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FCC to Advertisers: Don’t Discriminate or We’ll Punish the Broadcasters

I wrote last week about the FCC’s announcement that broadcasters must certify in their license renewal applications that their advertising contracts have, since March 14, 2011, had a nondiscrimination clause in them. Specifically, broadcasters must certify that their “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.” The good news from last week’s announcement was that the FCC chose to apply the advertising nondiscrimination certification (which was originally announced in 2008), prospectively, rather than announcing that stations would have to certify their contracts included such language since 2008 or 2009.

That was the good news, and what government giveth with one hand, it can taketh away with the other. Today the FCC released an FCC Enforcement Advisory and News Release emphasizing how seriously it intends to treat that certification. The FCC’s Advisory states that broadcasters unable to make that certification will need to “attach an exhibit identifying the persons and matters involved and explaining why the noncompliance is not an impediment to a grant of the station’s license renewal application.”

The Advisory goes on to state that “Licensees must have a good faith basis for an affirmative certification” and notes that “a licensee that uses a third party to arrange advertising sales is responsible for exercising due diligence to ensure that the advertising agreement contains the nondiscrimination clause and does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity.”

Lawyers are perhaps unique in their ability to acknowledge the validity of a legal requirement while still questioning the logic of it. Make no mistake–this new certification is the law and broadcasters need to make sure that they can truthfully make this certification at license renewal time. The goal itself is admirable. Indeed, as Univision’s Washington counsel during the time that it grew from only seven TV stations to 162 TV and radio stations, I saw first hand the challenges of persuading advertisers (and others) that Spanish-language viewers and listeners are an important group of consumers worthy of advertisers’ dollars.

However, as I noted in last week’s post, trying to use the FCC’s authority over broadcasters as a method to modify the conduct of advertisers (who are generally beyond the FCC’s authority) is a futile approach. Advertisers aren’t too worried about a broadcaster’s license renewal. As a result, the only one to be hurt here is the broadcaster, not the discriminatory advertiser.

The FCC can counter that preventing broadcasters from accepting ads of discriminatory advertisers ensures such advertisers will cease their discriminatory ad practices if they want air time. This assertion suffers, however, from two debilitating flaws. First, if the current FCC’s view is accurate that broadband,and not broadcasting, is the way of the future, then there will be plenty of non-broadcast venues for advertisers wishing to engage in discriminatory ad buys. Indeed, the FCC’s certification will not even prevent the same advertiser from making discriminatory ad buys in non-broadcast media while avoiding such discrimination on the broadcast side.

That brings us, however, to the bigger flaw in this approach, and that is the simple fact that clauses in a contract can generally only be enforced by the parties to that contract. As a result, a broadcaster can place the required nondiscrimination clause in its contract, and if the advertiser proceeds to purchase ads in a discriminatory manner (e.g., splitting its ad buying money among all of the broadcaster’s local radio stations except the one with the Spanish-language format), the FCC can’t really do anything about it. The only party in a position to enforce the nondiscrimination clause in the contract is the broadcaster, who will understandably be hesitant to spend precious resources suing an advertiser. There is no financial incentive to spend money on litigation, and there is obviously a huge disincentive for the broadcaster to sue a revenue source that can readily take its advertising dollars elsewhere (and who won’t care what happens to the broadcaster’s license renewal application).

Even today’s FCC Enforcement Advisory seems to overlook this, asserting that “a broadcaster that learns of a violation of a nondiscrimination clause while its license renewal application is pending should update its license renewal application so that it continues to be accurate.” However, whether an advertiser has proceeded to engage in discriminatory ad buying practices in violation of the contractual nondiscrimination clause would not necessarily affect the accuracy of the broadcaster’s certification that its “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.” The broadcaster could certainly volunteer to the FCC that it had discovered an advertiser discriminating, but the FCC has no authority to punish the advertiser, and punishing the broadcaster who uncovered the advertiser’s discriminatory efforts doesn’t make much sense. As a result, the new certification adds to the regulatory thicket surrounding broadcasters, but leaves discriminatory advertisers free to roam.