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While it has taken nearly two years to get there, the FCC today announced the release of its new broadcast ownership data in a format that can be searched and manipulated for media and public policy research. For broadcasters, however, the more interesting part of this Public Notice is what it says about broadcasters that failed to timely file their ownership reports.

In April of 2009, the FCC announced it was revamping the biennial ownership report filing requirement for commercial broadcast stations. Prior to that time, broadcast stations had filed their ownership reports every other year on the anniversary date of their license renewal filing deadline. However, because that deadline varied depending upon the state in which a station was located, and because a licensee with stations in multiple states could elect to file a consolidated set of reports on the license renewal deadline for any of those states, locating all of a particular broadcast station’s ownership reports at the FCC could be challenging. Even determining whether a broadcaster had timely filed its reports was not easy.

Because of that, and because the FCC had long received complaints from advocacy groups that the ownership data collected was hard to access and not particularly useful in assessing broader media ownership issues, the FCC established a uniform filing date for all commercial stations on November 1 of odd-numbered years. The FCC also revamped the report form itself, required LPTV owners to begin filing ownership reports, and eliminated prior filing exemptions for sole proprietors and general partnerships composed of natural persons. The FCC’s stated goal in making these changes was to gather ownership information from the full universe of broadcast license holders, allowing the FCC to populate a database which could be used to electronically aggregate or dissect ownership information from all commercial broadcast station owners.

The FCC (and broadcast station owners) quickly found out that this was a task easier said than done. The sheer amount of information that had to be submitted to the FCC, particularly for broadcast groups with complex ownership structures, was daunting. As we detailed in an earlier post, the FCC had to postpone the filing deadline a number of times to address issues both technical and substantive. Ultimately, the November 1, 2009 deadline slid to July 8, 2010 as these various issues were addressed. The filings were further complicated by the FCC’s instruction that, despite the reports being filed in July 2010, the ownership information in them had to be as it existed on November 1, 2009, even if that information was no longer accurate. Stations that changed hands or were newly-built during that period were unsure of what, or if, they were to report to the FCC.

One by one, these issues were resolved, and while the FCC’s filing system struggled from time to time with the immense number of filings made during those last few weeks before the deadline, the process ultimately went fairly smoothly in comparison to the process leading up to it. With today’s announcement that the ownership database is available, and that media researchers can now gather and process ownership information in a far more efficient manner, it is inevitable that we will be seeing a lot more rulemaking comments and requests for rulemaking based upon the information in this database.

However, as the Public Notice itself points out, there are limitations to the utility of the data collected. Specifically, despite a broad outreach by the FCC, lots of law firm advisories (I count at least a half dozen over that time from Pillsbury alone), and the successive filing deadline extensions, a surprising number of licensees still failed to file ownership reports. The FCC attributes this to the failure of many who were previously exempt from filing to understand that they now need to be filing ownership reports with the FCC.

Based upon the FCC’s figures, there is an obvious correlation between the type of station involved and the likelihood that it filed the required reports. Among full power commercial TV stations, only 1.7% failed to file. Among full power commercial radio stations, 4.5% failed to file. However, among LPTV stations (including Class A stations), over 39% failed to file.

Earlier this month, the FCC began sending out letters to licensees demanding that they file the required ownership reports immediately, noting that “your failure to file could result in potential fines or forfeitures.” It appears that these letters are going both to stations that didn’t file at all, and to stations that did file, but had a defect in their reports (for example, providing ownership data accurate as of July 2010 rather than November 2009). The FCC’s Public Notice does not make clear whether stations that filed a defective report were counted as not filing, but the language in these recent letters suggest that may be the case, which would help to explain the surprisingly high “failure to file” statistics.

Regardless, the new database system makes it extraordinarily easy for the FCC to generate a list of stations that failed to timely file their biennial ownership reports. It also makes it easy for the FCC to automate the process of pursuing enforcement actions against such stations. Fortunately, the initial batch of letters from the FCC appears to indicate a desire to obtain missing filings to make the ownership database complete. However, the next batch of letters could begin the process of issuing fines against stations for failure to file, particularly those that failed to do so after being warned by the FCC. If your station is one of those that did not file by the July 2010 deadline, now would be an excellent time to address that oversight before you receive an unwelcome piece of correspondence from the FCC in your mailbox.

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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. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Levies $10,000 Fine for Noncommercial Station’s Public Inspection File Security Protocols
  • Louisiana AM Daytimer Fined for Operations After Sunset
  • $7,000 Fine for Late-Filed License Renewal Cancelled

California Broadcaster Fined $10,000 for Delaying Access to Its Public Inspection File

The FCC has repeatedly held that stations may not require members of the public to make prior appointments to inspect the public inspection file, or otherwise delay or deny access to the public inspection file during normal business hours. In a 2001 decision, the FCC stated that “a delay of ten minutes to satisfy legitimate security concerns may be reasonable,” but has never established a precise threshold as to how long the security process can take before it becomes too burdensome for the public file visitor. Historically, the FCC has imposed its full base forfeiture of $10,000 for such violations.

According to a recently released Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the FCC fined a California noncommercial broadcaster $10,000 for violating Section 73.3527(c) of the Commission’s Rules, which requires broadcasters to provide unfettered access to a station’s public inspection file during regular business hours.

The NAL indicated that on three separate occasions in August 2010, an Enforcement Bureau field agent from the Los Angeles office was denied access to the main studio, the station personnel, and the public inspection file. During the three separate visits to the station, the field agent chose not to disclose his connection to the FCC, and instead presented himself as a member of the general public. On each visit, the field agent was denied access to the station by security personnel because the field agent did not have a prior appointment. On his fourth attempt to access the station’s public inspection file, the field agent informed the security personnel of his relationship to the FCC, provided formal identification, and requested access to the public inspection file, the main studio, and the station’s staff.

At that point, the field agent was allowed to enter the station. During the resulting inspection, the field agent determined that the station had a general policy of requiring members of the public to request an appointment to view the public inspection file in violation of the unfettered access provision of Section 73.3527(c) of the Commission’s Rules. Upon finally being permitted to look at the file, the agent determined that the public inspection file was complete. However, because of the obstacles placed in the path of those seeking to view the file, the FCC presented the station with a $10,000 fine.

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For many television stations, network non-duplication and syndicated exclusivity protection are a distant memory. With the ever-increasing number of non-broadcast programming services available to cable operators, the number of distant station signals imported by cable and satellite into local markets has fallen dramatically. As a result, many local television stations are no longer vigilant in sending out network non-duplication or syndicated exclusivity notices. Recent developments arising in retransmission consent negotiations, however, make clear that television stations need to be more diligent than ever in making sure that they send out timely notices, and that the notices conform to all FCC requirements.

Recently, Smith Media (Smith) was unable to reach agreement with Time Warner Cable (TWC) regarding retransmission consent for the signals of several network-affiliated stations owned by Smith, so TWC dropped a number of Smith stations from its channel line-ups. Then TWC began to import distant network-affiliated station signals into the markets where it lost access to the Smith network-affiliated stations. It appears that Smith had not kept its network non-duplication notices up to date, opening a window in which TWC could avoid the exclusivity which Smith would normally have been able to enforce through its network contracts.

TWC threatened to do the same thing during its dispute with Sinclair Broadcast Group (Sinclair). While the Sinclair dispute appears to have been settled without its stations being dropped by TWC, an impasse in negotiations would have tested its non-duplication protection rights.

As noted in a recent trade periodical, not all broadcasters have been diligent in perfecting their non-duplication rights in recent years. Television station licensees facing retransmission consent negotiations should carefully review their non-duplication protection notices to ensure that they conform to FCC requirements. The notice rules are complex, and it may be advisable to review them with your counsel.

Because non-duplication notices must be sent to multichannel video program distributors within 60 days of execution of a network affiliation agreement, it may already be too late to cure a failure to give timely notice. In such a case, the station operator should consider contacting their network to amend or enter into a new network affiliation agreement in order to obtain updated network affiliation rights, thereby triggering a new 60-day notice period.

The Smith and Sinclair disputes raise two other important issues for television broadcasters. First, it appears that the reason that TWC could import distant network signals into Smith’s markets is that the standard TWC retransmission consent agreement permits the carriage of the station being retransmitted by any TWC system anywhere, not just within the station’s home market. It is advisable that all stations review the content of their retransmission consent agreements carefully, and, at least in the future, be sure to limit carriage rights to their own market, and perhaps to areas in which they are significantly viewed or have historically been carried.

Second, the other issue which came to light is that TWC has entered into an agreement with the FOX Network which allows TWC to carry a direct feed of FOX Network programming for a period of up to one year when a local FOX affiliate refuses to grant TWC consent to retransmit its signal. This could substantially reduce the local broadcaster’s leverage in retransmission consent negotiations, and is certain to be a major topic of discussion between network affiliate organizations and their networks.

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Late today, the FCC released an Order laying the groundwork for the first national test of the Emergency Alert System. As we noted in an earlier post, the FCC began this process nearly a year ago, when it released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the implementation of regular national EAS tests. Today’s order modifies the FCC’s Rules to authorize such tests as well as to establish the ground rules for conducting them.

Specifically, the Order:

  • Requires all EAS participants to participate in national EAS tests scheduled by the FCC in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency;
  • Requires that the first national test use the Emergency Alert Notification code, the live event code used for nationwide Presidential alerts;
  • Provides that the national test replaces the monthly and weekly EAS tests in the month and week it is held;
  • Requires the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC provide at least two months’ public notice prior to a national test;
  • Requires EAS participants to submit test-related data within 45 days of the test;
  • Requires that test data received from EAS participants be treated as presumptively confidential, but allows it to be shared on a confidential basis with other federal agencies and state emergency management agencies that have confidentiality protection at least equal to that provided by the Freedom of Information Act; and
  • Delegates authority to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, in consultation with FEMA and other EAS stakeholders, to establish various administrative procedures for national tests, including the location codes to be used in the alerts and the pre-test outreach to be conducted.

While many following this proceeding had anticipated that the FCC might hold off on a national test until it had modified its rules to incorporate Common Alerting Protocol and the deadline for EAS participants to install CAP-compliant equipment had passed, it appears the first national test could occur as early as this Fall. The order specifically notes that the first “national EAS test is strictly of the legacy EAS system and is independent of the transition to CAP.”

The Order notes the need for significant public outreach prior to the test (to avoid public panic), and acknowledges that, at least for the first test, EAS participants will likely get more than the minimum two months’ warning to accomplish that public education objective.

Of particular note to EAS participants is the requirement that they record and submit to the FCC within 45 days of the test a fair amount of detail regarding that participant’s performance during the test (e.g., was the alert received and passed on successfully, what equipment was used, what was the cause of any problems that occurred, etc.). In order to facilitate the submission of that data, the FCC also announced that it will be creating an electronic filing system that EAS participants may elect to use to comply with the reporting requirement.

Because the FCC wishes to encourage EAS participants to be honest in reporting failures that occur during national tests, it did note that it would treat the required submissions as a “voluntary disclosure”. In the past, the FCC has considered a licensee’s voluntary disclosure of a rule violation to be a mitigating factor that can merit a reduction in the fine or other sanction imposed. Notably, however, the FCC did not foreclose itself from issuing fines or taking other action against an EAS participant reporting a failure of its equipment/performance in the national test, particularly where the violation is “repeated, egregious, or not promptly remedied.”

As a result of today’s Order, and the wheels it puts in motion, broadcasters, cable providers, and other EAS participants will need to make sure they and their EAS equipment are ready to participate in a national EAS test as early as this Fall. The FCC, FEMA and other governmental agencies also have much to do before a national test can occur. However, today’s action clears the initial obstacles away, and will allow the FCC to achieve its goal of assessing “for the first time, the readiness and effectiveness of the EAS from top-to-bottom, i.e., from origination of an alert by the President and transmission through the entire EAS daisy chain, to reception by the American public.” That assessment has been a long time coming, and while it does present some regulatory risks for EAS participants, most will be pleased to have confirmation that the EAS equipment they have maintained day in and day out, year after year, will serve its intended purpose should a national emergency require it.

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The Office of Management and Budget is currently considering whether to approve a revised version of FCC Form 303-S, the “Application For Renewal of Broadcast Station License” that all commercial and noncommercial full-power radio and television stations will be required to use when they file for their next renewal of license. The FCC has made several modifications to the prior version of the form.

One of the modifications is a new renewal certification which will constitute a material representation to a government agency. For that reason, every renewal applicant will want to be doubly sure that it has a reasonable, good faith basis for responding to the certification with an unqualified “Yes” and adequate documentation to support such response. Specifically, the revised renewal form seeks a “Yes” or “No” response to the new certification that the licensee’s “advertising sales agreements do not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity and that all such agreements held by the licensee contain nondiscrimination clauses.” According to the FCC, this new certification is needed to combat “no urban/no Spanish dictates” that have turned up in some broadcast advertising arrangements. The FCC believes that those “dictates” discriminate against broadcast stations which target African American and Hispanic audiences and the businesses they support.

When it adopted the “nondiscrimination clause” requirement, the FCC chose not to provide specific, or even illustrative, language to be included in advertising contracts. Such language would have given applicants a better idea of what the FCC actually believes qualifies as an adequate “nondiscrimination clause.” As a result, licensees have been left to rely upon their own interpretations of what constitutes compliance.

One question of interpretation relates to the scope of the nondiscrimination clause: is it adequate if only two types of prohibited discrimination are identified, namely race and ethnicity, or must the clause include all other types of discrimination prohibited under federal, state and local law? We know that the rule making from which the nondiscrimination clause arose focused only on “no urban/no Spanish dictates,” and that the FCC’s later issued “Erratum” substituted “ethnicity” for “gender” without retaining “gender.” From this it can be argued that the FCC did not intend to require stations to include in their nondiscrimination clauses other forms of discrimination prohibited by federal, state and local authorities, although stations are free to include them.

Additional interpretation is required to answer this question: is the nondiscrimination clause sufficient if each sales contract in effect proclaims (i) that no advertiser may use the station to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity and (ii) that any contract entered into with an advertiser whose intent is to use the station to unlawfully discriminate shall be null and void? Or must the nondiscrimination clause also include from the advertiser some type of certification or representation to the station disclaiming any intent to discriminate on the grounds of race or ethnicity? It is my experience that the approaches used by stations vary considerably. That fact may suggest that there are a number of interpretations that may be regarded as reasonable.

The third instance requiring interpretation relates to those stations that do not use formal sales contracts: how are they expected to comply with the nondiscrimination clause requirement? The answer to this question will turn on how flexible the FCC intends to be. We know that noncommercial educational stations filing their license renewal applications will not be asked to respond to this particular certification because such stations do not “sell” time, although they do enter into on-air and production relationships with their underwriters. Certainly a starting point for commercial stations that do not use formal sales contracts is to ensure they can adequately demonstrate to the FCC that their advertising sales arrangements with third parties in fact alert such parties to the station’s nondiscrimination policy and do not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, e.g., website postings, standard email disclaimers, invoice/statement disclaimers.

The three questions posed above are not intended to deal with all of the issues raised by the new renewal certification. My observation is that if the FCC had been more clear when it adopted the nondiscrimination clause requirement, licensees would be able to make a more informed judgment in deciding whether they may responsibly respond to the new certification requirement with an unqualified “Yes,” or whether they will be required to answer “No” with an explanation, understanding that a “No” answer will likely result in the licensee’s application being pulled out of line and deferred for further scrutiny. Stations should consult with communications counsel now to assess whether, based on current practices, they will have a reasonable basis to respond “Yes” to the new renewal certification when it comes time to file their application for renewal of license.