Posted February 29, 2012
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:
- Inadequate Sponsorship ID Ends with $44,000 Fine
- Unattended Main Studio Fine Warrants Upward Adjustment
- $16,000 Consent Decree Seems Like a Deal
Licensee Fined $44,000 for Failure to Properly Disclose Sponsorship ID
For years, the FCC has been tough on licensees that are paid to air content but do not acknowledge such sponsorship, and an Illinois licensee was painfully reminded that failing to identify sponsors of broadcast content has a high cost. In a recent Notice of Apparent Liability ("NAL"), the FCC fined the licensee $44,000 for violating its rule requiring licensees to provide sponsorship information when they broadcast content in return for money or other "valuable consideration."
Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC's Rules require all broadcast stations to disclose at the time the content is aired whether any broadcast content is made in exchange for valuable consideration or the promise of valuable consideration. Specifically, the disclosure must include (1) an announcement that part or all of the content has been sponsored or paid for, and (2) information regarding the person or organization that sponsored or paid for the content.
In 2009, the FCC received a complaint alleging a program was aired without adequate disclosures. Specifically, the complaint alleged that the program did not disclose that it was an advertisement rather than a news story. Two years after the complaint, the FCC issued a Letter of Inquiry ("LOI") to the licensee. In its response to the LOI, the licensee maintained that its programming satisfied the FCC's requirements and explained that all of the airings of the content at issue contained sponsorship identification information, with the exception of eleven 90-second spots. In these eleven spots, the name of the sponsoring organization was identified, but the segment did not explicitly state that the content was paid for by that organization.
Though the licensee defended its program content and the disclosure of the sponsor's name as sufficient to meet the FCC's requirements, the FCC was clearly not persuaded. The FCC expressed particular concern over preventing viewer deception, especially when the content of the programming is not readily distinguishable from other non-sponsored news programming, as was the case here.
The base forfeiture for sponsorship identification violations is $4,000. The FCC fined the licensee $44,000, which represents $4,000 for each of the eleven segments that aired without adequate disclosure of sponsorship information.
Absence of Main Studio Staffing Lands AM Broadcaster a $10,000 Penalty
In another recently released NAL, the FCC reminds broadcasters that a station's main studio must be attended by at least one of its two mandatory full-time employees during regular business hours as required by Section 73.1125 of the FCC's Rules. Section 73.1125 states that broadcast stations must maintain a main studio within or near their community of license. The FCC's policies require that the main studio must maintain at least two full-time employees (one management level and the other staff level). The FCC has repeatedly indicated in other NALs that the management level employee, although not "chained to their desk", must report to the main studio on a daily basis. The FCC defines normal business hours as any eight hour period between 8am and 6pm. The base forfeiture for violations of Section 73.1125 is $7,000.
According to the NAL, agents from the Detroit Field Office ("DFO") attempted to inspect the main studio of an Ohio AM broadcaster at 2:20pm on March 30, 2010. Upon arrival, the agents determined that the main studio building was unattended and the doors were locked. Prior to leaving the main studio, an individual arrived at the location, explained that the agents must call another individual, later identified as the licensee's Chief Executive Officer ("CEO"), in order to gain access to the studio, and provided the CEO's contact number. The agents attempted to call the CEO without success prior to leaving the main studio.
Approximately two months later, the DFO issued an LOI. In the AM broadcaster's LOI response, the CEO indicated that the "station personnel did not have specific days and times that they work, but rather are 'scheduled as needed.'" Additionally, the LOI response indicated that the DFO agents could have entered the station on their initial visit if they had "push[ed] the entry buzzer."
In August 2010, the DFO agents made a second visit to the AM station's main studio. Again the agents found the main studio unattended and the doors locked. The agents looked for, but did not find, the "entry buzzer" described in the LOI response.
The NAL stated that the AM broadcaster's "deliberate disregard" for the FCC's rules, as evidenced by its continued noncompliance after the DFO's warning, warranted an upward adjustment of $3,000, resulting in a total fine of $10,000. The FCC also mandated that the licensee submit a statement to the FCC within 30 days certifying that its main studio has been made rule-compliant.