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June 2012
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:

  • Long-Term Violation of an FCC Order Leads to $25,000 Forfeiture
  • FCC Issues $10,000 Fines for Obstruction Lighting Violations

Licensee Fined $25,000 for Failing to Pay $8,000 Four Years Ago

The licensee of an AM radio station in Puerto Rico was recently fined $25,000 for a string of failures to comply with an FCC Consent Decree issued four years ago, showcasing the FCC’s irritation with unpaid fines.

In 2005, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) for $15,000 against the licensee for failing to properly maintain a fence around its tower, violations related to the public inspection file, and operating with an unauthorized antenna pattern. Following the issuance of this first NAL, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order which the licensee challenged, arguing that the forfeiture for the fencing violation should be reduced. The FCC eventually issued an Order lowering the penalty amount to $14,000, based on the licensee’s efforts to comply with the FCC’s antenna structure fencing requirements. Still unhappy with the FCC’s decision, the licensee filed a petition for reconsideration of the Order, but ultimately entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC in 2008 terminating the investigation.

In the Consent Decree, the licensee agreed to make a “voluntary” contribution of $8,000 to the U.S. Treasury. The licensee further agreed to submit compliance reports for two years and to certify to the FCC that it is properly maintaining its public inspection file, operating its transmitters as authorized, and has repaired the fence surrounding its tower.

However, the licensee failed to pay the $8,000 or submit its compliance reports to the FCC. In 2010, two years after the Consent Decree, the licensee responded to a letter of inquiry from the FCC, noting that it had sent a check to the FCC to pay the $8,000, but that the check had bounced because the licensee had insufficient funds.

The FCC rejected this excuse, and in May 2011, issued an additional NAL against the licensee for $25,000 for failing to comply with an FCC Order. Notably, the FCC concluded that there is no base forfeiture for failing to comply with an FCC Order, and that it is therefore within the FCC’s discretion to determine how serious the violation is and how large a penalty is warranted. In this instance, the FCC considered the licensee’s violations to be egregious and determined that “‘a consent decree violation, like misrepresentation, is particularly serious. The whole premise of a consent decree is that enforcement action is unnecessary due, in substantial part, to a promise by the subject of the consent decree to take the enumerated steps to ensure future compliance.'”
The licensee responded to the 2011 NAL, requesting that the forfeiture be cancelled due to the licensee’s financial situation–the majority of the owner’s companies had filed for bankruptcy and the licensee’s sole owner was some $70 million in debt. Unfortunately for the licensee, the FCC rejected this request and proceeded to issue a Forfeiture Order this month for the proposed $25,000. In the Forfeiture Order, the FCC acknowledged that the licensee’s financial situation indicated that it was unlikely to be able to pay the forfeiture. Nevertheless, the FCC considered the licensee’s continuous violation of the terms of the Consent Decree to be a demonstration of “bad faith and a complete disregard for Commission and Bureau authority.”

The licensee now has until mid-July to make the $25,000 payment, an amount significantly greater than the initial $8,000 contribution it was unable to pay in 2008.

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The FCC recently issued two separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NALs), found here and here, for a combined sum of $40,000 against the licensee of a Class D AM radio station for failing to make available a complete public inspection file, and submitting what the FCC concluded was incorrect factual information concerning the station’s public inspection file. According to the FCC, the station submitted the incorrect information without having a reasonable basis for believing that the information it provided to the Commission was accurate. What is most significant about this case is that this latest in fines is in addition to a $25,000 fine the FCC issued less than a year ago and included the same violation, bringing the licensee’s collective contribution to the U.S. Treasury to $65,000 in the last 12 months.

By way of background, during a routine FCC inspection of an AM radio station in Texas back in December 2010, agents from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau’s Houston Office found that the station failed to maintain a main studio with a meaningful full-time management and staff presence, determined that the station’s public inspection file was missing a current copy of the station’s authorization, its service contour map, the station’s most recent ownership report filing, the Public and Broadcasting manual, and all issues-programs lists, and refused to make the public inspection file available. As a result, in June of last year, the Bureau issued an NAL in the amount of $25,000 for violating the FCC’s main studio rule and public inspection file rules, and also required the licensee to “submit a statement signed under penalty of perjury by an officer or director of the licensee that . . . [the Station’s] public inspection file is complete.” In response to the FCC’s directive, last August the licensee submitted a certification stating that “[i]n coordination with [an independent consultant], all missing materials cited have been placed in the Station’s Public Inspection File, and the undersigned confirms that it is complete as of the date of this response.”

Agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s Houston Office returned to inspect the station’s public inspection file last October and it turned out that once again the file did not contain any issues-programs lists. The agents also determined that none of the station employees present had knowledge of the station having ever kept issues-programs lists in the public inspection file.

In response to a Letter of Inquiry from the Enforcement Bureau regarding the missing lists, the licensee told the FCC that that the issues-programs folder was empty due to an “oversight” and that the licensee believed that the public file contained daily program logs of the programming aired by the party brokering time on the station. The licensee also stated in its response that it had hired an outside consultant to review the public file, who apparently indicated to the licensee that the public file “was complete.”

Based on that follow-up visit, the Bureau released its first of two NALs issued on June 14, 2012, and cited the AM station for a failure to exercise “even minimal diligence prior to the submission” of its August certification stating that it was in full compliance with the FCC’s Public Inspection File Rules. In addressing the licensee’s violations, the Bureau noted that in 2003 the FCC expanded the scope of violations of Section 1.17 which states that no person should provide, in any written statement of fact, “material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information that is necessary to prevent any material factual statement that is made from being incorrect or misleading without a reasonable basis for believing that any such material factual statement is correct and not misleading.”

As a result, information provided to the FCC – even if not intended to purposefully mislead the FCC – can result in fines if the licensee does not have “a reasonable basis for believing” that the information submitted is accurate. Licensees therefore need to be aware that an intent to deceive the Commission is not a prerequisite to receiving a fine; inaccurate statements or omissions that are the result of negligence can be costly as well.

As if that were not enough, the Bureau issued a second NAL on the same day in which it assessed a further fine against the licensee in the amount of $15,000 for failing to make available a “complete public inspection file.” In determining the amount of this forfeiture, the Bureau noted that although the base forfeiture amount is $10,000 for public file rule violations, given the previous inspection by the agents from the Bureau’s Houston Office, the licensee had a history of prior offenses warranting an upward adjustment in the forfeiture amount. The Bureau therefore concluded that because the licensee had violated the public inspection file rule twice within a one-year period – including after being informed that it had violated the Commission’s rule – “its actions demonstrate[ed] a deliberate disregard for the Commission’s rules and a pattern of non-compliance,” warranting a $5,000 upward adjustment in the forfeiture amount.

This case is noteworthy because it demonstrates that parties dealing with the Commission must be mindful that, prior to submitting any application, report, or other filing to the FCC, it is important to ensure that the information being provided is accurate and complete in all respects. It also is significant for the high dollar amount of the fines the FCC issued to the licensee of a Class D AM station in a period of less than 12 months based on fairly common public file and main studio rule violations.

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The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has once again rubber-stamped and approved an FCC information collection request in apparent defiance of its statutory obligation to take a hard look at the burdens imposed under the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). As I reported previously, the FCC adopted burdensome rules requiring television stations to replace their existing locally-maintained public inspection files with digital files to be placed online on an FCC-hosted website, including stations’ detailed political records. What is a bit of a surprise, and frankly disappointing, is that the OMB took less than two weeks to approve the FCC’s request even though the proposed rules appear to clearly violate the standards of the PRA, and lengthy comments were filed by multiple parties informing the OMB of that fact.

As I’ve stated, the new regulations will without question increase burdens on TV stations (including thousands of pages of copying, significant costs, and countless hours of employee time), while needlessly duplicating records already required to be maintained online by the Federal Election Commission. If such rules are not something the OMB should withhold approval of, or at least take a long hard look at, you have to wonder what level of burden is required to trigger a denial under the PRA. Very few FCC regulations that I can think of historically have imposed more paperwork burdens on stations than the online public/political file regulations.

In any case, in light of the OMB’s approval, all Top 4 network affiliated stations in the top 50 markets will have to start placing political file material online 30 days after the FCC publishes a notice of the OMB approval in the Federal Register. I will provide an update when that publication occurs. However, there still may be some twists and turns coming, as it is more than likely that broadcasters will ask the courts to stay the effective date of the rules. If such a request is granted, the rules will not go into effect as quickly as the FCC is hoping.

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In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that it would like to have as little to do with the FCC’s broadcast indecency policy as possible. Rather than the momentous ruling on the constitutional future of broadcast indecency enforcement that advocates on all sides of the issue had hoped for, the mighty sound of the Court punting on the constitutional issue reverbated throughout Washington this morning.

Faced with a pair of Second Circuit decisions finding the FCC’s indecency policy to be unconstitutionally vague and therefore chilling to broadcast speech, the Court ruled in an 8-0 vote that the FCC had failed to give adequate notice to Fox and ABC at the time of their assertedly indecent broadcasts that the FCC was going to start finding “fleeting indecencies” (verbal or visual) actionable and therefore subject to fines and other sanctions. As a result, the FCC rulings against both Fox and ABC were overturned by the Court. Having made that decision on the narrow grounds of “lack of notice”, the Court concluded that it had no need to go further and delve into the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency enforcement.

On a pragmatic level, the Court’s ruling seems to indicate that the appropriate “notice” on fleeting indecencies didn’t occur until the FCC announced its decision to begin prosecuting such indecencies in a 2004 case involving NBC and the Golden Globes Awards. As a result, broadcast stations facing indecency complaints (and delayed license renewals) for allegations of fleeting indecency should see those complaints dismissed by the FCC as long as the program at issue aired before the 2004 Golden Globes decision. Unfortunately, stations facing indecency complaints for programs aired after that 2004 decision may find that today’s Court ruling is irrelevant to them.

In fact, the Court went out of its way to make clear that it was not ruling on any issue but the “vagueness” in the FCC’s treatment of fleeting indecencies caused by the lack of notice of its change in enforcement policy. Despite noting that the FCC’s Golden Globes decision amounted to a change in the FCC’s indecency policy, the Court wrote that “it is unnecessary for the Court to address the constitutionality of the current indecency policy as expressed in the Golden Globes Order and subsequent adjudications.” The decision takes the extra step of stating that “this opinion leaves the Commission free to modify its current indecency policy in light of its determination of the public interest and applicable legal requirements. And it leaved the courts free to review the current policy or any modified policy in light of its content and application.”

The Court’s ruling therefore appears to be little more than a “reset” in which, with the limited exception of parties accused of airing fleeting indecency prior to 2004, broadcast stations find themselves in the exact same position as before this litigation started many years ago: unsure as to what content is or is not permissible, and with no additional guidance from the courts as to where the FCC may permissibly draw that line.

While, as I noted in an earlier post, the Supreme Court will usually avoid making a constitutional ruling if it can decide a case on other grounds, the Court’s hesitance to step into this fray is striking. Rather than eliminating the chilling effect on First Amendment speech by providing clarity as to what the FCC can constitutionally demand of broadcasters, the Court actually increased the chilling affect. Airing anything that a single member of the public might allege is indecent can lead to:

1. a prolonged indecency investigation by the FCC;
2. withholding of FCC action on a station’s license renewal application while the investigation proceeds;
3. withholding of FCC action on any application to sell or transfer that station; and
4. large fines, short-term renewals, and other FCC sanctions.

On top of all that, the Court has now undeniably added another contributor to the chilling effect:

5. years of expensive litigation to demonstrate that the FCC’s actions in sanctioning a station for indecency were administratively or constitutionally improper.

With all these chilling factors, only a foolhardy broadcaster would air content that could subject it to this process, even if it knew from the beginning that it would ultimately win in court. That is the very definition of an impermissible chilling effect upon First Amendment speech. The Second Circuit decisions leading to today’s decision clearly recognized that impact, and Justice Ginsburg’s Concurrence to today’s decision recognizes it as well. While agreeing with the Majority that Fox and ABC were not given adequate notice of the FCC’s changing indecency standard, her Concurrence goes on to note that Pacifica, the Supreme Court’s original 1978 decision upholding the FCC’s indecency policy, “was wrong when it issued. Time, technological advances, and the Commission’s untenable rulings in the cases now before the Court show why Pacifica bears reconsideration.”

Unfortunately, by putting that decision off until another day, the Court leaves the waters of FCC indecency enforcement as murky (and chilling) as ever. Given that the FCC now has a backlog of 1.5 million indecency complaints involving 9700 programs–a backlog that was left pending while the FCC awaited guidance from the Court–the Court’s unwillingness in today’s decision to engage on the real issue before it is bad for the FCC, bad for broadcasters, and bad for viewers and listeners.

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As I discussed last month, the FCC has adopted rules requiring television stations to replace their existing locally-maintained public inspection files with digital files to be placed online on an FCC-hosted website, including stations’ detailed political records. The majority of television stations will not be required to begin posting their political file documents online until July 1, 2014, but stations in the top-50 markets that are affiliated with ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox will be required to comply once the new regulations go into effect, assuming that the rules survive challenges made by TV broadcasters.

Broadcasters have launched a three-pronged attack against the FCC’s proposed new regulations with a series of recent filings with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the FCC. The core thrust of the broadcasters’ challenges are focused on the requirement that TV stations disclose online very sensitive rate information about political advertising. Broadcasters have assailed the proposed rules for dramatically increasing regulatory burdens on TV stations while at the same time failing to require similar online disclosures by cable TV systems or other competitors to broadcast television.

The first shot fired after the FCC adopted the new regulations was by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in a Petition for Review filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. In its Petition, the NAB is asking the Court to vacate the FCC’s action “on the grounds that it is arbitrary, capricious, in excess of the Commission’s statutory authority, inconsistent with the First Amendment, and otherwise not in accordance with law.” An NAB spokesman summed it up by charging the FCC with “forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political rates” and jeopardizing “the competitive standing of stations.”

A number of broadcast groups opened up a second front against the FCC’s new rules earlier this week, with filings asking the OMB to take a hard look at the FCC’s proposed regulations under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (PRA), and to invalidate the rules due to the FCC’s failure to comply with the PRA. On behalf of 46 State Broadcasters Associations, Dick Zaragoza and I filed comments in the proceeding arguing that the FCC violated the PRA by, among other things, failing to analyze the large burdens the proposed new regulations will have on television stations in general, and on small television station businesses in particular. We also advanced the argument of the NAB and others that the new rules are unnecessarily and impermissibly duplicative of the records already required to be maintained online by the Federal Election Commission under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 1992.

In the third salvo, a coalition of broadcast groups calling themselves the “Television Station Group” is fighting the adoption of the rules at the FCC. This group filed a Petition for Reconsideration with the FCC asking the Commission to modify the proposed rules due to concerns with the requirement that stations reveal online precisely how much they charge for political advertising. The law requires that broadcasters charge their lowest unit rate for political ads during a pre-election window, and the Television Station Group told the FCC that if those rates are widely and easily accessible on an FCC-hosted website (and not just to candidates), commercial advertisers may make requests for that same low rate. The unintended effect could be to force broadcasters to homogenize their rates so that every ad costs the same, eviscerating the current cost advantage to candidates of being charged only the “lowest unit rate”. In short, the Television Station Group argues that the disclosure of price information is anti-competitive and disrupts the commercial advertising marketplace because “stations’ political ad rates, by law, must be based on commercial advertising rates.”

Although the new rules are under fire on a number of fronts, it remains to be seen if broadcasters will be able to successfully block the FCC’s efforts. Before the FCC’s regulations can go into effect, at a minimum, they will have to be approved by OMB through the PRA process which, in this case, will not likely be the usual perfunctory rubber stamp the FCC often receives from OMB. Also, Court of Appeals challenges to the rules are not due until July 30, 2012, and, at some point, parties are likely to ask both the FCC and the courts to hold the effective dates of the rules in abeyance until the broadcasters’ multiple challenges can be heard. In other words, the battle over the FCC’s proposed online public/political file rules is far from over.

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While the perennial cliche is that the FCC is perpetually behind the curve in trying to keep up with new communications technologies, my experience has been that the FCC and its staff are pretty up to date on these developments. As a result, when we see a rule remain on the books after its usefulness has ended (or the discovery that it was never useful in the first place), it can usually be attributed to one of two possibilities: either fixing the rule hasn’t risen high enough on the FCC’s list of priorities to dedicate limited staff resources to the process (for example, modifying the FCC’s full power television rules to eliminate the rules and references applicable only to analog TV), or political pressures are impeding the process.

Rules that remain on the books because of a lack of staff resources tend to be addressed eventually. In contrast, rules that remain in place due to political pressures are well nigh immortal. In a 2010 C-SPAN interview with three former FCC chairmen regarding various issues, including the FCC’s media ownership rules, Chairman Hundt was quoted as saying “Why don’t we get an eraser and just get rid of them? None of us thought these rules made sense.” To which Chairman Powell responded “It’s a simple reason. It’s politics.” The third party to that conversation, Chairman Martin, had tried to slightly loosen the prohibition on broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership in 2008 in the nation’s largest markets, only to encounter a firestorm of protests and court appeals from media activists. As a result, the prohibition remains in place, although the FCC announced this past December that it is once again considering loosening the rule in the largest media markets (are you seeing a pattern here?).

Rules residing in political purgatory–those kept on political life support long after their purpose has ended–survive until the facts on the ground change to such an extreme degree that even those who reflexively defend the rule can no longer do so. While some would justifiably rail against that system and demand that the nature of politics change, with rules created, modified, or eliminated based upon the cold hard facts of the situation, the nature of politics is actually the most relevant cold hard fact, and realistically, the least likely to change. Many rules will outlive their usefulness, and in fact become harmful, long before their demise. The only question is how long it takes after that tipping point is reached before it becomes politically feasible for the FCC to modify or eliminate the rule.

Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum, and both individuals and businesses living with a rule must adapt to the changing situation on the ground, even as the rule itself remains unchanged. Recent “adaptations” make me wonder if we haven’t reached the point where the broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership rule, which certainly had a reasonable purpose at one time, has reached the point where it can no longer be defended with a straight face.

In particular, I am thinking of two recent events which suggest the rule has outlived its time. The first is the announcement last month by Media General that it is selling its newspapers to Berkshire Hathaway in order to concentrate on its broadcast and digital content delivery. When a company that actually does have both broadcast and newspaper interests does not find the combination sufficiently compelling to retain its newspaper operations, the premise of the rule–a fear of powerful broadcast/newspaper combinations dominating the market–appears misplaced.

More interesting, however, is the recent announcement by Newhouse Newspapers that it will be scaling back its daily newspaper in New Orleans (the well-known Times-Picayune), as well as those in Mobile, Huntsville, and Birmingham, Alabama. According to the announcement, these daily newspapers will now be published only three times a week, with increased focus on website content.

Why the drastic cutback from seven days a week to just three, rather than the more measured approach perennially proposed by the U.S. Postal Service of ending only Saturday delivery as a cost saving measure? Given that daily newspapers make a substantial portion of their revenue from publishing legal notices (which are usually required by law to be published in a daily newspaper), these newspapers must have thought long and hard before ceasing daily publication and placing that significant revenue stream at risk.

However, there may be one other factor at play. While the FCC’s rule prohibits ownership of both a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same area, the FCC defines a “daily newspaper” as one that is published at least four times a week. Whether by accident or by design, the decision to scale these newspapers back to three days a week makes them exempt from the FCC’s ownership restrictions, thereby expanding the pool of potential buyers to include those most likely to be interested in taking on such an asset–local broadcast station owners.

Whether that fact played into the owner’s decision to publish only three times a week frankly doesn’t matter much. If it did enter into it, then the newspaper cross-ownership rule has become actively harmful, forcing a newspaper that might have been happy to publish four, five or six times a week to instead publish only three times a week to avoid being subject to the rule. If it didn’t, then Newhouse’s decision to cut back to three days a week is merely an indication of things to come in a struggling newspaper industry. Either way, the FCC’s newspaper cross-ownership rule is being mooted by factual changes on the ground.

The clock is therefore ticking on how long it takes for the political pressure to also fade, allowing the FCC to finally proceed with its plan to loosen (or perhaps eliminate) the rule. During that wait, the only question is whether the rule is merely a curious anachronism, or if it actually harms the newspaper industry, either by preventing broadcasters from investing in local newspapers, or by forcing newspapers to cut back to publishing three times a week in order to circumvent the FCC’s rule. Unfortunately, by the time the political pressures keeping the rule alive finally recede, the damage may already be done, with newspapers ceasing existence or scaling back publication until the FCC’s rule becomes irrelevant. If that happens, the rule’s elimination may turn out to be no more consequential than the FCC’s eventual elimination of analog TV rules–an act of administrative housekeeping done when the item regulated no longer exists.

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If all goes well, next week I’ll fulfill one of my secret ambitions: to discuss how retransmission consent is affecting the business of television distribution. I’ve participated in many panel discussions on retransmission consent policy (because I work in Washington, and policy is what we talk about here).

On Tuesday I’ll be in New York at the SNL Kagan TV and Radio Finance Summit where I’ll finally have a chance to talk about the business, financial and investment aspects of retransmission consent (because that’s what they talk about in New York). To me, those are the far more intriguing topics, because if you don’t totally understand the market, you can’t credibly defend your policy positions.

SNL has assembled an all-star panel, including senior execs from Fisher Communications, SJL Broadcast Management Corporation, Communications Corporation of America, Moodys, and the resident FCC Media Bureau Chief, Bill Lake. SNL’s Robin Flynn (who always comes armed with thoughtful and well-presented data) will moderate. So Robin, here are some of the questions I’d like to hear debated by my fellow panelists, and I may have an opinion of my own here and there.

  • Why are retransmission fees still so low relative to viewing and why aren’t they rising faster? What should the government do to help bring sports programming back to broadcast television?
  • According to SNL research, some groups get much higher retransmission rates than others. Does this reflect real differences or reporting anomalies? Will this differential continue? How will it affect the market?
  • What are the biggest negotiation and deal mistakes groups make?
  • Is there any way to protect against the unexpected, like Aereo and Ad Hopper?
  • Is Aereo really a “retrans killer”? What happens to different market segments if it is? Could some broadcasters be better off if Aereo prevailed?
  • Has retransmission consent fundamentally changed the network-affiliate model, or simply adjusted the dollar flow?
  • Is cord-cutting equally bad for all programmers?
  • Apart from retransmission consent, is there a growth case for broadcast groups?
  • Do rising retrans fees really make the pie bigger (and drive up consumer costs), or do they just move the slices around? Which networks will benefit most long term?
  • And most important: What happens to the price of a Happy Meal when corn futures triple (and what does this tell us about retransmission consent?)