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Yesterday, a day in advance of the November 24th statutory deadline to adopt rules implementing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, the FCC released a flurry of STELA-related orders. STELA governs the satellite carriage of broadcast stations, and in particular, the importation of distant network stations, in local markets. Because STELA and its predecessor statutes lie at the nexus of communications and copyright law, they represent very complex and arcane matters that often leave even communications lawyers scratching their heads if they aren’t experienced in the area.

For those interested in the details of yesterday’s three Orders and the FCC’s request for additional comments, I recommend taking a look at our Client Advisory on the subject from earlier today. For the rest of the population, suffice it to say that the major impact of these orders for broadcasters is how they affect the ability of satellite operators to import a “significantly viewed” (“SV”) duplicating network signal into portions of a local market, thereby undercutting the local network affiliate’s ratings, ad revenue, and retransmission negotiations.

As detailed in the Client Advisory, of the FCC’s three Orders, one favors satellite operators by making it easier to import distant network stations into a market, while the other two favor broadcasters by limiting the proportion of satellite subscribers in a market that are eligible to sign up to receive a distant network station.

Of particular note is the FCC’s conclusion in one of the Orders that “because SV status generally applies to only some areas in a DMA and not throughout an entire DMA, we find it unlikely that an SV station could permanently substitute for a local in-market station, even in the provision of network programming to the market.” The FCC further stated that “because most viewers want to watch their local stations, we do not think that carriage of only SV stations would satisfy most subscribers for an extended time.”

That is a comforting conclusion for broadcasters, and probably an accurate one. However, it may be cold comfort for the local broadcaster in heated retransmission negotiations where the satellite operator threatens to import a duplicative network station into the market. Because of that, and despite the complexity of the law in this area, television station owners and satellite operators need to acquire a keen understanding of each other’s rights under STELA and the FCC’s related rules, or proceed at their own peril.

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Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission issued three Orders and a Public Notice designed to implement the new requirements of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA).

The FCC beat by one day the November 24, 2010 statutory deadline for adopting new rules governing several aspects of satellite operators’ carriage of television broadcast signals under STELA. The first of three Orders favors satellite providers by making it easier for them to import the signals of significantly viewed (“SV”) stations from neighboring markets into a station’s local television market. However, the other two Orders favor broadcasters in updating the procedures for subscribers wishing to qualify to receive distant network television stations from their satellite operator. Lastly, the FCC issued a Public Notice seeking comments and data for a required report to Congress regarding the availability of in-state broadcast stations to cable and satellite subscribers located in markets straddling state borders.

Significantly Viewed Stations Order
In this Order, the FCC concluded that, under STELA, a satellite subscriber must generally subscribe to the local-into-local package before it can receive the signal of an out of market station significantly viewed (over-the-air) in that subscriber’s area. Illogically, however, the subscriber does not have to receive the signal of the local affiliate of the same network as the imported SV network station. The subscriber’s receipt by satellite of any local station is all that is needed. The FCC stated that its interpretation means that, where a local affiliate is not carried during negotiation of a retransmission consent agreement, the satellite carrier can provide certain subscribers with network programming from an SV network station in a neighboring market.

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As Scott Flick reported in a previous post, our firm filed a Petition on behalf of an unlikely coalition of broadcast and cable associations and their allies, including 46 of the state broadcasters associations, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Society of Broadcast Engineers, the American Cable Association, the Association for Maximum Service Television, National Public Radio, the Association of Public Television Stations, and the Public Broadcasting Service. The parties joined forces to ask the FCC to extend the deadline for all EAS Participants to acquire and install the equipment necessary to use the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard for Emergency Alert System alerts. The unified effort paid off, as today the FCC released an Order waiving Part 11.56 of its Rules and extending the CAP deadline from March 29, 2011 to September 30, 2011.

Last September 30, FEMA announced the adoption of the CAP v1.2 standard, which triggered a 180-day deadline for implementation. In a post found here, I described CAP and what the CAP compliance deadline requires of EAS Participants.

The extension means that the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 EAS Participants now have more time to acquire the new and sophisticated equipment they need to become CAP-compliant, while giving FEMA more time to certify CAP-compliant EAS equipment. The six-month delay will also allow equipment manufacturers to test their CAP products and to make any changes needed to meet the certification requirements. This process, in turn, will give EAS Participants the certainty they need to make better informed decisions regarding what equipment they should obtain and install to ensure compliance with CAP. Finally, the extension will give all parties, including noncommercial broadcasters, smaller cable systems, and rural broadcasters more time to budget for the purchase of new equipment.

The FCC acknowledged that if it failed to extend the 180-day deadline, it could “lead to an unduly rushed, expensive, and likely incomplete process.”

The Order also leaves open the possibility of extending the CAP deadline beyond September 30, 2011. This is because the FCC will soon be conducting a rulemaking proceeding to incorporate CAP into its Part 11 Rules, and at this point it is unclear what specific Part 11 rule changes will be made as a result of the new CAP standard. According to the FCC, it plans to complete that rulemaking prior to September 30, 2011, but will ask for comments on “whether the extension for CAP acceptance by EAS Participants granted in this waiver order is sufficient, and reserves the right to further extend the date for CAP reception in any new rule we may adopt.” Given that the outcome of the rulemaking proceeding will likely result in a number of significant revisions to the FCC’s EAS Rules, another extension of the deadline is certainly plausible in order to give parties enough time to come into compliance with the new rules.

In other words, stay on alert, as we will definitely be hearing much more about CAP in the near future.

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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. In fact, FCC Enforcement Monitor actually predates the creation of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, which came into being just a few months after the first issue was published. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Increases Fine to $25,000 for Broadcaster’s Violations Related to Time Brokerage Agreement
  • Upward Adjustment in EAS Portion of Multiple Violation Fine Results in Total Forfeiture of $25,000
  • Noncommercial Broadcaster Fined $7000 for Late-Filed License Renewal Application

FCC Fines Florida Broadcaster $25,000 for Repeated Failure to Maintain Full-Time Personnel and Make Available a Complete Public Inspection File at Brokered Station

In September 2009, following a complaint, agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s Tampa Field Office conducted an inspection of a Florida AM station. According to the Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) issued by the FCC, the AM broadcaster failed, for the second time within three years, to maintain the required number of full-time employees at its main studio in violation of Section 73.1125(a) of the FCC’s Rules, and to maintain a complete public inspection file, which violates Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules.

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Along with all of the other activities of the coming holidays, December 1 represents a busy filing deadline for digital television stations and many commercial and non-commercial radio stations, depending upon their location. For those affected, below is a brief summary of the applicable deadlines, as well as links to our recent client alerts and advisories describing the requirements in more detail.

December 1 Noncommercial Ownership Reports

Noncommercial educational radio stations licensed to communities in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, and noncommercial educational television stations licensed to communities in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont must file their Biennial Ownership Reports by December 1, 2010. For a detailed discussion of the filing requirements, please see our Client Alert here.

December 1 EEO Deadlines

Radio and television stations licensed to communities in: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont have a number of December 1, 2010 deadlines for compliance with the FCC’s EEO Rule. For a detailed discussion of the requirements, please see our Client Advisory here.

December 1 DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Services Report

All commercial and noncommercial educational digital television broadcast station licensees and permittees must file FCC Form 317 by December 1, 2010. For a detailed discussion of this requirement, please see our Client Advisory here.

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All commercial and noncommercial educational digital television broadcast station licensees and permittees must file FCC Form 317 by December 1, 2010.

The FCC requires all digital television stations to submit FCC Form 317 each year. The report details whether stations provided ancillary or supplemental services at any time during the twelve-month period ending on the preceding September 30. It is important to note that the FCC Form 317 must be submitted regardless of whether stations offered any such services. FCC Form 317 must be filed electronically, absent a waiver, and is due on December 1, 2010.

Ancillary or supplementary services are all services provided on the portion of a DTV station’s digital spectrum that is not necessary to provide the required single free, over-the-air signal to viewers. Any video broadcast service that is provided with no direct charge to viewers is exempt. According to the FCC, examples of services that are considered ancillary or supplementary include, but are not limited to, “computer software distribution, data transmissions, teletext, interactive materials, aural messages, paging services, audio signals, subscription video, and the like.”

If a DTV station provided ancillary or supplementary services during the 12-month time period ending on September 30, 2010, it must remit to the FCC 5% of the gross revenues derived from the provision of those services. This payment can be forwarded to the FCC’s lockbox at the U.S. Bank in St. Louis, Missouri and must be accompanied by FCC Form 159, the Remittance Advice. Alternatively, the fee can be paid electronically using a credit card on the FCC’s website. The fee amount must also be submitted by the December 1, 2010 due date.

For assistance in preparing and filing FCC Form 317, please contact any of the attorneys in the Communications Practice Section.

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In what has become one of our most popular posts at CommLawCenter, a few months ago I discussed a radio ad that contained an “attention getting” Emergency Alert System tone that was activating broadcast stations’ EAS equipment around the country. The post noted that airing the commercials violated Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules (“No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS.”).

The earlier post also noted that these ads potentially violated Section 73.1217 of the FCC’s Rules, which is the FCC’s prohibition on airing broadcast hoaxes. These rules are the result of the FCC’s longstanding concern with the airing of material that could cause public panic, dating all the way back to the Orson Welles Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, just four years after the FCC was created by Congress.

Television stations have now joined their radio brethren in unintentionally airing Emergency Alert System tones. The Society of Broadcast Engineers disclosed yesterday that a television ad for the new movie Skyline, which hits theaters tomorrow, began airing earlier this week with an EAS tone repeated six times throughout the length of the spot. A copy of the spot can be found on the SBE website here, with the EAS tones being very audible in the background.

Stations airing such spots put themselves at risk of adverse action by the FCC, particularly for any airings that occur after the station has learned of the issue. However, stations that aired the spot before SBE’s announcement yesterday are not off the hook, as the FCC holds broadcasters liable for the content they air, and normally takes the position that stations should have checked the spots before they aired for problematic content.

While an EAS tone sounds like digital hash to the human ear, it contains a lot of information that is used to trigger the EAS receivers of stations in a “daisy chain” fashion to quickly spread emergency information. In that regard, each signal is like human DNA, containing information that allows you to determine its origin. In this case, the EAS signal being used is a recording of a Pennsylvania statewide monthly test that fails to include the normal “End of Message” tone. As a result, stations whose EAS equipment is activated by another station airing the false tone could suddenly find themselves retransmitting the content of the other station for a couple of minutes after the tone airs.

Unfortunately, because it is generally the broadcast station and not the creator of the ad that will be held liable, advertisers are not always adequately incentivized to make sure their ads comply with FCC regulations. That means it is up to broadcasters to check each and every ad they run for violations of the law, including violations of the FCC’s sponsorship identification rule, the FCC’s rules involving ads in children’s programming, and ads with questionable content, whether it be indecency, defamation, false product claims, or, in this case, false EAS alerts.