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The FCC today announced a freeze on the acceptance of any petitions for rulemaking seeking to change a station’s assigned channel in the Post-Transition Table of DTV Allotments. While application freezes were once relatively rare at the FCC, they became quite common as a planning mechanism during the years when the FCC was creating a new Table of Allotments to initiate and complete the transition to digital television.

Given the FCC’s announced intent to begin reclaiming broadcast television spectrum for wireless broadband as part of the National Broadband Plan, and to then repack the remaining television stations into a smaller chunk of spectrum, today’s announcement was not a surprise. The Commission’s brief announcement stated that the freeze is necessary to “permit the Commission to evaluate its reallocation and repacking proposals and their impact on the Post-Transition Table of DTV Allotments….”

The freeze will put a stop to the steady migration of stations from the VHF to the UHF band, where reception is generally better and the opportunities for successful mobile DTV operations greater. While not discussed in the FCC’s announcement, proponents of transferring broadcast spectrum to wireless broadband have no interest in VHF spectrum, so each station that moves from the VHF band to the UHF band makes the FCC’s efforts to clear UHF spectrum for broadband that much more difficult. The FCC noted in its announcement that since the lifting of the last freeze in 2008, it has processed nearly 100 television channel changes, and that it therefore believes most stations interested in making a channel change have had sufficient time to do so. The FCC indicated that it would continue to process channel change requests filed before the new freeze commenced.

And so it begins. While the prospects for legislation to implement the National Broadband Plan’s broadcast spectrum incentive auctions remain murky, the FCC does not need the blessing of Congress in order to commence the process of spectrum repacking. Now well over a year old, the National Broadband Plan remains mostly that–a plan. Today’s freeze marks one of the first concrete steps by the FCC to implement at least some aspects of that plan. Setting aside the issue of whom the ultimate winners and losers in the spectrum debate will be, the painful and expensive process of implementing a new Table of Allotments for digital television is still far too fresh a memory for many broadcasters to want to be subjected to a similar process now.

At least with the transition to digital, broadcasters could see the benefits of enduring the difficult process in order to be able to garner the benefits of high definition programming, multicasting, and datacasting. Unfortunately, for broadcasters not interested in selling spectrum in an incentive auction, repacking means all pain and no gain. The best case scenario for a television broadcaster in a repacking is just to survive the disruption and distraction without losing signal coverage of viewers and cable headends. That doesn’t leave broadcasters with much light at the end of the tunnel to guide them through the difficult days ahead.

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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 Fines FM Broadcaster for Excessive Power and RF Radiation Levels
  • Forfeiture More Than Triples After Consent Decree Default

Missing Fence Yields $10,000 Fine for Utah FM Broadcaster
During a routine inspection in April 2010, Denver field agents cited a Utah FM broadcaster for excess radio frequency radiation (“RFR”) exposure and failure to operate the station as authorized by the FCC. The citations resulted in a combined $14,000 fine.

According to the Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the station and its antenna tower were located at the top of a hill easily accessible by foot and all terrain vehicles. The station and tower were enclosed by a chain link fence, but access from the base of the hill to the station’s fence was unobstructed. The field agents visited the station on two separate occasions and determined that the station was exceeding permitted RFR exposure levels, with actual RFR ranging from 165 to 315% of the legally acceptable levels at distances between 12 and 28 feet outside the chain link fence. At the time of the inspection, Denver field agents did not observe any posted RFR warning signs on or near the site. Failure to maintain acceptable levels of public RFR exposure is a direct violation of Section 1.1310 of the FCC’s Rules, which mandates that broadcasters comply with the RFR exposure limits established by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements as outlined in the tables provided in the FCC’s Rules.

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The staggered deadlines for filing Biennial Ownership Reports by noncommercial educational radio and television stations remain in effect and are tied to the anniversary of stations’ respective renewal filing deadlines.

Noncommercial educational radio stations licensed to communities in Arizona, District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming, and noncommercial educational television stations licensed to communities in Michigan and Ohio must file their Biennial Ownership Reports by June 1, 2011.

In 2009, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on, among other things, whether the Commission should adopt a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial educational radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC has established for all commercial radio and television stations. That proceeding remains pending without decision. As a result, noncommercial educational radio and television stations continue to be required to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal filing.

A PDF version of this article can be found at: Biennial Ownership Reports are due by June 1, 2011 for Noncommercial Educational Radio Stations in Arizona, District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming and for Noncommercial Educational Television Stations in Michigan and Ohio

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During the last license renewal cycle, the FCC handed out an unprecedented number of fines to broadcasters who failed to file their license renewal applications on time. In some cases, a station only learned of its failure to file because the FCC sent it a letter notifying it that the FCC had deleted the station’s call sign from the official records and that the station’s operating authority had been terminated. For a broadcaster, that can ruin your whole day.

Such letters usually lead to an immediate call to the station’s counsel to try and fix the problem before the station’s business, goodwill, and call sign are lost permanently. The associated fines and legal costs to try to resuscitate the station’s license provide further incentive to avoid placing yourself in this situation. Because of this, it is no wonder that some broadcasters are anxious to get their license renewal applications on file well in advance of their filing deadline.

There is, however, such as thing as being too early. The FCC has already returned at least four license renewal applications because they were filed too early. Some were radio broadcasters whose stations are licensed to communities in DC, Maryland, Virginia or West Virginia. They are required to file their applications by June 1st, and are the first to use the new version of the renewal form, which the FCC announced it would begin accepting on May 2. At least one of these stations has already refiled its application, this time waiting for the May 2nd official opening of renewal season.

These stations are not alone, however, with numerous other broadcasters also having filed prematurely. Among these early filers are low power television stations whose renewal applications are not due for a year or more from now. Because many FCC compliance obligations are connected to a station’s license renewal cycle, a station that is off on its renewal filing date by such a margin that its application is filed in the wrong year likely has numerous other FCC issues that need to be examined and addressed.

Compounding the danger is the FCC database’s admonition that it does not generate an automatic dismissal letter notifying the applicant that its renewal application has been dismissed. As a result, these early filers may believe they have discharged their license renewal filing obligations only to later find out that their authority to operate has been terminated.

The window within which a station can file a compliant license renewal application is actually quite small. For most stations in the full power services, as well as LPFM stations, the FCC’s rules require that four pre-filing announcements be aired on specific dates and in specific time periods alerting the public that the station will be filing a license renewal application. Once the application is filed, six more announcements must air noting that the application has been filed, again on a prescribed time schedule. Because the last of the pre-filing announcements must air on the 16th (with the license renewal application due on the 1st of the following month), stations that file before that date will be airing an inaccurate public notice. In addition, the EEO portion of the license renewal application, which is submitted separately using FCC Form 396, requires that all but the smallest stations attach their two most recent annual EEO Public Inspection File reports to the filing. However, the FCC’s EEO rule requires that each annual report cover a time period ending no earlier than 10 days before the anniversary of that station’s license renewal filing deadline. A station can’t comply with that requirement if it files its renewal materials before that 10 day period commences.

Therefore, while May 2nd, 2011 has now passed and renewal season has officially begun, stations filing more than a week or two before their license renewal application deadline are likely creating a potential problem for themselves. This goes double for the 396 EEO form. So far in 2011, more than 70 of these forms have been filed at the FCC by stations whose licenses are nowhere near ready for a license renewal review. To avoid this, stations need to familiarize themselves with the license renewal filing and notice dates applicable to them, and not simply mimic what stations in other states or services are doing.

To give that effort a little boost, you can look at our latest post regarding license renewals, which addresses the upcoming license renewal compliance deadlines (beginning June 1) for radio stations in North Carolina and South Carolina. If you are not a radio station licensee in North or South Carolina, don’t worry, your time is coming. When it does, make sure you are ready early; just not too early.

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Full power commercial and noncommercial radio stations and LPFM stations licensed to communities in the states listed above must begin airing pre-filing license renewal announcements on June 1, 2011. License renewal applications for these stations, and for in-state FM Translator stations, are due by August 1, 2011.

Pre-filing License Renewal Announcements

Full power commercial and noncommercial radio, LPFM, and FM Translator stations whose communities of license are located in North Carolina and South Carolina must file their license renewal applications with the FCC by August 1, 2011.

Beginning two months prior to that filing, however, full power commercial and noncommercial radio and LPFM stations must air four pre-filing announcements alerting the public to the upcoming license renewal application filing. As a result, these radio stations must air the first pre-filing renewal announcement on Wednesday, June 1, 2011. The remaining pre-filing announcements must air once a day on June 16, July 1, and July 16, for a total of four announcements. At least two of these four announcements must air between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and/or 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

The text of the pre-filing announcement is as follows:

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A Notice of Apparent Liability released today by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau provides 25,000 reasons that you don’t want to bounce a check when making a payment at the FCC. As I noted in a post this time last year, there has been a conspicuous effort by the FCC to increase the size of fines for various rule violations. Equally apparent has been an effort by the FCC in recent years to rely more heavily on “consent decrees” rather than fines to resolve allegations of rule violations.

In a typical case, the FCC will commence an investigation of alleged rule violations, and rather than completing the investigation and (where appropriate) issuing a fine, the FCC and the licensee will negotiate a consent decree to resolve the matter. For the FCC, the benefit of resolving an investigation through a consent decree is that it conserves agency resources that would otherwise have to be expended to complete the investigation, issue sanctions, and defend those sanctions if the licensee appeals them. For the licensee, a consent decree can be attractive as well, cutting short a potentially embarrassing investigation and eliminating the risk of being socked with a far larger fine.

An FCC consent decree generally has two components: a “voluntary” financial contribution to the federal government, and the implementation of a multi-year compliance program, complete with reports to the FCC to ensure that the alleged rule violations do not recur. While there is no shortage of people who argue that consent decree negotiations can quickly devolve into a “shakedown,” the consent decree process can sometimes be an efficient means of resolving what would otherwise be a resource-draining process for both the FCC and the licensee.

If you enter into a consent decree, however, be prepared to live up to it. In an enforcement action released today, a consent decree ended badly for the licensee of an AM station in Puerto Rico. The licensee entered into a consent decree in May 2008 to resolve allegations of rule violations involving tower fencing, the station’s public inspection file, and operating with an unauthorized antenna pattern. The consent decree required the licensee to make an $8,000 contribution to the U.S. Treasury, and to file a compliance report in May 2010 certifying compliance with all of the other terms of the consent decree. The licensee entered into the consent decree after the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability indicating that it was prepared to issue a $15,000 fine for the alleged violations.

According to the Enforcement Bureau, the licensee attempted to make the $8,000 contribution with a check that bounced for “insufficient funds.” When the licensee also failed to file its compliance report, the FCC lost patience, resulting in the issuance today of a new Notice of Apparent Liability against the station licensee for $25,000.

Perhaps the licensee thought that once the consent decree is signed, the FCC has too much else on its hands to bother following up to ensure that the licensee lives up to its consent decree promises. If so, the licensee misjudged the FCC. It may take some time for the long arm of the FCC to catch up with you, but as happened in this case, it eventually does.

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FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker made the surprise announcement yesterday that she will leave the FCC on June 3 to become Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at NBC-Universal. Baker’s departure will leave Commissioner Robert McDowell as the only Republican Commissioner at the FCC for the time being. It is unlikely that President Obama will be in any hurry to name a replacement, leaving Democrats with a 3-1 political advantage at the FCC once Baker leaves. Her departure comes as a surprise because, although her current term at the FCC is up in June, she was expected to be nominated for another term.

It certainly appears to have caught her colleagues at the Commission by surprise, all of whom quickly released very brief statements of congratulations. Despite the warm wishes from her colleagues, the brevity of those statements makes clear that they didn’t have much time to prepare them.

This being Washington, DC, the Commissioner’s move did not come without controversy. The trade press reported that many found it disconcerting that the Commissioner was joining NBC-Universal just a few months after voting in favor of Comcast’s contested multi-billion dollar purchase of that company. For example, Free Press’s website reports that Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron has stated that “Less than four months after Commissioner Baker voted to approve Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, she’s reportedly departing the FCC to lobby for Comcast-NBC. This is just the latest — though perhaps most blatant — example of a so-called public servant cashing in at a company she is supposed to be regulating.”

Others, including National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith, publicly supported the Commissioner’s move, stating in a news release that “With a winning combination of integrity, intellect and experience, Meredith Baker will be a key player for NBCUniversal, and I know that her in-depth knowledge of broadcast issues, deep understanding of the D.C. landscape and strong leadership abilities will make her an important resource for the entire broadcast industry.” Indeed, Commissioner Baker’s excellent reputation in Washington, earned at both the NTIA and the FCC, will do much to deflect, although certainly not silence, criticism regarding the timing of the move.

The eventual appointment of the Commissioner’s replacement is likely to be a hotly debated issue, with such big ticket items as net neutrality, spectrum auctions, the potential repacking of broadcast spectrum, and retransmission consent battles on the FCC’s plate. Unlike Commissioner Baker’s surprise announcement yesterday, however, it is a surprise to no one that the political maneuvering in Washington over the future composition of the FCC has already begun in earnest.

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Earlier today, the FCC wrapped up a seminar on complying with its new ex parte rules, which govern the public disclosures that must be made following a meeting with FCC personnel. The new rules are designed to increase the transparency of the FCC’s decision-making process, and go into effect in a few short weeks (June 1, 2011). Unfortunately, the price of increased transparency is more paperwork and the risk of being assessed fines by the Enforcement Bureau, which has been granted authority to police the new rules and issue fines to those who run afoul of them.

Fortunately, the FCC’s General Counsel, Austin Schlick, indicated at the seminar that while the Enforcement Bureau now has the authority to levy fines for ex parte violations, the FCC will not use its new ex parte rules as an administrative “speed trap” to generate revenue from fines. While his statement is not binding on the FCC, it does provide some comfort to those unfamiliar with the process and requirements for conducting meetings with the FCC that inadvertent errors won’t necessarily be costly ones.

A complete copy of the order establishing the new rules can be found here, but some of the more noteworthy changes include:

  1. Under the new rules, all ex parte notice letters must be filed electronically with the FCC in machine-readable format (e.g., DOC, PPT or searchable-PDF files). There are a number of exceptions to this rule, including for hardship and documents containing confidential information.
  2. All presentations will require ex parte filings, even those in which parties merely reiterate arguments or data already in the record. Such ex parte filings must provide details regarding the facts that were discussed, the arguments made, and the support offered for those arguments during the presentation. Alternatively, parties may provide detailed citations to prior filings containing that information.
  3. Because of these added complexities, the filing deadline for submitting an ex parte notice will now be two full business days after the presentation (rather than one). However, during the “Sunshine Period” prior to an FCC vote, the notice must be filed on the same business day in which the presentation is made.

On a related note, the FCC this week published in the Federal Register a request for comments establishing the comment deadlines for those wishing to provide input on when and how real parties-in-interest must be disclosed in ex parte filings. A copy of the request for comments can be found here.

In particular, the FCC is interested in whether disclosure requirements should apply to other types of filings in addition to ex parte notices, whether disclosures should be made in only some or all types of FCC proceedings, whether different disclosure requirements should be applicable to different types of entities (such as trade associations or non-profit groups), and whether a party should be deemed to have made adequate disclosure if its filing references information appearing on the Internet or available from the FCC’s databases. Comments are due by June 16, 2011 and Reply Comments are due by July 18, 2011.

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Broadcasters don’t know it yet, but recent actions by the Department of Justice suggest that the federal government may be moving closer to raining on their upcoming license renewals. The reason? Medical marijuana advertising. While it seems like a recent phenomenon, the first state laws permitting medical marijuana go back some 15 years. The movement by states to permit the use of medical marijuana has grown steadily since then, with half the states in the U.S. (and the District of Columbia) now having medical marijuana laws on the books or under consideration.

Of course, when an entrepreneur sets up a medical marijuana dispensary, the next step is to get the word out to the public. In the past few years, these dispensaries began approaching broadcast stations in growing numbers seeking to air advertising. In the depths of the recent recession, medical marijuana dispensaries were one of the few growth industries, and many stations were thrilled to have a new source of ad revenue.

However, marijuana, medical or otherwise, is still illegal under federal law. When we first began receiving calls a few years ago from broadcast stations asking if they could accept the ads, the federal government’s position was ambiguous. Many stations, and in some cases, their counsel, concluded that as long as the activity was legal in the state in which the station was located, airing medical marijuana ads was fine. In 2009, the Department of Justice gave some comfort, if not support, to this school of thought when it internally circulated a memo to some U.S. attorneys suggesting that the DOJ was not interested in pursuing medical marijuana businesses as long as they operated in compliance with state law.

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