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When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned various restrictions on political spending by corporations in the Citizens United decision, it set off a flurry of activity in Washington. Many, including famously the President in his State of the Union address, derided the decision as opening the political process to the corrupting influence of corporate cash. Many in Congress promised a swift legislative response to minimize the impact of the Court’s ruling. Regardless of where you stand on the Court’s decision, I have to say I was disturbed by a number of statements coming out of Capitol Hill afterwards which made clear that the speakers had no understanding of the laws already on the books relating to political advertising on electronic media. Some promised to change the law to what it actually already is (although they apparently didn’t know it), and others pointed out “problems” that would result from the Citizens United ruling that current law already prohibits from occurring.

Grandstanding without basis is, however, a well-established Washington tradition, and I presumed that when legislative staffers got together to draft the legislation, they would quickly figure out that these criticisms and unneeded solutions had been off-base. I apparently was too optimistic. Today, Senator Schumer of New York unveiled the Senate version of the legislation (Senate link not yet available) at a news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court. The President publicly applauded the legislation, and the House has promised hearings within a week on its version of the bill in hopes of enacting it quickly enough to govern this Fall’s elections. The DISCLOSE Act (the acronym for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections”), as its name indicates, requires ample disclosure when corporations or unions spend money on ads relating to a federal political campaign. Unfortunately, it does not stop there, and attempts to then rewrite political advertising laws contained in the Communications Act of 1934 that were not impacted by the Citizens United ruling. These changes appear to be an effort to require broadcasters, as well as cable and satellite operators, to subsidize the ads of not just candidates, but of their national political parties as well, in an effort to make their ad dollars go farther than those of a corporation exercising its rights under Citizens United.

Setting aside the wisdom or constitutionality of that approach, the rub is that the legislation was apparently drafted in such a rush that aspects of it quite literally make no sense. For example, the relevant section of the bill is entitled “TELEVISION MEDIA RATES”, but it then amends the political advertising provisions of the Communications Act that affect both television and radio. Even if the impact on radio was unintended, the matter is further confused by a requirement that the FCC perform random political audits during elections of at least 15 DMAs of various sizes, and that each DMA audit include “each of the 3 largest television broadcast networks, 1 independent television network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.”

Similarly, the statutory exceptions to the requirement for providing equal time to a candidate’s opponents when the candidate appears on-air would be amended to exclude certain appearances by a candidate’s representative as a triggering event. However, since only the appearance of a candidate can trigger equal time in the first place, creating an exception for appearances by a candidate’s representative serves no purpose.

Further indicating that the bill is premised on a misunderstanding of the current law, the Reasonable Access provisions of the Communications Act would be amended so that instead of FCC licensees being required to provide federal candidates with “reasonable amounts of time,” they would be required to provide “reasonable amounts of time, including reasonable amounts of time purchased at the lowest unit charge ….” The premise of this change appears to be a lack of understanding that all time sold to a candidate in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election must be sold at the lowest unit charge for that class of time. The broadcaster has no discretion to charge anything but the lowest unit charge during that time, making this change pointless as well.

A number of other odd provisions in the Senate version of the bill that would significantly impact media companies (and not just broadcasters) is discussed in an Advisory we issued to our clients earlier today. Two of particularly great concern would drastically reduce the lowest unit charge for political advertising while significantly expanding the pool of entities eligible to receive lowest unit charge. It is worth noting that none of these media-oriented provisions appear to be in the House version of the bill, so hopefully they will be excised from the Senate bill before any harm is done. Regardless, broadcasters, as well as cable and satellite providers, need to be vigilant to ensure that these provisions, if not eliminated outright, are at least heavily modified before any final bill emerges.

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April 2010
Recent FCC enforcement actions reported in this month’s Enforcement Monitor include:

  • FCC Issues $30,000 and $12,000 Fines to Three Co-owned Commercial Television Stations and Three Co-owned Class A Television Stations for Failure to Publicize the Existence and Location of Their Quarterly Children’s Television Programming Reports
  • FCC Fines Nonresponsive Texas Cable Operator $38,000 for Emergency Alert System and Antenna Structure Violations
  • FCC Fines Broadcasters $7,000 for Failure to Timely File License Renewal Applications and for Unauthorized Operation
  • Idaho Station Fined $4,000 for Failure to Fully Disclose All Material Terms of a Contest

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One of the benefits of practicing law in a multifaceted law firm is the opportunity to work with lawyers in every area of law. It is always a good learning experience, as you get to explore the often hazy areas of law that dwell at the nexus of multiple practice areas. For example, many communications facilities, and particularly towers, create both environmental and communications law issues. Over the years, we have worked on numerous matters involving RF radiation and bird strike issues at transmission tower sites. Issues like that involve multiple governmental agencies and protocols, and it is great to have a mix of lawyers with the right experience to address the various aspects of such a problem.

I therefore read with interest an Advisory published today by Pillsbury Intellectual Property lawyers Jim Gatto, Cydney Tune, and Jenna Leavitt. While not directed specifically at communications companies, it discusses an IP matter that is certainly relevant to such companies. Like most businesses, those in the communications sector use a lot of off the shelf software. However, communications companies also license a lot of specialized software (e.g., traffic systems for ad placement), and often have to hire coders to adapt the software to their specific needs or to create entirely new software for highly specialized tasks. Sometimes, such entities have new software created because they are not satisfied with what is commercially available.

As a general rule, when you hire a contractor to produce a “work for hire”, the copyright in that work remains with you rather than the contractor. However, in their Advisory with the catchy title Work Made for Hire Doctrine Does Not Generally Apply to Computer Software, the authors note that software does not fall under the types of works considered work for hire. As a result, the copyright in the software would remain with the contractor (even if the parties had agreed it would be a “work for hire”) unless proper contracts are put in place to alter that result. The Advisory goes into detail on how this works and what the implications are, but suffice it to say that many communications companies may be surprised to learn that they don’t hold the copyright in their own software.

This is not just an issue for large companies with complex computer systems and extensive programming. It applies just as readily to a small market radio station that asks a college student to design its website. Without the proper agreements in place, the copyright would remain with the student rather than the radio station. Now might be a good time to consider what software you have had contractors produce for your operation, and whether you know who actually owns it.

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Several members of Congress led by Senator Schumer and Congressman Van Hollen introduced today the “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections” Act–the DISCLOSE Act. The House and Senate versions differ, with the Senate version vastly expanding eligibility for Lowest Unit Charge, reducing the Lowest Unit Charge, prohibiting preemption of political ads, and requiring the FCC to perform political audits of broadcasters, cable, and satellite operators.

The DISCLOSE Act is primarily aimed at reversing, to a large degree, the recent 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Court held that corporations, and by implication unions, have a constitutional right to make independent expenditures for advertising supporting or opposing the election of political candidates. As we reported in a Client Alert in January of this year, the decision opened the way for increased political advertising by invalidating limits on corporate political ad spending. The decision allows, among other things, corporations (and unions) to purchase airtime at any time to directly advocate for or against candidates for federal elective office. While the decision invalidated limits on corporate spending on political advertisements, it did retain certain disclosure and disclaimer requirements found in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

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For those tired of having their dinner conversations interrupted by others’ cell phone calls, or watching movies in a theater by the light coming off the screens of nearby texters, technology has provided a solution. Unfortunately it is illegal.

In a recent decision, the FCC fined a company called $25,000 for marketing jamming equipment in the U.S. through its website, The FCC discovered the violations when its field agents, responding to complaints from a cellphone service provider in Dallas, and a County’s Sheriff’s office in Florida, traced the interference in each case to a local business, and discovered that the proprietor had purchased and was operating a Phonejammer unit acquired through the website. Unfortunately, the FCC’s decision does not indicate the type of businesses that were using the Phonejammer, so it is not clear if they were restaurants, theaters, or just businesses tired of their employees texting their friends all day.

Under the Communications Act, it is illegal to sell jamming equipment because of the harm done, both intentionally and otherwise, to electronic communications. While putting an end to loud cell phone calls in upscale restaurants, or to students texting in class, might sound appealing to managers of such places, the interference to communications cannot easily be confined to just that location. Of course, the problems with jamming are not limited to just unintentional interference to nearby areas. There are similar issues affecting the business location seeking to jam calls. You can imagine what would happen if a patron had a heart attack on the premises and the emergency response was delayed when other patrons’ cell phone calls to 911 couldn’t get through.

Because of these concerns, the U.S. has always strictly prohibited the marketing of jamming devices, and not even police are permitted to use jammers. To appreciate the extent of the government’s concern with jamming, note that jamming equipment is not permitted even in prisons, where smuggled cellphones have caused unrelenting headaches for prison officials, with some inmates continuing to manage criminal enterprises via cell phone while still in prison.

That may be about to change, however. The Senate last year passed S.251, the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, to permit targeted jamming of cell phone service within prisons. While it has not yet been approved by the House of Representatives, support for the idea has been strong. As with most well-intentioned ideas, however, the question is what unintended consequences will be involved, particularly if the jammers are not carefully monitored and regulated. For example, will a highway that passes a prison inevitably be a cellular dead zone for passing commuters, or will the technology, once permitted, be refined to largely eliminate unintended interference (if that is possible)? Again, it may be a minor annoyance to lose a call when driving by a prison, but a serious traffic accident in that area can make reliable cell phone service a life and death issue.

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Last week, we listened to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speak at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. One topic he made a point to discuss was the recent Petition filed by cable and satellite companies arguing that the retransmission consent process is unfair, and asking the government to intervene in private contractual disputes to decide how broadcasters can and cannot negotiate carriage deals, including mandating arbitration of disputes and requiring stations to permit “interim carriage” of their programming while negotiations are ongoing. However, the issue is not stations “yanking” their signals from cable and satellite operators while negotiations drag on, but the failure of operators to secure the right to retransmit the programming when their current retransmission agreement expires, as the Communications Act requires. Indeed, it is the same basic contractual process that cable and satellite operators go through when seeking to extend carriage of non-broadcast networks, except that non-broadcast networks wield nationwide control over access to their programming, whereas broadcasters wield such control only in individual markets.

While the Chairman did say in his speech that the marketplace is the “preferred method” for resolving disputes that come up during negotiations, he also referenced the Petition’s claim that broadcasters were to blame for a rise in cable fees, stating: “Some ask: Is free TV really free when cable rates go up because of retransmission fees?”
However, that rhetorical question is just that — rhetorical. Free TV can only survive as free TV if it is financially able to produce/compete for the programming also sought by non-broadcast networks. The only way that is possible in a 500-channel world is for broadcast stations to have the dual revenue stream (advertising and retransmission fees) enjoyed by their non-broadcast competitors. Only by being financially viable can broadcast stations remain as a free alternative for those wishing to “cut the cable” or “dump the dish.” In fact, as digital multicasting allows stations to deliver multiple free programming streams, free TV becomes a more attractive option and a more effective check on rising cable rates.

Unlike a cable network, a broadcaster can never “yank its signal” from the public when retransmission negotiations falter and what often seems to be missing from the debate is that the public does not “lose” a TV station’s signal when it is dropped by a cable system during a retransmission consent dispute because the signal is available to viewers for free over the air. The law merely prohibits a cable or satellite operator from reselling broadcast programming to viewers if the operator itself is unwilling to pay the going rate for it. In that regard, it is no different than any other business transaction, except that the public can always choose to “avoid the middleman” and obtain the programming directly from the television station (for free) by using an antenna. In this context, and particularly in light of the extreme rarity of program disruptions occurring during retransmission negotiations, cable and satellite operators have a difficult challenge making the case that carriage negotiations with broadcast stations are significantly different than carriage negotiations with cable networks.

The fundamental difference between these negotiations is mostly one of degree — broadcast programming tends to regularly be among the most popular programming, making it more valuable to those wishing to resell it to their subscribers. However, broadcast programming will only remain popular if broadcasters continue to earn the revenues necessary to produce and purchase such programming. A cynical observer might therefore conclude that the desire to prevent broadcasters from receiving a share of subscription revenues commensurate with audience ratings is only partially about reducing cable and satellite systems’ operating costs, and just as much about keeping those revenues out of the hands of those who compete with cable and satellite for ad sales and audience. Systems overpaying for fringe cable networks while underpaying for far more popular broadcast programming harms free local TV without any countervailing benefit (unless you are the owner of a fringe cable network).

Also, the problem with forcing interim carriage during negotiations (aside from the fact that its a violation of the Communications Act) is that the continued availability of a station’s programming for retransmission is not, as cable/satellite operators frequently claim, an unfair “bargaining chip” used by broadcasters in retransmission negotiations — it is the entire point of the negotiation. Requiring that broadcast programming continue to be made available at last year’s rate during negotiations, as the Petition urges, provides cable operators with an obvious incentive to drag out the negotiations as long as possible rather than bring them to a rapid conclusion and begin paying the current rate. Imposing an interim carriage requirement would actually destabilize retransmission negotiations, as broadcasters would be forced to declare the negotiations terminated in order to end the interim carriage and hopefully force the cable/satellite operator back to a serious negotiation. Encouraging cable/satellite operators to delay negotiations long past the expiration of their existing retransmission agreements, and then forcing broadcasters to declare an official end to the negotiations as the only way of ending lower cost interim carriage and forcing a serious offer from the cable/satellite operator, is inherently more likely to result in carriage disruptions than the current process.

Like homeowners in a buyer’s market, cable and satellite operators are no doubt unhappy that market conditions are currently less in their favor compared to the “good old days”, but that hardly makes the market “broken” or “unfair.” Trying to fix something that isn’t broken is a surefire way to break it badly, and it is the public that would be forced to pick up the pieces.

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Blair Levin, who headed the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative (OBI) for the past year and who was the principle architect of the National Broadband Plan, announced yesterday that he’s leaving the FCC on May 7 to join the Aspen Institute, a large and prestigious think tank.

Levin created the OBI from scratch. He moved in to the FCC, but he hired many new staff. He adopted new procedures for gathering public input, including blogging, “staff workshops”, and what amounted to frequent cold calls to people in business and academia to solicit views and information. The OBI was not your father’s FCC proceeding!

Levin also drew a dauntingly broad scope for the effort, and the OBI staff continued to expand that scope almost until the last minute. The proceeding, and the Plan, addressed broadband technology, deployment, services, adoption, financing, and usage. It asked how broadband affects other institutions and industries, from broadcasting, cable, wireless, and voice services to education, politics, energy and the environment, to name just a few.

Levin’s efforts drew enthusiastic support from some quarters and criticism from others. Some disliked his unorthodox procedural approach and others welcomed it. Some who agreed with his positions questioned his procedures, and vice versa. Whatever one thinks of the procedure or the recommendations, the National Broadband Plan is a remarkable document – comprehensive, polished and beautifully written and presented.

The most polarizing issue was a proposal to reallocate broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband use. I’ve questioned some aspects of the broadband plan, especially whether proponents of more broadband spectrum have really made their case. But I’ve been awed by Levin’s ability to “shake things up” in a town where the status quo can last for decades.

Reactions to Levin’s announcement have been as mixed as views of the National Broadband Plan. I’m disappointed to see him go. Levin is one of the smartest, hardest working, most effective, and best-intentioned people to work at the FCC (and that’s a big club). I disagree with some of his views, but I’ve never doubted his sincerity or the honesty of his motives.

Levin didn’t start the debate over broadcast spectrum – that began in the 1980s – and it won’t end on May 7. But he focused the issue and gave it legs. The country is now having a debate about the future of broadcasting that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago.

I’m an optimist — perhaps a delusional optimist. But if downsizing the nation’s broadcasting service is suddenly thinkable today, maybe real deregulation of broadcasting, including much-needed ownership reform, is also thinkable. The FCC’s Future of Media proceeding essentially asks that question.

I’ve harbored hope that ongoing engagement on “the spectrum issue” will eventually lead to grounds-up rethinking of the broadcast ownership rules. Broadcast regulation needs some serious shaking up, and the constituencies around many of those regulations are honed in the art of the status quo. Levin demonstrated an uncanny ability to reset people’s conceptions about what is and isn’t achievable. Broadcasters could use some of that energy focused on ownership rules which artificially limit their participation in a digital broadband future. He’s leaving, but perhaps someone will learn from Levin how to pull off something as ambitious as repealing anachronistic broadcast regulations. I hope so. And I hope the Aspen Institute knows what it’s getting into!

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Death, taxes … and FCC annual regulatory fees. Its that time of year again and the FCC has issued its latest annual Notice of Proposed Rulemaking containing regulatory fee proposals for Fiscal Year 2010. Those who wish to file comments on the FCC’s proposed fees must do so by May 4, 2010 with reply comments due by May 11, 2010.
For one of the few times in recent history, the annual fee amount the FCC is proposing to collect is actually less than the amount from a previous year. Consistent with this, and with a few exceptions, most of this year’s fees are the same or less than last year’s fees for all AM, FM, and television stations, as are the fee amounts for LPTV, Class A, translator, booster, and broadcast auxiliary licenses.

One big change in this year’s fee proposals is the elimination of the exemption for digital stations to pay fees now that the DTV transition has ended. Going forward, all digital full-service television stations will be required to pay a full license fee, including those stations that were operating pursuant to digital Special Temporary Authority as of October 1, 2009. It is also important to point out that the Commission is proposing to charge only a single fee for each low power or Class A facility simulcasting in both digital and analog.

The Communications Section will shortly be publishing a full Advisory on the proposed Reg Fees, including fee tables and charts for you to use to calculate your payments that will be due later this year.

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Like many other FCC license holders, broadcast stations constantly navigate numerous laws and regulations while filing a multitude of reports and applications by required deadlines. Many of these are required quarterly, but some are annual, biennial, quadrennial, or octennial (once every eight years, and the only time I’ll get to use that word this year). While stations are usually very good about completing their quarterly reports, the less frequent reports require a special level of attention or they can be forgotten in the rush of business.

In the past few months, I have noticed a surge in calls from stations wanting to talk to a lawyer because they have belatedly discovered that they failed to create multiple reports over the past few years. I’ve received these types of calls regularly for more than two decades, but the accelerated pace of these calls definitely caught my attention. When a station calls the lawyer in a panic after making this discovery, the lawyer’s first job is to talk them down off the ledge. In the case of small station groups, you are often talking directly to the owner, who is rightly concerned about the direct financial impact of fines and license renewal challenges. With larger groups, it is often a GM worried about his or her future employment if the problem spins out of control. Fortunately, if addressed promptly, the damage can be greatly limited or avoided.

What is interesting, however, is that the common thread in nearly every one of these calls was the downsizing of the station employee “who did all that” before the problem commenced. While the recent “mega-recession” resulted in downsizing in nearly every industry, the precipitous drop in advertising revenues caused tremendous downsizing in the media industry. As downsizing usually requires that one person do the work formerly handled by multiple people, it is not surprising that a report that is required to be filed once a year, or only during odd-numbered years, gets lost in the mix. Of course, the loss of institutional memory is always a problem when an employee departs. However, the problem is intensified in a downsizing, where the departing employee is not too happy with the soon-to-be-former employer, and is probably not feeling very enthusiastic about training their successor.

As a result, while it is always wise to vigilantly monitor regulatory due dates and keep them on a multi-year calendar, it is equally important to ensure after a downsizing that there remains one employee who is clearly charged with ensuring that the required reports/filings are timely completed. You also need to ensure that employee has not just the responsibility of getting the job done, but the training and resources to make it happen. A top-notch conscientious employee who has no idea what an EEO Midterm Report is, and when that particular station’s report is due, is of little use.

Focusing a little bit of attention on that issue now will save you loads of distraction later when you try to undo the damage. Keep in mind that where a missed report may result in a fine, a missed license renewal application (the “once in eight years” filing for broadcasters) has caused the FCC to delete the station from its database and charge the licensee with illegal operation for the time it operated the station after its license expired. It’s best not to find that out firsthand.

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This week saw generally positive news for television broadcasters on the broadband front. First, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC does not currently have authority to regulate the network management policies of Internet providers. Aside from the fact that the Court’s ruling challenged the FCC’s ability to require Internet providers to treat all network traffic equally, i.e., to apply “net neutrality,” the decision also calls into question key aspects of the FCC’s ambitious National Broadband Plan, many of which assumed the FCC had broad authority to regulate the Internet. Because the Court struck at the very heart of the National Broadband Plan, the Court’s decision may undermine other aspects of the plan, including its controversial proposal to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum from television broadcasters that we discussed in a previous post.

Another shifting wind came in the form of Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who publicly stated he does not believe there is going to be as great a spectrum shortage as the FCC predicts, and that “confiscating [TV] spectrum and repurposing it for other things, I’m not sure I buy into the idea that that’s a good thing to do,” and adding “I think the market’s going to settle this. So in the long term, if we can’t show that we have applications and services to utilize that spectrum better than the broadcasters, then the broadcasters will keep the spectrum.”

It is unclear whether the Commission will appeal the Court’s decision, and broadcasters still have a long way to go before they can breathe easier about their spectrum being repurposed for auction to wireless companies. Still, after being forced headfirst into a gale force national debate over the “best use” of their spectrum, any calming of those winds is certainly welcome.

While all this is good news for broadcasters, the FCC certainly isn’t giving up and going home. Just today, the FCC released its “Broadband Action Agenda” setting the timing for more than 60 rulemakings and other notice-and-comment proceedings, including a rulemaking involving broadcast spectrum reclamation scheduled for the Third Quarter of 2010. While the FCC’s authority over the Internet may be up in the air, it continues to exercise vast authority over broadcasters. One dark scenario (for everyone) is that the FCC rushes forward and reclaims broadcast spectrum, only to have its National Broadband Plan collapse before being implemented. In that situation, the damage to the public’s broadcast service would be done, the spectrum would still be auctioned, but likely with reduced demand (and excessive supply) driving down auction revenues for the government, and the public ending up no closer to the broadband nirvana envisioned by the FCC’s proposal.

Stay tuned, as this is a story that will be unfolding for quite a while.