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FCC Detective Work Leads to Renewal Fines

If there had been any doubt that the Video Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau would check a television station’s online public inspection file to confirm the truthfulness of certifications made by the licensee in a pending license renewal application, that doubt has been eliminated.

In a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture released December 3, the Video Division has proposed a $9,000 fine against the licensee of two Michigan televisions stations on the grounds that (i) each station had filed their Children’s Television Programming Reports (“Kidvid Reports”) late, and (ii) the stations failed to report those violations in responding to one of the certifications contained in their license renewal applications.

According to the FCC, the licensee had filed each station’s Kidvid Report late for three quarters during the license term in violation of Section 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) of the Commission’s Rules.

The problem was compounded when the licensee failed to disclose those violations in responding to Section IV, Question 3 of the Form 303-S, which requires licensees to certify “that the documentation, required by 47 C.F.R. Section 73.3526…has been placed in the station’s public inspection file at the appropriate times.” That same certification requires the applicant to submit an exhibit explaining any violations.

The Video Division of the FCC proposed that each station be assessed a fine of $3,000, the base forfeiture amount for failing to timely file Kidvid Reports, plus a fine of $1,500 for omitting from its renewal applications information regarding those violations. The Division suggested that it could have fined each station $3,000, rather than $1,500, for the reporting failure, but reduced the amount because each licensee “made a good faith effort to identify other deficiencies.”

Fortunately for the licensee in this case, it had checked the certification box with a “no,” and disclosed that its quarterly issues/programs lists had not been timely uploaded to the FCC’s online public file for the station. While the licensee did not mention anything about the late-filed Kidvid Reports, apparently the Video Division believed that the licensee’s failure to disclose was intentional enough to warrant a fine, but not deliberate enough to warrant a charge of misrepresentation or lack of candor that could have resulted in a much larger fine or worse.

The lessons learned from the Video Division’s action include: before signing off and filing a station license renewal application, (i) check the FCC’s online database to make sure that it has a record of all documents that were required to be timely filed, (ii) check the station’s paper (in the case of radio) and online (in the case of television) public inspection file to confirm (or not) that the file is complete and that the documents required to be in the file were placed there on a timely basis, and (iii) discuss with counsel what may need to be disclosed (or not disclosed) in response to certifications contained in a station’s application for renewal of license.

Of future concern is whether the Media Bureau will now be more inclined to impose even higher fines, claiming misrepresentation/lack of candor, where a license renewal applicant makes an unqualified affirmative certification that is not correct, or where the applicant states that it is unable to make an affirmative certification and provides an explanation, but does not fully disclose all material facts in its explanation. Recently the Media Bureau imposed a $17,000 fine against a station for violating Section 1.17 (misrepresentation/lack of candor) after having concluded that had the station “exercised even minimal due diligence, it would not have submitted incorrect and misleading material factual information to the Commission.” The Bureau made a point of the fact that the base statutory fine for misrepresentation or lack of candor is $37,500. Affirmative due diligence and caution are your best insurance policies in avoiding such a new and unbudgeted line item expense on your company’s next P&L.