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Late this afternoon, the FCC released a short Report and Order allowing a limited set of television stations to forego uploading a portion of their paper public inspection files to the FCC’s online system by the upcoming Monday, February 4 deadline.

As we previously reported, under FCC rules adopted last year, all full power and Class A television stations had to begin using an online public inspection file hosted on the FCC’s website beginning August 2, 2012. In order to comply with the new rules, stations have been required to make sure that all public inspection file documents created beginning on August 2, 2012 have been promptly uploaded to the FCC’s online database, except for emails and letters from the public and the political files for stations not affiliated with the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks in the top 50 markets. Documents that were already in stations’ public inspection files prior to August 2, 2012 must be uploaded to the new online public file by Monday’s deadline.

Under the FCC’s public file rule, some categories of documents must remain in the public file until final action has been taken on the station’s next license renewal application. Most notable among these documents are all of the station’s quarterly filings, such as Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Programming Reports on Form 398, Certifications of Compliance with Commercial Limits in Children’s Programming, and Certifications of Continuing Class A Eligibility. Where action on a station’s license renewal application is delayed, many years’ worth of documents can pile up in the station’s public inspection file waiting for the license renewal grant.

One station in this situation petitioned the FCC to allow it to continue to retain the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists covering quarters prior to the start of its current eight year license term at the station’s main studio, rather than having to upload the voluminous documents to the online public file. The FCC today granted this request and provided the same relief to all other “similarly situated” stations.

Specifically, a station can forego uploading its “prior term” Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to the FCC’s website if (1) the station’s license renewal application was not challenged; (2) action on the station’s license renewal application is delayed for an enforcement reason other than one relating to issue-responsive programming and the related recordkeeping requirements; and (3) the station retains the prior term Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists at the station’s main studio public file until final action on the station’s license renewal application. The station must still upload the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for its current license term to the online public file.

The FCC stated that this relief was warranted in part because of the burden of uploading these documents. The FCC also cited its policy that stations with a pending license renewal application must still file their next license renewal application when normally due. The FCC felt that the online availability of a station’s Quarterly Issues/ Programs Lists from the prior license term could confuse the public regarding what they should review and comment on with regard to the station’s performance during the current license term.

What is odd, however, is that this rationale applies equally to other quarterly filings mentioned above that the FCC is still requiring be uploaded to the online public file. As a result, stations should keep in mind that the Order is very limited in scope, and the amount of materials subject to the uploading exemption is only a portion of the documents relating to the prior license term.

Still, to the extent the FCC has provided at least some relief with regard to uploading Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, stations with a license renewal application from their preceding eight year license term still pending should take the time to determine whether they qualify for this relief.

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January 2013

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 Assesses $8,000 Fine for EAS Equipment Installation Problems
  • Notice of Violation Issued against FM Station for a Variety of Reasons

FCC Proposes Fine for Operational, But Not Fully Functional, EAS Equipment

The FCC has often noted the importance of the national Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) while taking enforcement action against broadcast stations whose EAS equipment is not functioning or who otherwise fail to transmit required EAS messages. In a slightly atypical case, the FCC this month issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order (“NAL”) for $8,000 against the licensee of an FM radio station in Puerto Rico because, even though the station’s EAS equipment was fully operational, the manner of installation made it incapable of broadcasting the required EAS tests automatically.

In April 2012, agents from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau inspected the station’s main studio and discovered that the EAS equipment was installed in such a way that it was not able to automatically interrupt programming to transmit an EAS message. Section 11.35 of the FCC’s Rules requires that all broadcast stations have EAS equipment that is fully operational so that the monitoring and transmitting functions are available when the station is in operation. The Rules further require that broadcast stations be able to receive EAS messages, interrupt on-air programming, and transmit required EAS messages. When a facility is unattended, automatic systems must be in place to perform these functions. During the inspection, the station’s director admitted that the EAS equipment was not capable of transmitting an EAS message without someone manually reducing the on-air programming volume. He further admitted that the equipment had been in this condition since at least September 2011, if not earlier.

The station broadcast programming 24 hours a day, but was only staffed from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm. As a result, when the station was unattended, it could not interrupt programming to transmit EAS messages. The base forfeiture for failing to maintain operational EAS equipment is $8,000, which the FCC thought was appropriate in this case. The FCC also directed the licensee to submit a written statement indicating that the EAS equipment is now fully operational at all times, particularly when unattended, and otherwise in full compliance with the FCC’s rules.

FM Station Receives Notice of Violation for an Assortment of Violations

At the end of last month, the FCC issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) against the licensee of an FM radio station in Texas based upon an October 2012 inspection by an agent from the Enforcement Bureau. The agent concluded that the licensee was violating a number of FCC rules.

Section 73.1350 of the FCC’s Rules requires that licensees establish monitoring procedures to ensure that the equipment used by a station complies with FCC rules. Upon inspection, the FCC agents found no records indicating that the licensee had established or implemented such monitoring procedures, and the station’s chief engineer had difficulty monitoring the equipment’s output when asked to do so by the agent. Sections 73.1870 and 73.3526 also require that a chief operator be designated, that designation be posted with the station’s license at the main studio, and a copy of the station’s current authorization be kept in the station’s public inspection file. At the time of the inspection, the NOV indicated there was no written designation of the chief operator and the station’s license renewal authorization was not at the station’s main studio.

During the inspection, the agent also found that the FM station’s EAS equipment was unable to send and receive tests and was not properly installed to transmit the required weekly and monthly tests. The licensee also did not have any EAS logs documenting the tests sent and received and, if tests were not sent or received, the reasons why those tests were not sent or received, all in violation of Section 11.35 of the FCC’s Rules.

Finally, pursuant to Section 73.1560 of the FCC’s Rules, if a station operates at reduced power for 10 consecutive days, it must notify the FCC of that fact. Operation at reduced power for more than 30 days requires the licensee to obtain a grant of Special Temporary Authority from the FCC for such operation. In this instance, the FM station had been operating at reduced power for 14 consecutive days, and the FCC found no indication that it had been notified by the licensee of the station’s reduced power operations.

As a result of the NOV, the licensee must submit a written response, explaining each alleged violation and providing a description and timeline of any corrective actions the licensee will take to bring its operations into compliance with the FCC’s rules. The FCC may elect to assess a fine or take other enforcement action against the station in the future if it ultimately determines the facts call for such a response.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.

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Being businesses built upon the value of information, and working constantly to create new business models aimed at monetizing that information, the communications industry tends to be very careful about letting any form of information leave the building. That, along with the highly competitive nature of the industry, means many industry players keep a very tight grip on all business-related information. As a result, the communications industry often ranks up there with defense contractors in imposing broad confidentiality restrictions on their employees, either by contract or through general corporate policy.

There are times, however, when the government has determined that public policy considerations outweigh the need of a business for secrecy. The most obvious exceptions come in the form of subpoenas and search warrants. However, there are also more subtle exceptions, one of which is addressed today in a Pillsbury Client Alert from our employment and litigation practices. The Client Alert addresses a number of decisions that have been coming out of the National Labor Relations Board, several of which found that the respective employer’s confidentiality policies violated the National Labor Relations Act because the policies could be read to prohibit employees from discussing wages, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment with anyone else.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, such confidentiality restrictions are illegal, largely because they impede employees from engaging in collective bargaining or other employee protection activities. For those who are about to breath a sigh of relief after thinking to themselves “this doesn’t affect me since my business isn’t unionized,” hold that breath for a moment. As the Client Alert points out, while it is true that the National Labor Relations Act, and the National Labor Relations Board, are known mostly for their union-related jurisdiction, the National Labor Relations Act applies to all private employers that affect interstate commerce, not just union shops.

As the federal government’s regulation of much of the communications industry, particularly broadcasting, is based upon the interstate nature of those businesses (even where a station’s service area is entirely within a single state), it is safe to say there are few in the communications industry that are not subject to these recent rulings. In fact, while I won’t attempt to summarize the Client Alert here, as it is brief and well worth taking the time to read, I will note that one of the decisions discussed involves a player in the communications industry whose confidentiality policy was actually found to be acceptable.

In light of these recent decisions, all businesses should take a look at their confidentiality policies to determine whether they can be read to prohibit, for example, employees from discussing their salaries, raises and bonuses with each other. If the confidentiality policy is written so broadly as to unintentionally prohibit such activities, a rewrite of that policy is in order. In contrast, if the very notion of employees discussing their salaries with each other gives you heartburn, and your confidentiality policy is specifically targeted at preventing such conversations, then you have a more extensive policy rewrite ahead of you, and a lot more heartburn coming.

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Despite the many distractions of the new year, it’s important not to forget that by February 4, 2013, all full-power and Class A television stations must have completed the process of uploading public file materials to the FCC’s online public file system.

As we reported in July and August of last year, the FCC’s new rules require television stations to replace the public files they maintain at their studios with electronic files hosted online by the FCC. The new rules mean that each station must inventory their current paper public inspection file to determine which documents need to be uploaded to the FCC’s website. In order to comply with the new rules, stations must make sure that everything in their current paper public inspection file is uploaded to the FCC’s website except political broadcasting files created prior to August 2, 2012, and emails and letters from the public. While the focus has been on shifting the paper files into an online public file database, stations must remember that they will still be required to keep, at a minimum, the emails and letters from the public in the paper public file at each station’s main studio, and therefore take steps to ensure that the public will still be able to access that file during normal business hours. In other words, just because most of the file will be online, the procedures for allowing the public to promptly review public file materials that remain at the main studio must remain in place, including the need to ensure that the public can access the file during lunch hours.

Also, keep in mind that ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates located in the top 50 markets were required to begin placing new political file information online on August 2, 2012. These stations are not required to upload any political file documentation that was placed in the file prior to August 2, but they are required to keep the pre-August 2 materials in their paper public inspection files for two years from the date on which the documents were created. All other TV and Class A stations must continue to maintain their political files at their main studio, unless they voluntarily choose to upload their political files in advance of the July 1, 2014 deadline to do so.

Among the items that stations are required to upload on their own from their paper files to the FCC’s online file:

  • Citizens Agreements (if any)
  • Political Files since August 2, 2012 (top 50/top 4 networks for now)
  • Annual EEO Public File Reports
  • Responses to FCC inquiries
  • Records concerning commercial limits for children’s programming
  • Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists
  • Public Notices of assignment/transfer applications and renewal of license applications
  • Carriage elections of must-carry/retransmission consent
  • Joint sales agreements or time brokerage agreements
  • Non-commercial station donor lists
  • Class A statements of continuing eligibility

There are also a number of other documents that the FCC has indicated it will upload into stations’ online public files. However, it is important that stations diligently check their online public files to ensure they are complete, as the ultimate responsibility for maintaining a complete online public file is the station’s, and not the FCC’s. Items that should be automatically uploaded by the FCC are:

  • Authorizations
  • Applications and related materials
  • Contour maps
  • Ownership Reports (FCC Form 323)
  • The Public and Broadcasting Manual
  • EEO Forms (Forms 396 and 397)
  • Investigation materials originated by the FCC
  • Children’s Programming Reports (FCC Form 398)

Given the sheer size of public inspection files, the uploading process can be very labor intensive, and stations that have not yet commenced that process should immediately turn their attention to it. Stations should also understand that their public inspection files are now open to anyone with an Internet connection, making it for less likely that any omissions will go unnoticed. As recent issues of our monthly FCC Enforcement Monitor indicate, the FCC has not been hesitant to fine even noncommercial stations for public inspection file violations, and we are definitely seeing a trend by the FCC of issuing $15,000 fines rather than the base fine of $10,000. Time to get those page scanners running at top speed.

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Earlier today, the FCC released a Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking relating to its biennial broadcast ownership report filing requirements, reigniting a controversy over privacy, broadcast investment, and indeed, the very purpose of the reports.

In 2009, the FCC revamped its Form 323, the Commercial Broadcast Station Ownership Report, somewhat to address data collection shortcomings identified by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, but mostly to try to make the information more standardized and transparent for academic researchers wishing to generate industry-wide ownership statistics, particularly with regard to minority and female ownership. Unfortunately, the FCC’s initial effort to revise the form seemed to have focused on trying to create a form that researchers would applaud, rather than on the “user experience” of those required to fill it out. The result was an awkward effort at forcing complex ownership information into highly redundant machine-readable spreadsheet formats.

Causing particular consternation, however, was a new requirement that every officer, director and shareholder mentioned in those reports have a unique FCC-issued Federal Registration Number (FRN). Because the FCC wants researchers to be able to track the race, ethnicity and gender of each individual connected with a broadcast station, it requires that those registering to obtain an FRN provide either a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN), or a Social Security Number (SSN). This, according to the FCC, is necessary to allow it to differentiate between individuals that may have similar names and addresses.

Not surprisingly, this requirement met with fierce opposition from numerous groups, including: (1) those who have heard the admonition of government and others to never reveal your SSN to anyone or risk identity theft; (2) broadcasters, who found less than thrilling the experience of badgering their shareholders to either hand over their SSN or take the time to apply for and deliver the FRN themselves; (iii) broadcast lawyers, trying to get ownership reports on file by the deadline despite never hearing back from a significant percentage of those asked to cooperate to provide individual FRNs; and (iv) the investor community, which is not fond of the idea of having to hand over personal information because an individual chose to buy shares of a broadcast company rather than a movie studio.

After fierce opposition and various failed efforts to get the FCC to eliminate the requirement or at least create an alternate method of obtaining an FRN that didn’t require an SSN or TIN, the FCC had a change of heart when required by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit to explain itself (you can read Paul Cicelski’s discussion of that response here). The FCC defended the new ownership report filing requirements by telling the court that no one would be forced to hand over their SSN or TIN, as it was going to permit broadcasters to apply for a Special Use FRN (SUFRN, one of the most descriptive acronyms you will find) in cases where a party refuses to allow use of its SSN/TIN. In light of this representation, the court declined to intervene, and the FCC proceeded with implementation of the new ownership report form and requirements.

With the availability of SUFRNs and various other changes to the ownership report form and filing system, the FCC was finally able to make the oft-extended filing deadline stick, with commercial broadcasters filing their November 1, 2009 ownership reports by a July 8, 2010 deadline. However, the effort at making the data more accessible for researchers ended up making the form very burdensome for broadcasters required to complete and submit the reports. The biggest issue is structural–requiring the submission of the exact same information over and over in a filing system never lauded for its user-friendliness. During the numerous extensions of the filing deadline, the FCC did incorporate some features like copy and paste to lessen the burden of creating duplicative reports, but no tech feature can overcome the burden created by requiring the filing of the exact same ownership information over and over again for each station in a group rather than just reporting the ownership of that group (once) and the stations that are in it. Because of this, even a relatively small broadcast group can find itself filing well over a hundred ownership report forms.

The irony is that even media researchers–the very group for which this unwieldy reporting system was created–have begun to complain that the sheer volume of filings makes it difficult to sort through the mass of repetitive data. Many communications lawyers seem to agree, finding the “old” ownership reports far more useful in understanding a station’s ownership than the current edition.

Still, broadcasters and the FCC seemed to have reached a detente over the reports, with broadcasters quietly grumbling to themselves about the mind-numbing repetitiveness of drafting and filing the reports, but (having seen in the earlier iterations of the “new” report) knowing how much worse it could be. That detente may have ended today when the FCC released the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which tentatively concludes that the need to uniquely identify each person connected with a broadcast station is so strong that it must end the availability of SUFRNs and require that all reported individuals get an FRN based upon their SSN or TIN.

While the FCC’s conclusions are “tentative”, and it requests comment on these and many other questions relating to the ownership report, you can feel the collective chill go down broadcasters’ spines as the FCC proceeds to suggest that it could fine individuals who fail to provides an SSN/TIN-based FRN, and queries whether broadcasters should be required to warn their shareholders of that. Telling shareholders or potential shareholders that they face fines for electing to invest their money in broadcasting is not exactly the best way to attract investment to broadcasting, including investment by the minority and female investors the FCC so clearly wants.

But it is that last issue that raises the most curious point of all: to get minority and female ownership information, the FCC seeks to implement an awkward, intrusive, burdensome, privacy-insensitive ownership reporting regime premised on the need for both massive ownership filings and the tracking of individuals by their SSN to determine minority and female ownership trends in the industry. Wouldn’t it be far simpler, less intrusive, and less burdensome to just ask broadcasters to provide in their ownership reports (or elsewhere) aggregate data on their minority and female officers, directors, and shareholders? Researchers could then just utilize that data to create industry totals rather than having to wade through mountains of unrelated ownership data to derive it themselves.

Instead of this simplified approach, the FCC seems intent upon using the clumsy mechanism of ownership reports to assess minority and female representation in the industry, stating in the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that “Unlike many of our filing obligations, the fundamental objective of the biennial Form 323 filing requirement is to track trends in media ownership by individuals with particular racial, ethnic, and gender characteristics.” For those of us who have been in the industry for quite some time, that claim is surprising, as the very first sentence of Section 73.3615, the FCC rule that governs the filing of ownership reports, states: “The Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations (FCC Form 323) must be electronically filed every two years by each licensee of a commercial AM, FM, or TV broadcast station (a “Licensee”); and each entity that holds an interest in the licensee that is attributable for purposes of determining compliance with the Commission’s multiple ownership rules.”

In attempting to convert a reporting obligation designed to ensure multiple ownership rule compliance into an academic research tool on minority and female broadcast ownership, the FCC undermines both goals. Broadcasters have routinely provided the minority and female ownership data the FCC seeks without fuss, and can hardly be faulted for wishing to do so in a straightforward manner that: (a) doesn’t require unnecessarily complex and redundant filings; and (b) doesn’t require them to badger their shareholders for private information while threatening their shareholders with federal fines for failing to comply. Rather than “doubling down” on a flawed approach, perhaps it is time for the FCC to step back and reassess the most efficient way of obtaining the desired information–more efficient for broadcasters, more efficient for the FCC, and more efficient for media researchers.