A Look Ahead at 2011 Reveals an Interesting Year for Retrans, Renewals, and Indecency
Earlier this month we posted our 2011 Broadcasters Calendar on CommLawCenter as well as on our Pillsbury web page. We have been annually publishing the Broadcasters Calendar, which contains much information regarding broadcast station deadlines and legal requirements, for as long as I can recall. It has always been one of our most popular publications, and I usually get calls beginning in early November asking when next year’s calendar will be available. The “easy to read” pdf version of the Calendar can be found here, and a text-searchable version is available here.
Even a brief review of the 2011 Broadcasters Calendar reminds us that 2011 will be a busy year for not just broadcasters, but for cable and satellite operators as well. October 1, 2011 is the deadline by which broadcasters qualifying for must-carry need to notify cable and satellite operators of their election between must-carry status and retransmission consent. Recent retransmission disputes once again remind us that retransmission negotiations and their associated revenue are critical to the future of broadcast television. However, the sheer volume of negotiations and carriage disputes likely to occur following the October 1 election deadline will almost certainly make this holiday season look tranquil by comparison.
Adding to the action will be continued efforts by the cable and satellite industries to draw Congress and the FCC into the fray, introducing legislative and regulatory uncertainties into an already complex negotiation process. Their chances for success will depend greatly upon how much disruption in carriage of broadcast programming occurs in 2011, and the public’s perception of who is at fault for that disruption. Regardless of the outcome of this particular Washington confrontation, look for 2011 to be the year where economics force cable and satellite providers to more tightly link the number of viewers a program service attracts with the amount they agree to pay for that service. Overpaying for niche cable networks that don’t pull in large numbers of viewers is so “last decade”.
2011 also marks the beginning of the FCC’s next eight-year license renewal cycle, with radio stations in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia starting pre-filing announcements in April for their upcoming license renewal applications. The filing cycle will continue state by state until it concludes with television stations in Delaware and Pennsylvania running their last post-filing announcements on June 16, 2015.
However, many stations haven’t had their last license renewal application granted because of indecency complaints still pending against them. The FCC has pretty much ceased processing indecency complaints while it awaits guidance from the courts as to whether it can legally enforce the prohibition on broadcast indecency, and if so, how it will be allowed to do that. I have been told that there are literally hundreds of thousands of indecency complaints now pending at the FCC, so unless the courts do the FCC the favor of finding the prohibition on indecency completely unconstitutional, it will take the FCC years to sift through these complaints in an effort to apply any refined indecency standard announced by the Supreme Court.
It is therefore reasonable to predict that indecency complaints will continue to play a large role in the processing of upcoming license renewal applications. 2011 will hopefully be the year when the courts tell us exactly how large (or small) that role will be. If the prohibition on indecency survives this latest round of judicial scrutiny, broadcasters and the FCC can expect a lot of complaint investigations and litigation as both struggle with where the line on content is being drawn.
Of course there are numerous other events that will contribute to 2011 being one of the busiest years in memory for broadcasters. A rebounding economy is slowly lifting most boats in the broadcast industry, with the obvious exception being those that burned their critical assets for fuel during the lean times, and don’t have much boat left.
With a growing amount of money to fight over, the fights will begin in earnest (see “Retrans” above). Negotiations between the NAB and the recording industry over performance royalties will continue, and “performance tax” legislation will again rise in Congress with the same certainty that the slasher in a horror film returns for unending sequels.
Broadcasters and the FCC will also be implementing the latest generation of the Emergency Alert System in 2011, and the FCC will continue its efforts to repurpose broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband use, leading to new rules permitting multiple broadcasters to share a single channel, and potentially to legislation allowing participating broadcasters to share in the proceeds of broadband spectrum auctions. As with most of the items discussed above, there is both opportunity and peril for broadcasters here, and those that are inattentive risk missing the former and being battered by the latter.
Yes, 2011 will be a very busy year.