have reached a detente over the reports, with broadcasters quietly grumbling to themselves about the mind-numbing repetitiveness of drafting and filing the reports, but (having seen in the earlier iterations of the "new" report) knowing how much worse it could be. That detente may have ended today when the FCC released the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which tentatively concludes that the need to uniquely identify each person connected with a broadcast station is so strong that it must end the availability of SUFRNs and require that all reported individuals get an FRN based upon their SSN or TIN.

While the FCC's conclusions are "tentative", and it requests comment on these and many other questions relating to the ownership report, you can feel the collective chill go down broadcasters' spines as the FCC proceeds to suggest that it could fine individuals who fail to provides an SSN/TIN-based FRN, and queries whether broadcasters should be required to warn their shareholders of that. Telling shareholders or potential shareholders that they face fines for electing to invest their money in broadcasting is not exactly the best way to attract investment to broadcasting, including investment by the minority and female investors the FCC so clearly wants.

But it is that last issue that raises the most curious point of all: to get minority and female ownership information, the FCC seeks to implement an awkward, intrusive, burdensome, privacy-insensitive ownership reporting regime premised on the need for both massive ownership filings and the tracking of individuals by their SSN to determine minority and female ownership trends in the industry. Wouldn't it be far simpler, less intrusive, and less burdensome to just ask broadcasters to provide in their ownership reports (or elsewhere) aggregate data on their minority and female officers, directors, and shareholders? Researchers could then just utilize that data to create industry totals rather than having to wade through mountains of unrelated ownership data to derive it themselves.

Instead of this simplified approach, the FCC seems intent upon using the clumsy mechanism of ownership reports to assess minority and female representation in the industry, stating in the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that "Unlike many of our filing obligations, the fundamental objective of the biennial Form 323 filing requirement is to track trends in media ownership by individuals with particular racial, ethnic, and gender characteristics." For those of us who have been in the industry for quite some time, that claim is surprising, as the very first sentence of Section 73.3615, the FCC rule that governs the filing of ownership reports, states: "The Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations (FCC Form 323) must be electronically filed every two years by each licensee of a commercial AM, FM, or TV broadcast station (a "Licensee"); and each entity that holds an interest in the licensee that is attributable for purposes of determining compliance with the Commission's multiple ownership rules."

In attempting to convert a reporting obligation designed to ensure multiple ownership rule compliance into an academic research tool on minority and female broadcast ownership, the FCC undermines both goals. Broadcasters have routinely provided the minority and female ownership data the FCC seeks without fuss, and can hardly be faulted for wishing to do so in a straightforward manner that: (a) doesn't require unnecessarily complex and redundant filings; and (b) doesn't require them to badger their shareholders for private information while threatening their shareholders with federal fines for failing to comply. Rather than "doubling down" on a flawed approach, perhaps it is time for the FCC to step back and reassess the most efficient way of obtaining the desired information--more efficient for broadcasters, more efficient for the FCC, and more efficient for media researchers.


FCC Takes First Steps Towards Telecom Foreign Ownership Reform

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted September 20, 2012

By Paul A. Cicelski

The FCC recently released an Order giving companies greater flexibility in how they can structure foreign investment in common carrier licensees, such as wireless companies that provide phone service. This action, taken in a proceeding initiated last year, is a first step towards simplifying and streamlining the FCC's cumbersome foreign ownership review and approval process, with the goal of facilitating increased foreign investment in telecommunications companies.

The FCC's foreign ownership policy is governed by Section 310 of the Communications Act. Section (b)(3) of the statute requires the FCC to prohibit certain foreign entities from being FCC licenses themselves and from directly holding ownership interests that exceed specified levels in certain types of FCC licensees, such as common carrier licensees. The FCC's International Bureau previously interpreted this provision to strictly prohibit foreign entities from having more than a 20% non-controlling interest (direct or indirect) in an FCC common carrier licensee.

The Order replaces this absolute prohibition with a discretionary policy already in use under a different section of the statute, Section 310(b)(4). That section restricts foreign entities from having more than a 25% controlling interest (direct or indirect) in any parent company of an FCC common carrier licensee (among other entities), unless the FCC specifically approves a greater foreign ownership interest.

The FCC makes the determination of whether it should allow greater foreign investment under Section 310(b)(4) and now under Section 310(b)(3), by examining whether the foreign investment is from a World Trade Organization (WTO) Member country, using a "principal place of business" test. If under the principal place of business test the investment is from a WTO Member country, the proposed foreign investment is presumed to be competitive and in the public interest. Where the investment is from a non-WTO Member country, the FCC applies what is known as an "effective competitive opportunities" or "ECO" test. The purpose of the ECO test is to determine whether competitive opportunities exist for American companies in those non-WTO Member countries and whether the foreign investment in the U.S. will serve the public interest.

The FCC's foreign ownership review and approval process under Section 310(b)(4) has historically proven to be complex and time-consuming, both for licensees and the FCC. Licensees are required to engage in costly and extensive efforts in order to compile detailed information regarding citizenship and principal places of business of investors. There is no exception for individuals and entities that hold even de minimis interests through multiple intervening investment vehicles and holding companies. Moreover, licensees often have to conduct this exercise repeatedly given the fluid nature of investments. For its part, the FCC must expend considerable resources of its own processing (and often reprocessing) the voluminous and detailed information submitted by licensees.

The FCC's decision liberalizes only its ownership policies under Section 310(b)(3). It leaves for another day the extensive reforms proposed by the FCC in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding foreign ownership under Section 310(b)(4).

The FCC's Order has been published in the Federal Register and is now in effect. Parties interested in learning more about the FCC's Order or the foreign ownership reform proceeding should contact Pillsbury for advice.


If the Broadcast/Newspaper Cross-Ownership Rule Falls, Will It Make a Sound?

Scott R. Flick

Posted June 7, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

While the perennial cliche is that the FCC is perpetually behind the curve in trying to keep up with new communications technologies, my experience has been that the FCC and its staff are pretty up to date on these developments. As a result, when we see a rule remain on the books after its usefulness has ended (or the discovery that it was never useful in the first place), it can usually be attributed to one of two possibilities: either fixing the rule hasn't risen high enough on the FCC's list of priorities to dedicate limited staff resources to the process (for example, modifying the FCC's full power television rules to eliminate the rules and references applicable only to analog TV), or political pressures are impeding the process.

Rules that remain on the books because of a lack of staff resources tend to be addressed eventually. In contrast, rules that remain in place due to political pressures are well nigh immortal. In a 2010 C-SPAN interview with three former FCC chairmen regarding various issues, including the FCC's media ownership rules, Chairman Hundt was quoted as saying "Why don't we get an eraser and just get rid of them? None of us thought these rules made sense." To which Chairman Powell responded "It's a simple reason. It's politics." The third party to that conversation, Chairman Martin, had tried to slightly loosen the prohibition on broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership in 2008 in the nation's largest markets, only to encounter a firestorm of protests and court appeals from media activists. As a result, the prohibition remains in place, although the FCC announced this past December that it is once again considering loosening the rule in the largest media markets (are you seeing a pattern here?).

Rules residing in political purgatory--those kept on political life support long after their purpose has ended--survive until the facts on the ground change to such an extreme degree that even those who reflexively defend the rule can no longer do so. While some would justifiably rail against that system and demand that the nature of politics change, with rules created, modified, or eliminated based upon the cold hard facts of the situation, the nature of politics is actually the most relevant cold hard fact, and realistically, the least likely to change. Many rules will outlive their usefulness, and in fact become harmful, long before their demise. The only question is how long it takes after that tipping point is reached before it becomes politically feasible for the FCC to modify or eliminate the rule.

Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum, and both individuals and businesses living with a rule must adapt to the changing situation on the ground, even as the rule itself remains unchanged. Recent "adaptations" make me wonder if we haven't reached the point where the broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership rule, which certainly had a reasonable purpose at one time, has reached the point where it can no longer be defended with a straight face.

In particular, I am thinking of two recent events which suggest the rule has outlived its time. The first is the announcement last month by Media General that it is selling its newspapers to Berkshire Hathaway in order to concentrate on its broadcast and digital content delivery. When a company that actually does have both broadcast and newspaper interests does not find the combination sufficiently compelling to retain its newspaper operations, the premise of the rule--a fear of powerful broadcast/newspaper combinations dominating the market--appears misplaced.

More interesting, however, is the recent announcement by Newhouse Newspapers that it will be scaling back its daily newspaper in New Orleans (the well-known Times-Picayune), as well as those in Mobile, Huntsville, and Birmingham, Alabama. According to the announcement, these daily newspapers will now be published only three times a week, with increased focus on website content.

Why the drastic cutback from seven days a week to just three, rather than the more measured approach perennially proposed by the U.S. Postal Service of ending only Saturday delivery as a cost saving measure? Given that daily newspapers make a substantial portion of their revenue from publishing legal notices (which are usually required by law to be published in a daily newspaper), these newspapers must have thought long and hard before ceasing daily publication and placing that significant revenue stream at risk.

However, there may be one other factor at play. While the FCC's rule prohibits ownership of both a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same area, the FCC defines a "daily newspaper" as one that is published at least four times a week. Whether by accident or by design, the decision to scale these newspapers back to three days a week makes them exempt from the FCC's ownership restrictions, thereby expanding the pool of potential buyers to include those most likely to be interested in taking on such an asset--local broadcast station owners.

Whether that fact played into the owner's decision to publish only three times a week frankly doesn't matter much. If it did enter into it, then the newspaper cross-ownership rule has become actively harmful, forcing a newspaper that might have been happy to publish four, five or six times a week to instead publish only three times a week to avoid being subject to the rule. If it didn't, then Newhouse's decision to cut back to three days a week is merely an indication of things to come in a struggling newspaper industry. Either way, the FCC's newspaper cross-ownership rule is being mooted by factual changes on the ground.

The clock is therefore ticking on how long it takes for the political pressure to also fade, allowing the FCC to finally proceed with its plan to loosen (or perhaps eliminate) the rule. During that wait, the only question is whether the rule is merely a curious anachronism, or if it actually harms the newspaper industry, either by preventing broadcasters from investing in local newspapers, or by forcing newspapers to cut back to publishing three times a week in order to circumvent the FCC's rule. Unfortunately, by the time the political pressures keeping the rule alive finally recede, the damage may already be done, with newspapers ceasing existence or scaling back publication until the FCC's rule becomes irrelevant. If that happens, the rule's elimination may turn out to be no more consequential than the FCC's eventual elimination of analog TV rules--an act of administrative housekeeping done when the item regulated no longer exists.