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Death, Taxes and Voluntary Spectrum Auctions

The FCC created a stir in the broadcast community when, after proclaiming for more than a year that surrendering broadcast channels for the planned broadband spectrum auction would be entirely voluntary, it began to “volunteer” Class A stations it concluded had not complied with all FCC rules. I first raised this issue in a February post on the day the FCC released the first sixteen Orders to Show Cause demanding that the recipient Class A TV stations submit evidence as to why the FCC should not revoke their Class A status for infractions that would have previously drawn only a fine.

Loss of Class A status not only eliminates protection from being displaced by full power TV stations (or by a spectrum auction), but also disqualifies the station from sharing a post-auction channel with a full power station or seeking any compensation for its spectrum in the auction. Downgrading Class A stations to LPTV status therefore allows the FCC to sweep them aside involuntarily to clear spectrum for the auction, and avoid sharing the proceeds of the spectrum auction with that licensee.

It was therefore not too surprising when that initial batch of FCC orders was followed by dozens of subsequent FCC actions against Class A stations, some of which proposed substantial fines and indicated that the licensee had been earlier informed it could avoid a fine by notifying the FCC it wished to relinquish its Class A status.

Having put scores of stations on notice that their Class A status was either directly at risk or that they could avoid a fine by agreeing to relinquish Class A status, the FCC turned up the heat further this past week when it began issuing follow up orders revoking stations’ Class A status. While the writing was already on the wall for many of these stations given the FCC’s earlier actions against them, one of the orders offers a particularly disturbing insight into the determination with which the FCC is moving to thin the ranks of Class A stations (old FCC motto for Class A stations–“last bastion of independent voices in a consolidated TV world”; new FCC motto for Class A stations–“old and in the way”).

Station KVHM is (or at least was) a Class A station that received a pair of investigatory letters from the FCC in late March and early August of 2011. According to the FCC, the letters noted that the station had failed to file required children’s television reports and provided the licensee with thirty days to respond, making the first response due at the end of April 2011. However, as the FCC itself notes in the Order, the licensee, Humberto Lopez, died in May of 2011. According to his obituaries, Mr. Lopez, who owned multiple TV and radio stations and was an inductee of the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame, died “on May 16 after battling a long illness.”

In the last few weeks of his life, he apparently didn’t find time to respond to the FCC’s March letter, and was certainly unable to respond to its August letter. His failure to respond led the FCC to issue a February 2012 Order to Show Cause demanding that Lopez demonstrate why his Class A status should not be revoked. When, not surprisingly, the licensee was unable to deliver that message from beyond the grave, the FCC issued last week’s Order, stating “Lopez did not file a written statement in response to the Order to Show Cause, and, therefore, we deem him to have accepted the modification of the KVHM-LP license to low power television status.” Talk about being tough on a licensee; the FCC demanded not just that Lopez rise from the grave to defend his Class A status, but that he do so in writing.

While it is easy enough to ridicule an FCC Order that is on its face so completely preposterous as to invite comparison with the worst cinematic portrayals of soulless bureaucracy, the real lesson of this case can be found by delving a bit deeper into the facts. On the FCC’s side of the ledger, it is true that the first investigatory letter did arrive while the licensee was still alive, and that it was at least theoretically possible the licensee could have responded. Had the FCC’s Order been based on this fact alone, rather than on the licensee’s failure to respond long after his death to the 2012 Order to Show Cause, its action would have been hard-hearted, but perhaps defensible. The FCC could have argued that, given the licensee’s failure to meet the original response deadline, his estate lacked the “clean hands” necessary to protest the loss of Class A status, and that the FCC was just playing the hand it was dealt. However, as it turns out, the FCC lacked clean hands as well.

Why, you may ask, did the licensee’s estate not step up to oppose the Class A revocation? Apparently because it is still waiting for the FCC to grant the application to transfer control of the station from the deceased licensee to the licensee’s estate (controlled by an Executor). Despite the fact that such post-death transfers are normally accorded nearly automatic grants, that application remains pending at the FCC since early November 2011. Worse, the apparent reason why the transfer application is hung up at the FCC is because the FCC has still not acted on the station’s 2006 license renewal, which also remains pending. To be blunt, the licensee literally died waiting for the FCC to act on his license renewal application. While the FCC will often sit on a transfer application until the underlying station’s license renewal is granted based on the theory that the “seller” shouldn’t profit from the transfer of a station unless the FCC can first determine he was qualified to own it, the licensee here is beyond caring about such profit.

So in the fair world we like to think we live in, the FCC would have promptly granted the station’s transfer application (and perhaps its license renewal application as well), transferring control of the station to the Executor of the licensee’s estate. Without altering its timetable one iota, the FCC could then have proceeded to issue its February Order to Show Cause, and the Executor would have had a reasonable opportunity to try to defend the station’s Class A status. Instead, in its apparent haste to clear “voluntary” spectrum for auction, the FCC cut all of these procedural corners, leaving Lopez’s wife and (according to the obituary) twelve children with an asset of significantly diminished value, and no opportunity to seek their share of any spectrum auction proceeds.

What is particularly ironic is that the Lopez family is the archetype of the kind of licensee the FCC has argued will be interested in participating in the auction–a licensee that may no longer be as interested in running the station as in monetizing it to pay estate taxes and to split any remaining proceeds among the many heirs. The FCC has placed itself in the role of the cattle baron who dams up the stream, depriving his neighbors of water so that he can obtain their land for next to nothing (or in this case, nothing). If the FCC’s thirst for broadcast spectrum has become so intense that it is willing to sacrifice fundamental fairness and “widows and orphans” to get it, all broadcasters need to be looking over their shoulders for the next regulatory lightning bolt encouraging them to also “volunteer” their spectrum. Like death and taxes, it appears the FCC is determined to make surrendering spectrum for the auction an unavoidable fact of life (and death).